"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas..."
Well, not where I am standing.
Your faithful rankings guru is traveling abroad throughout the holidays, and if 90 degrees Fahrenheit sounds like reindeer weather to you, then I suggest you've had one too many cups of egg nog. Regardless, despite it being 60 degrees away from anything resembling snow, the festive period is easily felt when it comes to following the Premier League as a fantasy manager. This stretch of the season is for the hardcore lovers of the game. Much like I love a doubleheader in baseball or the opening Monday night NFL football week where they play two games, it feels like unwrapping presents when Boxing Day arrives and I am set to witness three deadlines pass in only a week's time.
The next three gameweeks can provide a shift in one's fantasy season like no other such stretch, whether for better or worse. If you play your cards right, and I do not necessarily mean your wildcard or any of your other FPL "chips", rather if you have built a squad that can survive the test of rest and rotation over this festive period, manage to get a couple of armbands right, and have a bit of luck on your side (for example, a 9m player gets rested only for your budget bench option with a tough fixture returning you an awesome haul) then whatever misery you may have experienced through the first seventeen weeks can suddenly take a turn for the better. A few days into January, you could see three green arrows take you way up the rankings. Conversely, those who have been crushing it all season may have a bit of anxiety over the next few gameweeks for opposite reasons. Every transfer counts, every armband counts, and a solid bench may prove more important than ever before. A manager who has been cruising in the top 10k all season could be adding an extra digit to their ranking number if a few decisions go terribly in a short amount of time.
Last week, I was shocked when I managed to get the armband right by backing Riyad Mahrez, representing only the third time this season that I picked the best possible captain, with many other weeks resulting in a two pointer x2 situation. Yet, I walked away from the end of the round with a red arrow. Why? I am the fool that spent a several weeks coming up with a plan to squeeze Sergio Aguero in my team several weeks ago, only to see him either get injured or return next to nothing since joining in my squad. The entire time I could have been riding the hot hand of Odion Ighalo, who costs less than HALF the price, while making upgrades all over the place and some cash left in the bank to make another upgrade for a later week. Instead, I feel trapped into keeping Aguero, feeling like I want some sort of return for all the planning I did to bring him in. I feel like a switch to Ighalo now would only see me keeping pace with the pack ahead of me whereas a big day from Aguero could be the difference maker in weeks where Ighalo goes quiet.
Two problems with this rationale though: 1) There ARE no weeks where Ighalo goes quiet. The man cannot be stopped these days, as he left Liverpool looking hapless over the course of 90 minutes last weekend. 2) This is the wrong time and situation to be owning Aguero anyway. His fitness is only seeing him play 60 minute shifts and, with the busy upcoming schedule, his minutes are only going to be more questionable. So there may be a gameweek where he does not start at all and even if he does start, he cannot be looked at as a captaincy option given his scaled-back minutes. When you spend 13 million on a fantasy option, they should be armband considerations every single week. That is not the case with Aguero at the moment. Even if he pops up with a brace on Saturday, I would hesitate to give him the armband for the Leicester match 48 hours later.
So why do I own him? I do not know. I am stubborn. I am waiting for one big haul so as not to feel it wasted. I have been in this situation before - giving up on a player with high-scoring potential, then seeing that same player explode the week I sell him. I guess I will have to live and die with the strategy I went with several weeks ago. Meanwhile, those of you that have had Lukaku, Vardy and Ighalo as your three forwards every week, congratulations. You made the right call and you are crushing me this season. No reason to change a thing for the time being.
If playing FPL was akin to being naughty or nice in the eyes of Santa Claus, I deserve a giant lump of coal in my stocking. Lucky for me, it's 90 degrees where I am, so there isn't a fireplace to be found. That does not mean that I cannot dish out great advice to you though, I had a great week with my rankings calls in Week 17. Let's take a look at what's cooking on Boxing Day then...
