Shaqiri’s price fall

Xherdan Shaqiri’s Fantasy Premier League price dropped today from 7.0m to 6.9m. This was a surprise for some of his owners as player price change prediction sites like FPL Statistics and FantasyFootballFix (FFF) had him a long way from a fall. The latter recorded Shaqiri at -24.4 per cent at the time of the fall, while the former reportedly had him at +14 per cent.

Either way, both were a long way out. How could this happen?

Shaqiri's net transfers in GW2-8The FPL added Shaqiri on August 12, midway through Gameweek 2. During Gameweeks 2 to 4, the Stoke City midfielder gathered just over 100,000 owners. A problem for us – and the price change prediction sites – is working out how many of those net transfers in actually counted.

There are two big factors that could have affected the figures here:

  • The player is locked
  • Wildcard transfers

A player is locked when he joins the game to give him time to gain base ownership like a player in pre-season. Historically, players added to the game were price locked for eight days – i.e. more than one gameweek – or longer if the period coincided with an international gameweek. If that rule is still in place, Shaqiri should have unlocked midway through Gameweek 3. However, we also know that Chelsea player Pedro should have unlocked the day before the Gameweek 4 deadline, but it appears he remained locked through Gameweek 5. That could have been because of the close proximity of the international break, so we can’t assume either way that the FPL has changed the lock period and applied it to Shaqiri. To add to the confusion, Shaqiri was red flagged on August 14 and the removal of that the next day could have extended his lock period too.

It is believed that wildcards count for little or nothing towards price changes. Looking at Shaqiri’s daily net transfers in, it appears the vast majority of the buyers in Gameweeks 2 and 3 brought him in during the traditional lock period. In Gameweek 4, after Shaqiri’s assist in Gameweek 3, the Swiss winger gained another 60,000 net transfers in. That was also the second busiest wildcard gameweek of the season so far, with nearly a quarter of a million wildcards activated. The price change sites will have tried to adjust their predictions to account for the wildcard transfer activity, but it is an inexact science.

From Gameweek 4 to Gameweek 7 Shaqiri shed owners. During this period another 435,000 wildcards were played. The sales have continued into this week and he is now in about 40,000 fewer teams than he was at his peak. FFF had Shaqiri at 67.7 per cent of the way to a price rise when his NTI turned, so they would have thought he would have had to shed tens of thousands of owners on transfers that count before he even returned to negative territory. But if he was mainly bought in by players wielding wildcards, then sold by those players using free transfers in the weeks after, his peak rise percentage may not have been as high as the price change prediction sites estimated and more of his sales may have counted than they thought.

My guess – and it is only an educated guess – is that Shaqiri was a perfect storm of wildcard transfers in and free transfers out. As Shaqiri’s price had not changed until today, the price change prediction sites had not received a new baseline figure indicating the impact of the lock and wildcard transfers. Now they have that information they should be able to predict his future price changes with more accuracy.

If you have a player in your team who was a popular purchase in Gameweeks 3 or 4 and his price hasn’t changed since then, you might want to keep a close eye on the direction of his NTI to avoid an unexpected price drop.

Romelu Lukaku

Some Fantasy Premier League managers call Romelu Lukaku “a troll” because they feel he lures them into their teams by scoring a couple of goals, then does nothing for several weeks. The week or week after they ship him out, Lukaku will score another goal, leaving the managers frustrated that they had him and sold him.



This season has been a textbook example so far. In Gameweek 2, Lukaku opened his goal scoring account for the season with a brace against Southampton. His success resulted in more than 300,000 net transfers in (NTI) over the next two weeks and an increase in his price from 8.0m to 8.2m.

Lukaku’s NTI remained positive for the following two weeks too, but after a fourth consecutive blank the tide turned and his NTI exceeded -50,000 in Gameweek 7. He repaid those who kept the faith with his second double of the season against West Bromwich Albion on Monday night, but it must have left those who had transferred him out frustrated.

Romelu Lukaku GW1-7 2015-16

The underlying stats for the Everton forward are solid. His goals from shots on target ratio is a touch high, but he is in the top 10 for all the shooting metrics indicated in the chart so continued returns look likey. He fires off two or three shots in most matches and takes most of them from inside the box.

