‘Big Game Players’ and ‘Flat-Track Bullies’

Continuing his blog for us, our new resident “statto” Ewen (@ewen_) does some magic with last year’s Fantasy Premier League (FPL) numbers to look at the ceilings and captain hauls. He’ll be in the “free role” for us this year, looking into issues as and when they arise / take his fancy. See his previous posts here.

A school of thought that has (quite rightly) become FPL gospel is the mantra that you should avoid ‘top six’ match-ups where possible. By top six we mean teams that have monopolized the top spots in recent years: Arsenal, Chelsea, Man U, Man City, Tottenham and Liverpool.

This means some rough ground rules:

  • DO NOT captain someone against the top six
  • DO NOT play defensive assets against the top six
  • DO NOT transfer in a player who is due to line up against a top six opponent

Of course, there are exceptions to the rules, but this advice is regularly trotted out by FPL-splainers.

Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense.

As ‘they’ say, the table doesn’t lie – those teams at the top are, invariably, better at football. This translates to fewer point-scoring opportunities for opponents.

The question is – are there any holes in this philosophy?

Numbers on the Board

First things first, we need to get the basics right – understand the number of points that players tend to collect against the top six vs. the rest. An obvious thing to consider is a player’s position, as this will help identify if player’s that collect points in different ways find more success. We’ll be looking at data from the last full season (16/17) to ensure we’re drawing from a reasonable sample.

The chart above demonstrates the points distribution for player positions i.e. the spread of possible gameweek points, and the most common hauls.

If we consider the ‘humps’ in the chart, representing the most likely gameweek points, we see that defenders come off worst against the top six (in yellow) as their hump is furthest to the left. It’s also left of the defenders’ hump vs. ‘the rest’.

Defenders doing it wrong

Evidence outlined above supports the belief that we should avoid pitting defenders against top six attacks. Are there any exceptions?

Here, we see that most players sit above the diagonal line. This means they scored more points against ‘the rest’ rather than against the top six, on average.

However, those below the diagonal line (labelled) actually did better against superior opposition.

Most notably, three Liverpool defenders make this shortlist of seven – not overly surprising, considering the regularity with which Liverpool dispatched the big guns.

Home & Away

One thing we’ve brushed over so far is the perceived importance of home advantage. This can be seen as enough to justify picking a defender against a big hitter.

Taking this even further…were there defenders who actually did better away from home, against the big six?

In the top right quadrant of this plot, we see defender who scored above average for points away from home (vs. top six) and below average at home.

There’s strong representation from Stoke, Burnley, West Brom and Southampton, indicating that these defences were set up better in away games against the big guns, over the season.

The bully boys

At the other end of the spectrum, the chart above shows what most players do – score more points against weaker opponents.

With this in mind, perhaps we can look into which players saw the biggest gain in average points scored when playing teams outside of the top six.

Anyone guess the #1 correctly?

Harry Kane scored 5.7 points more against teams outside of the top six compared to those in the top six, on average, last season.


Conventional wisdom tells us to steer clear of top six opponents, especially amongst your defence, and this will get you pretty far.

There should be opportunities for competitive advantage by circumventing this in the right cases, however.

Some teams (Liverpool) just do better against the big teams, while others (Burnley, West Brom) may be more suited in away games against quality opponents than in front of their own baying support.

Just don’t go under-estimating Kane’s penchant for humiliating them – particularly relevant with Swansea H up next in Gameweek 5!

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