Week 18 Fixtures
Stoke City v Manchester United
Aston Villa v West Ham United
AFC Bournemouth v Crystal Palace
Chelsea v Watford
Liverpool v Leicester City
Manchester City v Sunderland
Tottenham v Norwich City
Swansea City v West Bromwich Albion
Newcastle United v Everton
Southampton v Arsenal
In terms of pure entertainment, I have to nominate Chelsea v Watford as the match of the week. On one hand, you have the defending champs who, in their first game without Jose Mourinho, looked more like the defending champs than they have all season clashing with a promoted side that has been consistently tough against all opposition, most recently making fools of Liverpool who not too long ago looked destined to make a run at the top 4. Considering the defensive woes for the Reds, Leicester once again look like a fantastic choice for attacking returns this week then. Manchester City should begin to resemble their best selves with the return of Vincent Kompany while opponents Sunderland will be without their veteran center back leader Younes Kaboul in what could be a 3-0 or 4-0 slaughter. Everton's attack hasn't been stifled in quite some time but their defense has been poor, meaning their should be goals to go around in their tilt with Newcastle. Then you have three matches that could all easily go 0-0: Stoke v United, Villa v West Ham and Swansea v West Brom. If you are looking for defensive investment, there is sure to be some clean sheets among those fixtures.
What follows are my top picks at each position. It doesn't matter what format you play, these rankings will help you figure out how players at each position compare with one another, and can help you on transfer decisions in the FPL.com game, who to start or bench in draft leagues, and who is worth putting up the cash for in salary-based leagues. You will also see how I have begun to highlight prospects that are especially valuable in formats like Playtogga, Fantrax and DFS, so that they are given the credit they deserve. At the end of the day though, nothing gets the points flowing more than goals, assists and clean sheets. So without further ado, let's get cracking...
Hugo Lloris - I said last week that Butland is my top keeper choice until further notice, but I like Tottenham's chances of a clean sheet here just a bit more this week. Lloris came up with a couple of fine saves in Spurs 0-2 at Southampton most recently.
Jack Butland - Butland is not far behind Lloris in my mind and if talking about value, he is the better option. Hosting a Man United side who are displaying one of the most stagnant attacks in many years, odds are Stoke return to clean sheet-ville.
Joe Hart - Investment in Manchester City's defense is on the rise now that Vincent Kompany has been passed fit and expected to start. Backing Hart is all the more appealing with a relatively easy fixture: at home hosting Sunderland.
Adrian - West Ham have played to three straight 0-0 results and this fixture looks like it could keep that streak alive. On the road against last place Aston Villa, the Hammers are relying on defense to earn points as they wait for key attacking players to return.
Petr Cech - Arsenal travel to St. Mary's to take on a Saints side that has fallen onto Swansea-like hard times, having been kept from scoring for two games running, and averaging a paltry .5 goals per game over their last six. I like these top five keepers for cleanies this week but Cech gets the five spot as I still think Southampton have a shot at finding a consolation goal.
Toby Alderweireld - Toby has three key factors going for him to earn the top spot - He is among the form leaders at his position, he has a promising fixture hosting the Canaries and, what's most important with outfield players over the next few gameweeks, he looks a safe bet to start every festive match.
Vincent Kompany - It's not the first time I will have mentioned this in the rankings column, but City's defense record with and without Kompany is night and day. Perhaps City slip once with his first game back, but I think that chance will be slim hosting the Black Cats.
Laurent Koscielny - Most weeks I prefer backing Hector Bellerin to the center back, but I edge on the side of caution during the festive period, thinking Mattheiu Debuchy might get a start over Bellerin at some point. Perhaps Week 18 is the least likely of the next three where that happens, but one cannot go wrong with Koscielny.
Leighton Baines - He's been back for a couple of games now, but this is my first time ranking him among the top options. If you've played fantasy before this season, you know the kind of impact Baines can have. Though the Toffees are not keeping things clean, I see a good shot at returns from either attacking or defending against Newcastle, with an outside chance of both.
Scott Dann - Palace are in good form, sitting just a point outside the top four now. They face a Cherries side that may be without one or both of Junior Stanislas and Josh King. It could result in another double digit haul for Dann.