We should also remember that Lukaku’s opening run of fixtures (WAT, sou, MCI, tot, CHE, swa, wba) has not been easy. Everton have the joint fifth best defence in terms of goals conceded and they have faced three of the four teams better than them in that regard. The Toffees face Liverpool and Manchester United at home and Arsenal away in the next three, then the fixture list opens up nicely through to the end of 2015 (SUN, whu, AVL, bou, CPL, nor, LEI, new, STO).

Lukaku 2014-15On the surface Lukaku looks a good option through that period, but will he frustrate his owners again?

The fixture list (right) shows the Belgian’s goal scoring games last season in blue and the evidence does offer some hope.

After a strong start, Lukaku had something of a slump through the winter months following a busy autumn of Europa League action, but he rediscovered his goal scoring touch toward the end of the year. The former Chelsea striker played regularly last season – he only missed Southampton at home and Swansea away last year, though he also played less than 45 minutes of football against Swansea at home and Newcastle away.

The Belgian failed to score more than one goal in a Premier League game last season, but has managed to do so twice this season already. 

In the final Premier League table from last season there was a six-point gap between Stoke City in ninth and tenth-placed Crystal Palace, who finished one point and one spot above Everton. All of the teams who Lukaku scored against last year finished below that gap in the table.

With no Europa League action and early indications that he could provide more generous returns this year, Lukaku could be worth another look when the fixtures turn in Gameweek 11 to include more teams of the type he had success against last year.

Red mist

Last week I noticed there had been a lot of players sent off during matches and decided to take a look at whether this was a trend or just a misperception on my part.

What I found confirmed my suspicions. In the first six weeks of the 2015-16 Fantasy Premier League season 15 red cards were dished out – a 66.66 per cent increase on the first six weeks of last season. As the first chart shows, two bad gameweeks accounted for a good chuck of those dismissals.

Red cards GW1-6 2015-16

Were referees being more disciplinarian or was this just coincidence? I looked at the number of yellow cards doled out and discovered 20 more yellow cards were brandished in the first six gameweeks this season than last season – an increase of 9.35 per cent.

Yellow cards GW1-6 2015-16

Of the players who were sent off, it appears five were dismissed for fighting (which includes stamping), four for receiving a second yellow card and three each for professional fouls and bad fouls. The sample size, as with all this data, is small so it is hard to draw conclusions, but it looks like referees are being a bit stricter and the players haven’t helped themselves either.

Does the man in the middle, the referee, affect how often players are being sent off? The sample size was such that I only thought it fair to look at the referees who have taken charge of at least three games.

Referee cards GW1-6 2015-16

Martin Atkinson dished out nearly five yellow cards per game match on average during the first six weeks, but hadn’t sent anyone off. Neither had Craig Parsons, who averaged four yellow cards per match. At the other end of the scale, Michael Oliver had shown players a red card three times, for an average of one red every other game. Kevin Friend also waved red three times, or once per game officiated on average, and he averaged more yellow cards per match than any of the other referees. We can’t read much into the data at this stage, but if I have a card magnet in my team this might make me a little more cautious about playing him if Friend is taking charge of his next match.

I also looked at which teams had been affected by red cards being waved. Four teams had experienced red card situations in matches at least three times this season: Arsenal (3), Chelsea (4), Swansea City (4) and West Ham United (4). Arsenal had received two reds and seen their opponents receive one. Chelsea benefited twice and were punished twice. West Ham had suffered three reds and seen their opponents suffer one, while Swansea saw an opposition player head for an early shower on all four occasions.

How much does a red card affect a game? In 60 per cent of the matches this season where one team played a man down for at least 10 minutes, the team with fewer players conceded one goal. The aggregate score in such situations was 6-1 in favour of the team with an extra man. On both occasions where a team was reduced to nine men (Stoke City v West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea v Arsenal), the team with fewer players conceded a goal and lost the match.

With one match left of Gameweek 7 we have yet to see a red card brandished. Have the players been better behaved, or the referees calmed down, or are we just witnessing a statistical data point on the other side of the trend line? It’s too early to tell. But if the officials do keep dismissing players at the rate they did over the first six weeks it is going to affect results on frequent basis and, potentially, our perception of how good teams are when facing full strength opposition. How often does an FPL manager looking to bring a player in cross-reference the player’s team performance with the number of red cards shown in their matches?



