Let the games begin!
Greetings, fellow fantasy managers and welcome to the first installment of my weekly FPL column. Last season, I presented the best player picks for the coming gameweek, attempting to take into consideration all the various fantasy formats out there. This year, we are doing something different here at Rotoworld and I think you will find it very helpful. We now have members of our writing staff concentrating on specific formats with their weekly features and this will allow us to optimize our analysis and advice tailored to whichever format you play. Of course, if you are like me, you are playing more than one format. No worries. Whether you are in a draft league, salary cap league, playing Perfect XI...we will have you covered. I am particularly honored to be able to focus my efforts on the game I love most, the game that got this love affair started for me many years ago - the official Fantasy Premier League game.
Please understand that this new presentation will be a work in progress at the beginning. My goal is to offer as much helpful advice as possible each week in a format where transfers are limited and crucial. As the season goes along, the presentation may alter somewhat in an effort to provide the most pertinent information. For example, once we get a month or two into the season, I will make a point to mention players that are approaching suspension from accumulating too many yellow cards and to warn against using a transfer to bring them into your side. Obviously, that information has no bearing on Week 1, but it should prove useful to you down the road.
Since the FPL game went live, I am sure you have been tinkering with your £100m budgets, trying to build the strongest side possible. If only we could see the future. This time last season, many of us were thinking about how we could possibly live without Eden Hazard in our Week 1 squad and how we could trim budgets elsewhere to be able to afford the likes of him and Sergio Aguero at the same time. Little did we know, the strongest side we could have built would have cost nowhere near £100m, if we had any idea the value that Leicester City were to bring. Meanwhile, the likes of Hazard, Wayne Rooney and other high-priced studs fell flat on their faces. It would be nice to have kept Riyad Mahrez at his £5.5m price, Jamie Vardy at his £6m price or Dele Alli at his £5m price but, alas, the FPL brain trust has compensated for the success of players like Mahrez, Vardy and Alli with significant hikes in their price tags this season. Meanwhile, as poor of a season Eden Hazard endured, we only see his starting price drop a bit. So, unless you already know who the next £5m midfielder to have an Alli-like season coming, you will have to rack your brain as I have to find a squad you can be happy with when the madness starts on Saturday.
Part of the challenge with building your initial team ahead of Week 1 is to decide upon what strategy you want to implement. Many are a fan of rotation in defense - looking at the fixtures ahead and maximizing potential scores by selecting pairs of defenders in the low-to-mid price range and rotate them in and out based on which has the optimal matchup. Many like to spend as little as possible in defense because they feel the more money they put toward the attack, the better chances of getting those crooked double-digit scores from the right players. Some like to look at the ownership percentage of players heading into the first week and build a team based on who is most popular. The idea being that if your team does well or does poorly, chances are you will remain in the upper half of the overall rank. As of this writing, well over 1/3rd of managers have Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their team. Will his legendary goal-scoring exploits translate to this league at the age of 34? Maybe, maybe not. But, perhaps it is better to have him and be wrong than to not have him and be wrong. Another key strategy is the wildcard. Some managers want to build a side that potentially will have its core stable for the long haul and make single transfers week to week as form comes and goes or injuries forces one's hand, preserving the wildcard for when the situation calls for it. Others believe in the early wildcard, to look at the short term and expect to play the wildcard early on once they have seen enough of how the league is taking shape.
After seeing how last season played out, I have become a fan of opting for the latter strategy when it comes to using the wildcard. A study was done that showed the vast majority managers who finished in the top 50k overall rank last season played their first wildcard early, mostly in weeks two or three. I am adopting that philosophy and building a team that is as strong as can be for Weeks 1, 2 and 3 with the idea of playing my wildcard ahead of Week 4. Here are my reasons why...
1) Three weeks is enough time to get a sense of not only which players are doing well, but which clubs are performing strongly too. After three weeks last season, it seemed pretty clear something was not right with Chelsea and Manchester United while it was equally clear Leciester were outperforming all expectations.
2) Remember, as of last season, we have two wildcards at our disposal and the first has to be used in the first half of the season. It makes all the sense in the world to use the second half wildcard in a week where we have double gameweek scenarios. There are no double gameweeks in the first half of the season. Yes, you could have rotten luck and be slapped with two red cards and three injuries in your side between Weeks 10 and 11, and a wildcard then would really come in handy. Otherwise, I do not see another scenario where the wildcard can be predictably useful than early on. It gives you a better chance to build team value by bringing in players on the rise and team value is a huge asset as the season wears on.
3) Playing the wildcard ahead of Week 4 gives you two things to benefit from. First, there is an international break after Week 3. A two week layoff between deadlines means more time for transfers in and out and you can find a bit more team value as players are bought. Second, the break between gameweeks also sees the close of the summer transfer window. This allows you the chance to know exactly what the shape of every team is after the window has closed and feel confident that the players you are selecting on your wildcard are nailed-on starters that you can depend on every week.