Kyle Walker - Normally outranked by one or both of Eric Dier and Danny Rose, Walker gets the edge this week for those who can't roll with Alderweireld. He should start each festive match and is coming off a 12 point haul where he got an assist and a clean sheet.
Branislav Ivanovic - I had the courage to rank Ivanovic #1 last week, and all he did was score a goal and add an assist. He will have to get points through attacking again this week, as I see little chance of keeping Watford out when no one else can these days.
Erik Pieters- As opposed to Ivanovic, Pieters' points will very likely have to come from a clean sheet with little chance for attacking returns. That said, I like the Potters chances at home to keep out the Red Devils who are in total disarray.
Craig Dawson - Tony Pulis promises some rotation during the festive period but I still feel strongly about Dawson. At worst, he may get rested in Week 19 on Monday, but I think he is safe to play Weeks 18 and 20. The Baggies travel to Swansea where the hosts are still missing that attacking edge.
Aaron Cresswell - West Ham have three clean sheets in a row with last place Villa next up. That is a plus for Cresswell. They have also been help goalless themselves for three straight, so only expect cleanie points from the left back.
Chris Smalling - Smalling is the only United player to make my ranks this week, as I still think the side is capable of a clean sheet against Stoke. Considering his price tag and the players ranked above him though, he isn't representing much value.
Riyad Mahrez - Ranked him #1 last week, he was the top scoring mid in the FPL game. I am not changing a thing this week, as they travel to Anfield to face a Liverpool defense with form and injury concerns.
Mesut Ozil - The top two go unchanged from last week with Ozil coming in second. He is chasing the assist record now and a trip to Southampton should provide him every opportunity for his consistency to stay strong.
Ross Barkley - Ranked 4th last week, Barkley came good with a pair of assists. While opponents Newcastle have gotten a bit more respectable in defense in recent weeks, the Toffee attack has been money for a much longer stretch. A goal or assist here is in the cards.
Aaron Ramsey - Ramsey did not get on the score sheet last week, but I have been hyping him since being moved into a central role and he has moved to third place in the current FPL form guide in the process. I think he finds a goal at St. Mary's.
Kevin de Bruyne - Ranked him lower than usual last week and he came up empty against Arsenal. With David Silva and Sergio Aguero now a few weeks back from their injuries and captain Kompany now in the mix, City are on the verge of bossing weaker opposition with ease again.
Georginio Wijnaldum - Everton are a lot like Leicester these days. While they are banging the goals in, they are also struggling to keep things clean. I think Newcastle should find the net once at least once in this one and chances are Wijnaldum will play some part.
Christian Eriksen - Dele Alli is getting bigger hauls lately but I still feel more confident in Eriksen's consistent influence in the Spurs attack. An assist or goal at White Hart Lane against Norwich seems a realistic outlook.
David Silva - Yet to make a fantasy impact since his return from injury, I am moving him up the ranks from last week's 13th spot simply because as time goes on, he is bound to return to his usual self. The more I think about it, the more I see the Sky Blues with one of their more convincing wins in some time.
Theo Walcott - A third midfield Gunner makes the top ten, and why not? Wally is coming off a goal last week and his pace is bound to give a struggling Southampton defense problems.
Philippe Coutinho - Liverpool are coming off their worst performance in quite some time, but I still expect them to get a goal at home to Leicester. Coutinho looks the best bet to play a part in it and is the safest attacking player on the Reds whose XI sees changes every week.
Yannick Bolasie - Bolasie was kept off the score sheet in Palace's road win at Stoke last week, but he never seems to go too long without making an impact. There is a good chance he returns attacking points against Bournemouth, despite the Cherries recent heroics.
Pedro - Last week, I backed Cesc Fabregas as I felt Chelsea were going to look instantly better and Cesc seemed likeliest to show the form of last season. Instead, it was their only major summer signing Pedro, along with Willian that had the big day. I prefer Pedro to the latter this week in a game that has a chance to see multiple goals from both sides.