Could it be that Swansea City were not as good as their four points from their opening two games against Chelsea and Newcastle suggested because both opponents played a man down for a large portion of those games? I think that would be a harsh call. In both situations it was the Swans’ attacking play that drew the fouls that led to players being sent off.

Of those players who are card magnets in the Premier League, few are likely feature in our Fantasy Premier League teams. Furthermore, the list of players sent off this season is not limited to the usual suspects. Therefore, I’m not sure this data gives us any major insight into the future. But it does give us something else to think about when assessing the performance of some teams this season.

Kevin De Bruyne

David Silva’s injury and, now, a hamstring niggle for Yaya Touré have potentially created a Manchester City-shaped void in the heart of many Fantasy Premier League managers’ sides.

However, the Citizens’ new £55m signing Kevin De Bruyne (10.1m) provides a near straight swap for Silva (10.2) and, for those with some money in the bank, Touré (9.0m).

Having only joined City shortly before transfer deadline day, we have just three gameweeks of data on which to judge De Bruyne, which isn’t a great sample size. Nevertheless, the early evidence is promising.

Kevin De Bruyne GW7

De Bruyne has managed to unleash eight shots in the Premier League, hitting the target with half of them and scoring with two. His shots on target conversion rate is a touch high but, even if it drops a bit, the signs are hopeful for more goals from the Belgian international given how frequently and accurately he is shooting. The one cautionary flag is how few shots De Bruyne is taking inside the box. Long-range efforts traditionally lead to far fewer goals than shots inside the box, so he is either lucky or unusually accurate from distance. If he stops hitting the target as frequently, we might have more cause to worry.

At Wolfsburg last year, De Bruyne recorded 20 assists, making him the best supplier in Europe for goal-scoring team mates. Even if De Bruyne’s FPL points from goals dips, he is showing signs that the creativity he displayed at Wolfsburg is undimmed in the Premier League. He has already created 10 chance for team mates and it is surely only a matter of when, not if, he gets his first Premier League assist (assuming he stays healthy).

The only other note of caution I would add is that he hasn’t played together with David Silva in the Premier League and has only clocked up about 20 minutes with him in the Champions League, so we don’t really know how the Citizens’ other creative force will affect his output. I don’t think that’s a big enough reason to avoid him though.



For those wanting more data before reaching a verdict, we can look to the League Cup match against a largely first choice Sunderland side for more clues. Although it was not a Premier League game, it was Premier League opposition. As far as I can tell, De Bruyne tallied three shots, one shot in the box, two shots on target, one goal, four chances created and one assist in that match. Those numbers are consistent with his Premier League performance.

Finally, four of the next City’s next five fixtures (NEW, BOU, mun, NOR, avl) look good for attacking returns so the fixture list isn’t a concern either. The data sample is small, but I would be prepared to take a chance on De Bruyne, given the fixtures and form he has shown so far, if Touré is ruled out for a few weeks.

Looking to North London

Ruth_NZ’s  guest posts on this blog this week (part one and part two) were interesting in the way they categorized defensive solidity. It seemed to me – and I’m sure Ruth will jump in on the comments if I have misunderstood him – that he was suggesting the balance between offence and defence is a zero sum game. In other words, a team has to sacrifice attacking intent for solidity at the back or vice versa.



That might be true in a lot of cases, but I think it is also possible for teams to transcend this; some teams can be defensively sound and attack with gusto. At a guess, Ruth might respond by saying these would be Group B or Group C teams, which are balanced defence or balanced offence respectively.

The problem then is which one are they? For example, the 1997-98 title-winning Arsenal team, with the legendary back four of Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn behind a defensive shield of Patrick Viera and Emmanuel Petit, recorded 19 clean sheets. But their attack, featuring Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Ian Wright, Nicolas Anelka and David Platt, also managed to score three or more goals on nine occasions that season. You might say they were a “balanced defensive team”. Or you might say “balanced attacking team” when you consider they also conceded three or more goals on four occasions that year. Or maybe they were both a good attacking team and a good defending team.

This matters because of the prescription Ruth suggested for each group: Play Group B players against most opposition, but Group C players should be bought in for attacking returns or good fixture runs. The reason I am talking about an old Arsenal team is because of their present day north London neighbours Tottenham Hotspur.



Ruth has categorized Spurs as a Group C team because he thinks the manager has a more defensive inclination but the fans or board expect a more offensive approach. I would broadly agree with that. Mauricio Pochettino likes his sides to be defensive but the Tottenham faithful like their teams to attack. But does that mean we should only buy Tottenham players for their good fixtures?

