From offence to defence?

In Tom’s most recent future trends article, there were many references to “meta” strategies within the game, within which the concept of ‘herd mentality’ tends to coerce people into taking ambitious hits to fit those star players in. This was also discussed at length on our maiden pod with the infamous ‘Charlie Austin gate’.  One strong trend linked to this, that I will be discussing below and has persisted throughout FPL history, is that idea that “the more offensive the formation, the better”.

The most offensive regular formation you can play in the game 3-4-3, and as a result it is often the most popular formation. This was certainly the case early on in the season last year, with top teams seemingly unable to keep a clean sheet for neither love nor money. However, later on in the season, a new trend developed: 3-5-2 became more popularised, caused in part by cheap attacking assets like Victor Anichebe (4.3m by GW37) and Peter Crouch (4.5m) acting as bench fodder, plus the option of the cheap fifth midfielder, like Josh King, fitting in nicely into people’s teams.

The focus has always therefore been in setting up your team in a top heavy manner. This is shown by your average RMT investing up to 30.0m  on the three forwards, up to 40.0m on the five midfielders and maybe only 22.0m on the five defenders (with another 8.0–10.0m on the two GKs). As part of this sort of set up, you would typically see a 4.5m midfielder on the bench,and maybe a couple of 4.0m defenders who are not necessarily nailed on.

Established wisdom under the microscope

The prevailing thought has always been to go cheap at the back and heavy at the front. However, players like Marcos Alonso challenged this train of thought by proving themselves essential to people’s teams last term. We also saw consistent attacking returns from other defenders during the season, such as Everton’s Seamus Coleman and WBA defenders like Gareth McCauley and Chris Brunt. Other defenders like Kyle Walker also proved value for money during the season (though I’d obviously argue that Ben Davies was the man to own at the season end!). With more and more teams, like Chelsea when they starting winning and Arsenal in the latter stages of the season, starting to use the formation 3-5-2 as the season progressed, I expect to see this trend to continue on next season with wing backs (still classified as defenders on FPL) offering explosive potential. Also, with the likes of James Milner (who is on pens) most likely reclassified as a defender next season maybe we should be asking: it is time to go big at the back?

When analysing this school of thought, I looked at the top 10 defenders, midfielders and attackers, and divided their overall score by their starting price, to reflect their ‘value for money.’  I’ve also included their minutes played as a caveat for players like Seamus Coleman who missed a large chunk of the season through injury.  I have excluded goalkeepers from this study.

If we are to rank all of these players by points per value we have a top 10 below:

Out of the top 10 value for money players we have 8 defenders. Personally I think that is pretty incredible. If we were to chart the top performing players per value at their price points this generates an optimised team of defenders, midfielders and attackers with a starting cost of 91 million. This gives us space to throw in Heaton and Pickford, widely viewed as the two best value keepers, for good measure.

An FPL team with those guys in (prices are as of end of GW38 in 16/17)

This team would be a strange looking one to have started the season with, though!

An unorthodox side

Imagine a scenario where you logged onto fantasy football scout and posted that team prior to Gameweek 1. It certainly would have raised some eyebrows, particularly for being weak going forward whilst being heavy on the defence – triple Chelsea at the back! However, this would also have been a very flexible team: you would have had plenty of assets on the bench in the event of rotation or injury, and you would have had the opportunity to experiment with a multitude of different formations.

Amazingly, if you had selected this team at the beginning of the season, with the captaincy stuck on Alexis Sanchez in a 3-5-2 – with Pickford McAuley, Daniels and Llorente on your bench (McAuley playing the first five games in Alonso’s absence) – you would have finished in the top 500 in the world. That’s without using any of the chips!

This is why next season I am seriously considering limiting the amount of heavy hitters I deploy in the offensive positions, and instead focusing on hunting down cheap but less popular picks like Josh King, thereby giving more love and attention to my defence. I am looking at James Milner, Marcus Alonso and Kyle Walker (dependent on the transfer window) as potential Gameweek 1 options due to the dual offer of both defensive and attacking returns for the same price (or indeed cheaper!) than the likes of Wijnaldum, Gray (Burnley), Rondon, Redmond or Shaqiri. I would even be tempted to break from the norm and play a 4-4-2, slotting in a cheap 4.5 defender into the team (from a club like WBA or Stoke), ditching that awkward misfiring third striker from the same sort of club right out my team!

The counterpoint

If you were to critique this strategy, however, you could definitely highlight the fact that there are fewer captaincy options – particularly in the front line. You could also validly raise the point that it would be more difficult to swap things around if a high value player not in your team suddenly became essential: think Kane or Aguero.  These guys are the life-blood of the FPL community teams, and by going without them you are participating in a high stakes gamble with the risk of a huge red arrow if you miss out on a haul.

The problem is that, in FPL, you cannot have everyone – certain sacrifices must be made. There is no way you can fit Lukaku, Kane, Morata (if he comes to England), Hazard and Sanchez all into one team without completely hamstringing the rest of your squad.  We tend to spend most of the season chasing these guys, hoping to catch them during their purple patches, or just ahead of when they get their hauls. However, by playing in this manner, the defence can be neglected and that Chelsea or Spurs defender who you really should have picked up in game week 8 is still missing from your team. Certain players are not popular, and do not attract attention. A key example is the aforementioned James Milner who, despite being on penalties and being a cheap midfielder in a free-scoring Liverpool team (certainly for the first half of the season), was never a popular pick – justified to a certain extent due to playing out of position (“reverse OOP”) in left back. However, he finished the season the ~33rd highest scorer, getting more point than the likes of Benteke, Negredo  and Deeney. If he had been classified as a defender, however, he would have been due an extra 30 points, excluding any more bonus points, putting him alongside the likes of Coutinho in terms of overall score.

Defenders fall into the ‘unpopular’ category often and it is reflected in football awards like the Ballon D’or with defenders very rarely being nominated!

Taking the plunge

In conclusion, I am going to take this risk next season and spend ‘big’ at the back.

One of the psychological impacts of FPL that Tom and I been discussing in relation to this article is ‘risk aversion’, which is when you default to the more “secure” options over taking a risk. I have often been guilty of this strategy by favouring the big guns going forward, rather than shoring things up at the back.

In previous seasons have I tended to have followed the herd, often to the detriment to my defence. There is a greater risk as well with spending in the back, as it is just one goal and you can see all your points disappear at once. My defence was doing terribly most of the season and is one of the reasons that I struggled at the beginning of the season. However, if I had gone for something radical, say the triple Chelsea at the back example referred to earlier, it may have paid off.

Later on in the season I did take some risks defensively, such as by doubling up on Man Utd and Southampton defence for a couple of game weeks near the end. Though it was highly stressful – particularly in that Utd v City goalless draw when Fellaini chose to headbutt Aguero for no real reason – the risk in that case actually paid off.

We shall have to see next season but, even if it is an epic fail, it will be a worthwhile experiment and at least will be an interesting ‘talking-point’ on the pod.