Gerard Deulofeu - It was Barkley last week who became the setup man with two assists, but most weeks it is Deulofeu who provides the service. Ranked lower than most weeks, I still think he is a sound investment in fantasy for his price tag.
Dele Alli - It has been a meteoric rise for Alli in his first season playing for the senior team at Tottenham. Beginning the campaign as depth on the bench, he has now carved out a role and is now just one point behind Eriksen for fantasy points on the season. At 5.2m, he is sensational value and should be everyone's fifth mid in FPL in a season where there is plenty of money to afford a strong side.
Romelu Lukaku - Since the calendar turned to November, I have ranked Lukaku at the top spot. Since the calendar turned to November, Lukaku has scored in all seven league games. I am not about to change anything now as Everton face Newcastle.
Odion Ighalo - Most weeks, I am not given a chance to watch the matches Watford play in for the full 90 minutes. I watched them crush Liverpool last weekend though and Ighalo is a nightmare to defend. Even if Chelsea only concede once and win, you know the Hornet strike will be all Ighalo's.
Harry Kane - Kane returned to the score sheet last weekend against Southampton and has a fixture this week that looks to carry some armband appeal. I like his chances of a brace more than Ighalo, but he ranks behind because I also think Ighalo has less of a chance of blanking between the two.
Olivier Giroud - Giroud has scored in three straight now and there is plenty of reason to feel confident about him making it four as he leads the line of a solid attack and facing a weak Southampton defense. Being on pens is a nice addition to his appeal.
Troy Deeney - I've backed two Watford forwards among the top five in the ranks for many a week since starting this column, and I will keep my faith. There is no more of a predictable goal/assist combo than Deeney and Ighalo hooking up at least once a game.
Diego Costa - With Chelsea flexing their attacking muscle again, it is time for Diego Costa to step up next. If he got a brace against Watford, I wouldn't be the least surprised. He is only ranked this low because everyone higher has been so consistent.
Aleksandar Mitrovic - I am going out on a bit of a limb perhaps, but Mitrovic looks safe to start with Papiss Cisse sidelined and he showed what he can do with a goal and assist in a short shift as a substitute recently. Everton cannot get clean sheets, so I am willing to take the risk.
Sergio Aguero - Aguero is ranked so low because his pitch time over the festive period scares me the most, especially when compared to his price tag. The fixture is good enough, at home to Sunderland sans Kaboul, but his shift will be an hour at most, with a chance of starting from the bench as Manuel Pellegrini considers rolling with Wilifried Bony against an inferior opponent and preserving Aguero for the clash with Leicester.
Bojan - Much to my chagrin, Bojan scored last week while on my fantasy bench in a head to head league. I see a 1-0 win against United for the Potters, with Bojan either scoring or assisting. Otherwise, it'll go 0-0.
Christian Benteke - This is where the forward options fall into uncertainty. I still squeeze Benteke in to round out the ranks though for two reasons. The Reds looked terrible with Roberto Firmino playing the center forward in a false 9 against Watford so I imagine Jurgen Klopp goes back to starting the Belgian, and Leicester are likely to concede on their way to a win.
NOTE - If Jamie Vardy is passed fit between the release of this column and the deadline, I would rank him between Giroud and Deeney in the rankings. If he does start, expect a truncated shift as Ranieri looks ahead to the match with Manchester City two days later.
So there you have it. The best of the best to consider for Week 18. Keep in mind that there is a greater chance than usual over the next three gameweeks for players in these rankings to play a bench role at some point, as managers look to keep their regulars from being overworked. Week 19 looks to be a bigger threat for that to happen, and with the quick turnaround, much information will need to be digested when making decisions before the deadline on Monday. Keep up with the latest news here at Rotoworld. It may be the middle of the holidays, but we love fantasy Premier League too much. We will keep you informed.
Good luck fellow managers. Though Christmas is an occasion where red is the primary color, may your arrows be green.