Spurs started the season slowly, conceding four goals and not recording one clean sheet in their first three matches. Since then though they have clocked up three straight clean sheets almost unnoticed. They were not greatly troubled last week by a Crystal Palace team that is gunning for goals. A clean sheet in their previous game against Sunderland may not be unexpected, but Everton, their opponents the week before, cannot be classed as easy opposition. The Toffees sit joint seventh with Palace and Bournemouth for goals scored this season.

Goals conceded pre-Gameweek 7

Tottenham are now the second best team in the Premier League for goals against, ahead of a host of teams that are being much more widely talked about as being defensively solid.

Has Pochettino got his way and left the fans disappointed? Despite only five goals scored, the statistics and the evidence of my own eyes watching last week’s match against Palace suggest not. Spurs sit in the top five in the Premier League for shots, shots in the box and shots on target. So, are they really a balanced attacking side or are they a balanced defensive side? Or are they good at doing both (albeit with Kane misfiring up top)?

I would say it’s still too early to tell. The good news though is we have a set of fixtures coming up (MCI, swa, LIV) which should test Tottenham’s defensive solidity. If they can get through those without Hugo Lloris having to pick the ball out of the net frequently, I might suggest we take a closer look at whether Spurs have a defensive unit this season that can be relied on for the long haul and not just for brief spells.

Guest post: The case for the defence (part two)

In part one of his guest post, Ruth_NZ looked at the reasons why Premier League clubs keep clean sheets and divided them into four groups, starting with four sides that prioritise defence (Group A): Chelsea, Southampton, West Bromwich Albion and Watford. In part two he looks at the other three groups and how players from these groups can fit your team structure:

Group B – Pragmatic (Balanced Defensive)

West Ham United, Swansea City, Norwich City, Sunderland

For Group B I am also looking for two things:

  • The manager has a balanced approach and a willingness to adopt to a more defensive style when necessary – in other words the mindset is pragmatic;
  • The team has demonstrated an ability to be organised and to put such tactical adjustments into practice.

Swansea are fairly obvious I think – their 1-0 win at Arsenal at the back end of last season demonstrated it clearly. Some have said they were lucky to get that clean sheet. What I saw was great organisation, resilience and a determination to fight for it. And that’s what I’m looking for, teams that have that kind of character on the defensive side of the game. Swansea are not a defensive team but they are no pushover either.

West Ham have earned their place here on the basis of three stellar away results and three clean sheets in their first six games under Slaven Bilić. They have been very impressive in defence apart from when they got sucked into a goalfest against Bournemouth that obviously infuriated their manager (who made a “rage substitution” of one of his defenders before half-time). I doubt that will be allowed to happen too often, especially when Alex Song strengthens them further in the defensive midfield position.

My inclusion of Sunderland here will probably be laughed out of court. However four clean sheets in eight games under Dick Advocaat last season showed what could be done when the chips were down. Sunderland have added a bunch of new players and probably don’t quite know what they are right now. But I’d expect their defensive resilience to improve in due course and when it does they could offer very good rotation options at bargain prices.

Norwich are similar – they managed nine clean sheets (21 goals conceded) in 25 games under Alex Neil last season. Neil is a pragmatic manager who values good defending, so whilst Norwich may not be the most reliable defensive team right now but I’d expect them to become harder to beat as the season wears on – especially when Martin Olsson is fully fit again as currently they effectively have a winger (Robbie Brady) playing left back.



Group B players

The idea of a Group B player is that they are good rotation options who can also be played with a fair chance of a clean sheet in tougher-looking fixtures. My recommendations here would be:

Swansea – Ashley Williams.

He’s one of the best centre backs in the Premier League and a good bonus point producer. Some will prefer a fullback (Kyle Naughton or Neil Taylor) for the greater assist potential and I wouldn’t argue with that either. Personally I like the defender likeliest to get three bonus points in a 0-0. I would disregard Lukasz Fabianski because he’s the same price as his defenders (whereas Asmir Begovic and/or Boaz Myhill can be had below the price of their defence).

West Ham – Winston Reid, Aaron Cresswell.

