In this article, our stats wiz Ed looks at the defence and provides some early season projections.
In a game largely dominated by interest in attacking assets, optimising defensive coverage is an oft-overlooked component of FPL strategy.
Many managers choose to target their front eight with early season transfers, hoping to jump on the next mid-priced midfield (and potential Talisman) bandwagon ahead of the crowd. This means our backlines can often go unchanged for several weeks in the initial weeks of the campaign.
With this in mind, it is crucially important to ensure that our early-season defensive lines can hold the fort until the first Wildcard windows emerge.
To help inform this decision, I have been diving into the defensive prospects of each side over two critical periods of time: the spell from GW1 to our first International Break (post-GW4) and from GW1 through to the second International Break (post-GW8).
To develop these projections, I have combined the attacking strength of each side’s scheduled opposition over the first four- and eight-Gameweek blocks of the season (measured using my own fixture ticker) with data of their own defensive performance in 2017/18 into two predictive metrics*:
- Predicted Defence Rating (PDR), quantified through both number of goals conceded last season versus their quality of opposition.
- Expected Goals Conceded (xGC), moderated by their PDR (i.e. this is not a pure xGC metric but one devised from multiple inputs).
By combining the past performance of each team’s defence with the attacking strength of their opponents, we provide a broader measure of defensive fixture appeal (and by extension, the likelihood of clean sheets) than by analyzing the fixture list alone.
*Promoted sides were assigned the defensive metrics of last year’s 15th-rated side in each measure.
The Four Week Forecast
Table 1: Matchup-adjusted defensive difficulty ratings for the first four Gameweeks of the season. Teams are sorted using xGC data from the 17/18 campaign in combination with their scheduled fixtures; ranks using PDR data are shown in the left column.
Over the first four Gameweeks (up to the first International Break), the top three positions are occupied by standout defences from the 17/18 campaign – Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool.
These sides ranked first through third in xGC last season, and boast favourable slates to open the season: with fixtures against Arsenal for Manchester City (Gameweek 1) and Chelsea (Gameweek 2) the only testing matchups on the radar. Despite the premium price tags carried by these sides’ top defensive assets (Andrew Robertson and Benjamin Mendy both clock in at 6.0, while Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta open at 6.5), no sides boast a stronger likelihood of producing early defensive returns.
Our first budget-friendly sides emerge shortly thereafter. Southampton, Burnley, Everton and Crystal Palace all rank among the top 10 defences over the opening four Gameweeks, with Southampton (4th) leading the way. This is despite a poor season last year, as the Saints boast a particularly kind opening schedule, with Burnley, Everton, Leicester and Crystal Palace on the docket from Gameweeks 1 to 4. Moreover, the side boasted surprisingly impressive defensive metrics in 17/18, ranking 6th-best in xGC. Several defensive assets – headlined by Cedric Soares (4.5) – could therefore prove attractive propositions during the first Gameweeks of the season.
Both Everton and Burnley boast attractive English shot-stoppers at the 5.0 pricepoint. Jordan Pickford (FPL’s third most highly-owned keeper at 22%) will hope to build on an impressive summer campaign that saw him briefly attain cult-hero status; meanwhile, Tom Heaton (should he return from a preseason calf injury) looks set to capitalize on a long-term injury to Nick Pope, and hopefully reclaim the form that propelled him to the summit of FPL’s goalkeeper ranks in 2016/17. Everton’s Seamus Coleman (5.5) also offers a strong attacking threat for those willing to splash a little extra cash on a mid-table backline.
Finally, Crystal Palace offer a myriad of intriguingly-priced defensive assets. Summer signing Vicente Guaita (4.5) looks to be the odds-on favourite to start the season between the sticks: after twelve shutouts for Getafe in La Liga last season, Guaita – a penalty save specialist who saved from the spot twice last campaign – may prove a shrewd investment. Defender James Tomkins (also 4.5) offers similar defensive appeal at the same pricepoint, to go with a strong attacking threat (Tomkins has registered three goals in each of the last two seasons, and was the best 4.5 defender from last season in terms of points per game (link)).
The two jewels of the Palace backline, however, appear at the extremes of the price spectrum. Patrick van Aanholt (5.5) has proved himself a consistent attacking threat, with a pair of 5 goal, 1 assist seasons over the last two years to follow up his stunning 6 goal, 4 assist masterclass in 2015/16. On the right side of defence, meanwhile, Aaron “Obi” Wan-Bissaka (priced at only 4.0) has started four out of five preseason games for Palace, and could prove this year’s favoured budget defender.
The Eight-Week Forecast
Table 2: Matchup-adjusted defensive difficulty ratings for the first eight Gameweeks of the season. Teams are sorted using xGC data from the 17/18 campaign in combination with their scheduled fixtures; ranks using PDR data are shown in the left column.
Extending our forecast out to the second international break (GW8) shakes up the rankings considerably.
While some elite teams fall out of consideration (chiefly Liverpool, who plummet from 3rd to 11th courtesy of games against Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City from gameweeks 5-8), Tottenham and Manchester United defenders rise up the ranks. Ben Davies (6.0) and Eric Bailly (5.5) appear to be the pick of the bunch from these sides – however, question marks regarding rotation hang over the heads of both to start the year, and caution is advised. Meanwhile, a price hike to 6.0 for last year’s standout keeper David de Gea has severely detracted from the Spaniard’s appeal.
Arsenal’s defence also rebounds from a tough opening two fixtures (versus Manchester City and Chelsea) to enjoy a strong run of games from Gameweeks 3 to 8. The Gunners’ backline have dropped in price across the board, and could offer spectacular value to managers during this spell. While the 5.0 pricetag attached to Bernd Leno catches the eye, it is at the full-back position that our interest is focused, with Sead Kolasinac (5.0) and Hector Bellerin (5.5) looking like strong assets should they prove capable of cementing a regular spot in Unai Emery’s preferred XI. The perennial promise of Calum Chambers (4.5) could also emerge, though this appears more speculative for the time being.
Elsewhere, Palace and Burnley continue to offer strong appeal throughout this extended window, ranking 5th and 6th in our eight-week ranks, respectively. However, Southampton and Everton’s defensive prospects fall to 9th and 10th in our longer-term rankings, suggesting that these defences may be best exploited by teams planning an earlier wildcard around the first International Break.
Due to the higher variance in schedule strength as a result of the shorter window, an early Wildcard at the first International Break offers opportunities to invest in several cut-priced backlines with strong defensive prospects. In particular, Southampton, Crystal Palace and Everton appear to promise a strong likelihood of defensive returns at intriguing price points.
Longer-term bargains, however, remain possible to find. Both Palace and Burnley offer continuing value at the 4.5 and 5.0 price points, while Arsenal’s defensive assets also look like strong early-season investments for managers planning for the longer-term.
Finally, it should be noted that while Liverpool’s short-term start ranks among the very best in the league, their prospects from Gameweeks 5-8 appear limited. Sides stacking up on Liverpool assets for the first four Gameweeks may be particularly keen to dead-end their teams after GW4. By contrast, however, Manchester City and Chelsea offer standout schedules all the way through to GW8 – suggesting that longer-sighted managers may wish to divert early-season resources towards these sides.