4) The beauty of this strategy is, even with the advantages I have already listed, it may turn out that you really like what you have after the first three weeks and you feel comfortable holding on to your wildcard. Maybe the chances of that happening are better if you put together a team that is built for the long haul rather than just the opening three weeks but it is not impossible that a three week plan morphs into a plan that looks pretty good going forward.
THE WEEK 1 SELECTION PROCESS
While I am putting emphasis on the first three gameweeks, I still look a bit further ahead in the fixture list when I am considering who to own heading into Week 1. Typically, when I look to transfer a player in, I look ahead for the next 5-6 gameweeks. I like to see more fixtures at home than on the road. This is especially true for defensive options as I like to have at least two of my three starters (I will almost always opt for a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation) playing at home every week. Like I said above, maybe will like what I have after three weeks and decide it isn't necessary to play the wildcard. That said, here is what I am looking for with my 3 week strategy by position...
Goalkeeper - a 4.5m option plus Jakupovic. Eldin Jakupovic is the only 4.0m keeper that appears to be starting from Week 1. I have no intention of using him as a starter but he frees up cash. Instead, I will find a budget option with kind enough opening fixtures. I have opted for West Brom's Ben Foster. He has two of his first three at home and the Baggies have a pretty good defensive record on their own ground. Money spent at the position - 8.5m.
Defense - I want two defenders from top clubs with strong opening fixtures, one budget option I can feel comfortable starting every week, and two 4.0m bench-fillers that will hopefully at least have a chance at starting in case of emergency. With the arrival of Antonio Conte at Chelsea, I feel a Blues defender is a good bet as they have two of their first three at home. I feel less confident about Manchester City as a defense, but they also have two of three at home and the road fixture with Stoke City is not terribly easy but it is not impossible for returns there. With the signing of John Stones, this selection became even easier to live with at his 5m price. I have opted for Branislav Ivanovic for Chelsea coverage. Perhaps you like Cesar Azpilicueta better and I wouldn't fault you. I just feel Ivanovic has had so many seasons finishing near the top of scoring defenders that he could repeat that this season. He, like many Chelsea players, did not show their best for Jose Mourinho last season but it should be different with Conte. For the budget starter, I have gone with George Friend. Middlesbrough had a strong defensive record in the Championship last season and with Victor Valdes now between the sticks, I think they can find some clean sheets against clubs below the top seven. Only one at home in the first three but Stoke at home followed by visits to Sunderland and West Brom sit alright with me. Finally, the 4m fillers. With his loan to Bournemouth, I have hopes that Bradley Smith will be the starting left back as the season begins. With the sale of Ashley Williams, I am hoping Jordi Amat will get first crack to partner Federico Fernandez at Swansea. Remember, I have a strong inclination to wildcard after three weeks. Once I wildcard, I will at least have a stronger 4th defender but will likely stick with a 4m option as a 5th defender. Money spent at position - 23.5m.
Midfield - Midfield and attack sort of intertwine as I want to have coverage from the clubs I see scoring the most. So as you will see when I include the forwards next, that is what I have managed to do. With the budget I have remaining, of the seven attacking players I want in my starting XI, I see space for four premium prospects, two budget prospects and one mid-priced option. My mid-priced option is in the midfield in the shape of Dusan Tadic. Tadic goes for 7.5m and Southampton have two strong opening home fixtures in the first three weeks. He is playing in the hole of the midfield diamond and looks good in preseason. My two premium picks in midfield are Riyad Mahrez and Eden Hazard. With Mahrez, well, there is no secret as to his appeal. Top scorer in the game last season, two home games in the first three and the road game is Hull. Playing Hull on the road is as good as any home fixture in my view. Will Hazard break my heart like he did at the beginning of last season? Perhaps. But, I am comfortable with him as my Chlesea attacking coverage. He ended last season positively, has a fresh start and new management to inspire him and he is just too good to repeat last season's poor showing. If he can return to the Hazard of two seasons ago, he is also one on a shortlist of midfielders you can look to as a captaincy option. My budget midfielder needs to be the best 5.5m option I can find. To be honest, I am on the fence. The fixtures are telling me to take a chance on Gaston Ramirez. However, I have a feeling at the last minute I am going to switch him out for Max Gradel. The Cherries may have the tougher fixtures but if you throw fixtures aside, I think Gradel begins the season as the clear best 5.5m option in the game. Finally, like with my 4th and 5th defenders, I have gone as cheap as possible with a 5th mid. I have gone with Etienne Capoue here. I am not expecting much but he will start and he has been playing further forward in Watford's preseason. Mind you, Watford's first three fixtures are not appealing. But, I am hoping Capoue has no reason to be subbed into my final XI. Money spent at position - 37m.