Reid seems to be the best shout for bonus points in general, while Cresswell will probably just about justify the 0.6 hike from his attacking points. Take your pick really, though 5.6m is maybe too much for a defender that you won’t play every week , in which case it would be a matter of getting Cresswell for good fixture runs and then out again perhaps.

Sunderland – None.

None to recommend right now, that is. But the Sunderland defence is dropping in price all the time and later in the season, when (if) Sunderland focus on being hard to beat, it is quite possible that good value rotation defenders at 4.2 or even 4.1 will be available there.

Norwich – None.

Russell Martin has three goals in six games and won’t conceivably sustain it. As with Sunderland it will be a matter of watching and waiting for signs of the defensive toughening up. Norwich have a nice run of games after Christmas – maybe that will be a good time to take another look and if Olsson is 4.4/4.3m around then he could be a good rotation player to have.

Group C – Balanced Attacking

Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Bournemouth, Stoke City, Newcastle United

There are two types of team here:

  • Teams where the manager has a more defensive incline but where the fans or board expect a more offensive approach (Manchester United, Spurs, Stoke);
  • Teams where the manager prefers a more attacking style but tries to restrain himself, not always successfully (Everton, Liverpool, Bournemouth, Newcastle).

In other words these are teams that tend to fall into a more attacking mode by default and often lack the defensive resilience we are looking for in a reliable clean sheet team. United might be wrongly grouped here, it is too soon to tell. I think Louis Van Gaal would prefer his team to be in Group B (or even Group A) but the pressure for United to be an attacking team is very high. The same applies, perhaps to a lesser degree, to Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs whilst Mark Hughes has to demonstrate added attacking flair to justify his replacement of Tony Pulis – that is what he was brought in for.

Meanwhile, it is clear that Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers, Eddie Howe and Steve McClaren are managers that prefer attack but try to temper that to the realities of the Premier League. When their teams are in very good form they may get runs of clean sheets (Liverpool had seven in nine games during their purple patch last season) but they will be harder to predict or rely upon.



Group C players

I would therefore tend to mainly look among these teams for players with worthwhile attacking or bonus point potential and aim to bring them in for good fixture runs. They wouldn’t be staples I’d expect to keep for long periods.

Manchester United – Marcos Rojo, or possibly no-one.

Luke Shaw was a very good option until his injury, he was in my team in fact. But the card-prone Matteo Darmian doesn’t offer the same threat on the other flank and Chris Smalling is expensive at 6.2m. Rojo should be a regular at 5.4m and we will know that by the time United hit their next good fixture run (Gameweeks 12-18). I wouldn’t be bringing a United defender in before that.

Everton – Seamus Coleman, John Stones.

Everton’s good fixture run is from Gameweeks 11-20, during which they have six home games in 10 games and no traditional “Top 5” teams to face. Coleman’s attacking threat is well demonstrated and in a fixture period where Everton should also achieve some clean sheets he could well be worth his 6.0m tag. Stones is 0.5 cheaper and has less attacking threat but is better for baseline bonus points. He’s clearly a better choice than Phil Jagielka who does less well on bonus points and is also more threatened on game time after the arrival of Ramiro Funes Mori.

Stoke – Glen Johnson. Or possibly no-one until Ryan Shawcross returns.

Stoke are in their good fixture run right now (until Gameweek 11) and Johnson has a good record of assists and the odd goal. The problem is that Stoke keep so few clean sheets; so often they seem to find a way to concede one goal. They only managed two clean sheets before Christmas last season (despite conceding only 45 goals in the whole season) and look set on a similar track again. Johnson is in my current team but I wouldn’t bring him in if I didn’t already have him.

Spurs – Kyle Walker, Eric Dier.

Spurs have a very nice fixture run from Gameweeks 15-25 and by that time we’ll be clearer whether Dier has locked down the defensive midfield position. Otherwise Walker at 5.0m would seem to be a good pick with a decent record of assists. Ben Davies will likely see some rotation with Danny Rose over the Christmas period at least.

Liverpool – None.

I just don’t trust Liverpool defensively under Rodgers and they don’t have a defender with significant attacking prospects. Martin Skrtel is a bonus burglar and could be considered for Liverpool’s decent fixture run (Gameweeks 14-20) but I’d want more threat for 5.5m really.

Bournemouth – None.

I’m not at all convinced that Eddie Howe will prioritise defense sufficiently to make a Bournemouth defender valid outside of a very good fixture run. And the next of these doesn’t occur until after Christmas. Francis at 4.5m is clearly the one to have because of his assist potential but not before Gameweek 21 as far as I am concerned.

Newcastle – Daryl Janmaat, Massaido Haidara.

Newcastle continue to look quite hapless defensively despite McClaren’s obvious attempts to organise them better. However it is true that their opening run of fixtures has been really tricky with United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City to face in a six-week period and other tough games like Swansea away. Newcastle have a much kinder fixture run from Gameweeks 9-19 and Janmaat, especially, could be a very good fixture-based selection during that period. At 4.9 or 4.8 and with a great assists record there is a lot to like there. Haidara at 4.5 also has some attacking prospects and could be a worthwhile rotation option during that period. Tim Krul could rotate well with McCarthy but Heurelho Gomes looks preferable at the same price.



Group D – Attacking Priority

Manchester City, Leicester City, Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa

Group D are teams that are designed to attack first and foremost. It might seem strange to say that considering City’s five clean sheets so far but as I said previously, a lot of that can be put down to City’s “shock-and-awe” attack and Vincent Kompany’s resurgence. It is no surprise that City have gone on to concede five goals in just over two games since Kompany’s injury against Juventus. There is still no evidence that City can be relied on as a clean sheet team, especially whilst Kompany is out. Manuel Pellegrini is on record as prioritising attractive, attacking play. That’s not so good for clean sheet prospects in the long run, though City have such a strong squad that they will doubtless get a fair few.

The same can be said about Arsenal, though Arsene Wenger seems even more stubbornly wedded to his preferred style. The refusal to sign a central/defensive midfielder in the last three transfer windows leaves Arsenal very reliant on Francis Coquelin (a player who was out on loan in the Championship nine months ago). They also have a weakness in central defence, with only the inexperienced Gabriel and Calum Chambers to stand in for the injury-prone Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. Can Arsenal be relied on as a clean sheet team? Not for me, not right now, not even with Petr Cech in goal.

Leicester, Palace and Villa have one clean sheet between them after 18 games played, managers who like to attack and, in Pardew’s case, have even stated that he “wants his team to focus more on scoring goals than on not conceding them”. Clearly not teams to look to for clean sheets.

Group D players

Manchester City – Aleksandar Kolarov, Kompany.

City are in the middle of a good run of fixtures and only have two tough away games (United, Arsenal) before Christmas. While Gaël Clichy is out injured, Kolarov is gametime secure and he has great attacking potential. Right now, a good pick. As for Kompany, he’s probably less good value but if it is clean sheets you are after, City seem more likely to get them with Kompany in the team.

Arsenal – Héctor Bellerín, Nacho Monreal.

Arsenal have a kind fixture run from Gameweeks 9-20 with only two or three obviously tricky ones during that period. Bellerín and Monreal seem much of a muchness for attacking threat and game time security, but personally I think there are better options at 5.5m.

Leicester – None. Not even the goalkeeper really, there are better options at 4.5.

Villa – None. Not right now.

Villa have a kinder fixture run from Gameweek 18 (Christmas) and possibly Jordan Amavi or Leandro Bacuna could be looked at for attacking threat then. But both seem very heavily priced at 5.0m in a team that can’t be predicted to keep many clean sheets.

Palace – Alex McCarthy.

I wouldn’t touch a Palace defender with a bargepole; none of them have anywhere near the attacking threat to compensate for the very few clean sheets they are likely to achieve. But McCarthy is 4.1m (the cheapest first choice goalkeeper in the game), appears to be his manager’s preferred goalkeeper and has save points on his side. Coupled with a goalkeeper that can play most games he’s a very good selection.

Ruth_NZ suggested defence

Summary

I am now transitioning to a 4-4-2 structure in my squad, so for me I want five or six of my seven defensive slots to be filled by long-term “staples” (from Group A or possibly Group B) and one to two variables based on fixture runs and attacking threat, mainly from Group B and C. For a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation it is only then a question of whether you effectively “kill” a defender slot by having a 4.0m defender you will never play. So here’s my summary of the players I’d look at. It’s quite a short list!