Forward - Sergio Aguero. Need I say more? He is the highest-owned outfield player in the game. City have attractive opening fixtures. The history with him is solid. You cannot afford to begin the season without him. He has the armband for me Week 1 and he will for the majority of the season most likely. Next, Zlatan has joined my side. Man United only have one of their first three at home but the two on the road are against Bournemouth and Hull. You have to have a United player and Zlatan seems the kind of personality that wants to start this big move to a new league with a bang. I only wish I could have 1m more in my budget or I would have a United defender as well, but you cannot have everything you want. Finally, a budget third striker and I don't think the choice is close as to who it should be - Burnley's Andre Gray. The Clarets are the only club to play their first two matches at home. Gray was a goal machine in the Championship last season and scored a whopping nine times in preseason. He is clearly the man for the Clarets and while Burnley may not be one of the more impressive attacks over the course of the season, there is too much to like about Gray heading into week one to ignore his value at 6.5m. Money spent at position - 31m.
OTHERS TO CONSIDER OR AVOID
Consider: Crystal Palace - whether in attack or defense, the Eagles have the best opening three weeks in terms of fixtures that I did not make room for in my squad. Scott Dann and Andros Townsend look the best options.
Manchester United defender - Luke Shaw has the early buzz but Antonio Valencia looks to have secured the right back spot with a strong preseason. Both are good value at 5.5m.
Alternate coverage for your attack from what I have gathered - If you do not have Mahrez, you ought to make space for Jamie Vardy. If you do not have Hazard, you should consider Cesc Fabregas or, if he looks to be staying and Romelu Lukaku not arriving, Diego Costa. If you do not have Dusan Tadic, Shane Long or Nathan Redmond could serve you well for less money. If you do not want to shell out money for Zlatan, save 2m and roll the dice on Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Tottenham coverage - Here I am, a Spurs supporter, and I begin my season with no representation. I have a feeling whichever of my attacking players falls flat in Week 1 will be replaced by a Spur. There is absolutely nothing wrong with beginning the season with Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen or Dele Alli. In fact, based on what I've seen in preseason, Erik Lamela could be a bargain at 7m.
Avoid: Arsenal and Liverpool - Both these clubs are filled with plenty of fantasy studs but the opening fixtures make it easy for me to wait on them until after the first few weeks. It doesn't help the Gunners that they have an injury crisis at center back when considering defensive investment. These two sides play each other first then both play two straight on the road. One of those road games for Arsenal is Leicester, one for the Reds is Tottenham. We also have to see how Liverpool's attack will line up. There is too much risk right now in figuring out what Jurgen Klopp intends to do. It is not to say every player from these two big clubs will fail in the opening weeks. Inevitably, there will be producers. But, these two sides are not as essential to start the season with as Chelsea, Man United, Man City, Leicester or Tottenham players are.
Hull City, Watford and Swansea City - As we arrive on the eve of the new season, these are my three picks for relegation at season's end. Hull is a no-brainer as the club is in complete shambles from management on down. Watford needed magic from Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo to rack up points in the first half of the season but in the second half, they looked like a Championship level side and they have not done enough in the summer to improve their squad. Swansea seem content on selling every key player they have bar Gylfi Sigurdsson. Gylfi will still produce, but other than that, it is looking dire on both sides of the ball there right now.
Sunderland and West Ham - Listen, I am not going to tell you that you should avoid Dimitri Payet as a fantasy option. The man is a beast. But, the Hammers play road games at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad in two of their first three. That will be possibly two of the toughest four fixtures for the entire season. You may as well wait until they have gotten those out of the way before investing. Sunderland also have two of their first three away to Manchester City and Southampton. It has yet to be seen what kind of fantasy potential will come out of a David Moyes-led Black Cats side anyway. Again though, when those fixtures have been played, someone like Patrick van Aanholt is looking very tempting for my potential Week 4 wildcard.
If you are reading this now, I have made one change to my side that fixes one problem I had. I wanted a Palace player and by downgrading Ivanovic to Terry, I can turn the Ramirez/Gradel spot into Yannick Bolasie. Yes, Bolasie's future hangs in the balance but the latest reports have him starting in Week 1 for Palace regardless of a potential move to Everton and, if he does move to Tyneside, well that make his value all the more appealing. I think it is worth losing that extra potential for attacking returns from Ivanovic versys Terry.
So there you have it folks. Plenty to digest ahead of the opening weekend. I have a feeling the presentation will be a bit more streamlined going forward but there is so much to talk about when playing the FPL game ahead of Week 1. Expect more of a rankings-style presentation about top players to pick up and players to think about dropping going forward. This is the only week where my signature sign-off does not make much sense to say, but it is my signature sign off, so I will say it anyway...
Good luck, and may your arrows be green.