Staples – Good clean sheet and bonus point or save candidates

  • Goalkeeper pairs – Myhill/McCarthy (Ben Foster/McCarthy later), Gomes/McCarthy, Begovic/McCarthy, possibly Krul/McCarthy if Newcastle improve
  • Defenders – César Azpilicueta, Jose Fonte/Ryan Bertrand, Jonny Evans/Craig Dawson, Craig Cathcart, Williams, possibly Reid/Cresswell

Fixture-based selections (good fixture runs)

  • Goalkeeper – best to have a long-term cheap pair
  • Defenders – Rojo, Walker/Dier, Coleman/Stones, Janmaat/Haidara, Kolarov, possibly Francis, possibly Bellerin/Monreal

By constructing a defence in that way, I believe you give yourself stability, the best chances of consistent clean sheets and the opportunity to maximise returns from more attacking defenders when circumstances favour them without making too many defender transfers.

Guest post: The case for the defence (part one)

Among Fantasy Premier League managers, Ruth_NZ is known as a straight-talker who frequently challenges FPL norms and conventions. Healthy debate keeps managers alive to alternative ways of thinking, so when he offered to write a guest post about clean sheet potential how could I refuse? Over to Ruth_NZ: 

In search of clean sheets

Clean sheets by GW6Predicting clean sheets is difficult. Bookmakers’ clean sheet odds do not represent probabilities (despite what many people assume) so they are of limited use. A site like FFFix uses a statistical probability algorithm which takes opposition strength into account and typically delivers a clean sheet probability of between 10 per cent and 60 per cent for any given team in any given week – they claim an accuracy of around 65 per cent with this. Historically the occurrence of clean sheets in the Premier League runs at around 30 per cent (meaning six clean sheets on average in a full gameweek) and there are three home clean sheets to every two away. These numbers have been consistent over 10 seasons and have remained close to those ratios every season. And that’s about what we know. We are then into the murky statistical waters of assessing form via “shots conceded”, “big chances conceded” and so on, based on recent games (against different opponents).

My view on statistics is that they can easily become the tail that wags the dog (and in many cases that is exactly what they are for FPL managers). Statistics only interest me if they can be explained by some rationale other than happenstance and variance. In other words, the numbers interest me less than the reasons why those numbers may have occurred. If I don’t see sound reasons I don’t trust the statistics – not as a predictor of what will happen in the future. And predicting what will happen in the future is the name of the game.

I am therefore taking a different approach to the art of clean sheet management here. FPL managers don’t want to be making too many defensive transfers. So which teams can you trust to give you solid defender options over a longer period? Which are the ones to avoid? Which are the ones that are more fixture based? And in this I am not focusing on defenders with special attacking prospects for goals and assists – amongst whom I would include Aleksandar Kolarov, Daryl Janmaat and Seamus Coleman for example. They are another matter entirely – though I would suggest that those types of players are ones you want when their teams have good fixture runs with above normal chances of both clean sheets and goals. For this article, however, it is the clean sheet itself that most interests me.

Why do teams keep clean sheets?

As an initial concept, it may be interesting to look at the main reasons why a team may achieve a clean sheet in any game. Obviously luck plays a significant part – sometimes the clean sheet rests upon a striker missing from two yards (Graziano Pellè v West Bromwich Albion) or is lost through a 50 yard wonder-strike from a midfielder (Charlie Adam v Chelsea). But in general I’d say there are three main reasons:

  • The team is so dominant in attack and ball possession that the opposition goes into damage-limitation mode – Bournemouth achieved a fair few clean sheets that way last season and it is one reason behind Manchester City’s clean sheet record this season (another being a rejuvenated Vincent Kompany).
  • The team is defensively so well organised and the players are so committed (blocks, tackles, interceptions) that opponents find it hard to create clear chances (a good goalkeeper also helps in this regard, obviously); forcing opponents to shoot from distance is often an element of this.
  • The opponent is weak as an attacking force. A subset of this is the situation where both teams would be happy with a point. This tends to apply more later in the season; the kind of game where caution rules and if it is 0-0 after 60 minutes it will likely stay that way.

Of these, it is the second element that I am most looking for; teams with the character and mindset to fight for a clean sheet as a priority. Attacking form may come and go and a team that is 4-0 up is often prone to conceding a late “consolation” goal anyway as concentration relaxes. It may not matter for the game but it matters for the FPL manager.

The approach I am taking therefore divides the 20 Premier League clubs into four groups with this kind of thinking in mind. I will attempt to explain the rationale of each group as the article proceeds and I may even adduce some statistics in confirmation of the general points. But don’t be looking for a “proof”. I am offering my judgement here and will quite understand if you prefer your own.

Group A – Defensive priority

Chelsea, Southampton, West Brom, Watford

For Group A, I am looking for two things:

  • The manager bases their team’s approach on defensive soundness and the team is in no doubt about what is expected of them in this regard;
  • The team has demonstrated an ability to put that organisation and mindset into practice.

Chelsea, Southampton and West Brom are obvious. Chelsea had 17 Premier League clean sheets last season, Southampton 15 and they were the two best in the league. It’s clearly not an accident, you only need to listen to the way Mourinho and Koeman talk to know that. It is true that Mourinho is expected to build a team with attacking flair and can’t be as dour as he was in 2004-07 but defensive soundness is nevertheless in his and Chelsea’s DNA. Chelsea may have started the season poorly but it is hard to see that continuing for too long.

Southampton, similarly, are showing signs of settling into their defensive rhythm after changes of personnel and we may well see “Fortress St Mary’s” return before too long. Three clean sheets in six games is pretty fair even as it stands.

I have read much nonsense from various quarters about West Brom because “they concede too many goals”. The fact is they have 14 clean sheets in 24 Premier League games since Pulis took over. That’s not a freak occurrence, he did the same at Palace and at Stoke before that. His players are in no doubt that a clean sheet is absolutely worth fighting for, and they do. If not, they don’t get picked. Personally I am happy to have Pulis’ players fighting for my FPL clean sheet too.

Watford would not have been in this group pre-season – with a new manager and virtually a new team how could anyone know? Even now, six games is a small sample to look at. But it certainly looks so far that they meet the two Group A criteria and they have three clean sheets from the six games to show for it.

Group A players

The idea of a Group A player is that you can play them in any game, home or away, with a fair chance of a clean sheet (although home games will generally be more reliable). Apart from Chelsea all the teams have defenders cheap enough to be part of a rotation as well. Here are my recommendations:

Chelsea – Asmir Begovic, César Azpilicueta.

Begovic is a snip at 5.0m for a goalkeeper that can be played every week and he should have three months with no game time risk. Azpilicueta also seems good value to me at 6.0m. He can be played every week without worry and he is good for bonus points. If Branislav Ivanovic is sometimes rested for Abdul Rahman Baba then playing at right back will only help Azpilicueta’s attacking prospects in those games – his crossing from the right is much better.

Southampton – Jose Fonte, Ryan Bertrand.

Either/or really, Fonte is the bonus point king in the Southampton defence and capable of the odd set piece goal, while Bertrand will likely get more assists and is 0.1 cheaper. I wouldn’t go for Cédric Soares myself, the fact that he has played 90 minutes only once in six games (despite being fit) suggests he could be left out when you most want him. It depends how valuable the 0.4/0.3 is to you I guess.

West Brom – Boaz Myhill, Jonny Evans.

I may be a little biased here as both are in my FPL team. Myhill could be on borrowed time although he probably still has four to six weeks before Foster returns; Lindegaard was never going to automatically supplant him. As for the defender, I have read quite some nonsense about Dawson’s “attacking prowess” justifying the 0.2 price premium over Evans. Piffle. We are talking about a player who has two Premier League goals in his entire career (Evans has four). People have noticed that he has had a few shots in West Brom’s initial games and allowed the statistical tail to wag the dog. Evans is a far better footballer, he will be better for bonus points and he’s 0.2 cheaper. No contest. The only reservation about Evans is his injury history but regular games may well sort that out, just as they did for Fletcher – repetitively injured at Manchester United but ever-present since moving to West Brom.

Watford – Heurelho GOMES, Craig Cathcart.

Yes, I capitalised Gomes because I can’t believe how little he is discussed. Shot-stopping was always his strongest attribute and he has five save points already in a team that isn’t conceding that many chances. The question was whether Watford would be a well-organised defensive unit and the indications so far are that they will be. Watford rotate well with Palace for defensive purposes and a Gomes/Alex McCarthy pairing would look really good to me for 8.6m. I currently have Myhill/McCarthy and may just switch Myhill to Gomes when the time comes. As for the defender – Allan-Roméo Nyom is a bit too much of a card magnet for me but there is little in it.

In part two, Ruth_NZ’s hunt for clean sheets continues with a look at Swansea City and West Ham United among others.