1. It’s time to round off our future trends series, for now at least, with the fixtures officially out and the game reopening on the week of 10th July putting our focus on new players and the teams to own players from.

In this article, I’m going to define once more the idea of the ‘meta’, and I’ll be examining – again through the lens of psychology – the biggest factor that we can’t control in FPL: luck.

More than anything, this makes it in to the series because it will continue to be a factor in FPL, however much we look at the numbers, understand our psychology as FPL managers or, indeed, pray to the FPL gods.

The scenario

After the deadline

As engaged FPL managers, we’ve all been there.

The previous weekend has gone, and you’ve (probably) gotten over whatever the outcome was – hopefully without the rage transfer on the Saturday night.

You’ve been thinking about what your key decisions are for next week:

  • For captaincy: who gets the armband?
  • For transfers: if you have 1FT, do you roll it, do just the one change or take a hit? If you (a rare occurrence for me) have 2FT, do you just do 1 change and keep the other FT in your back pocket, do both changes or, maybe, go for a “mini wildcard” for hit?

Sometimes it’s a quick decision – perhaps it’s a no-brainer, especially for captaincy choices, or it’s removing an injured or misfiring player.

Especially this season, you might have had to be quick because imminent price rises may have forced your hand.

Sometimes, however, it’s more of a slow burner for either/both decision(s), which quite possibly sees you doing some, or all of, the following:

  • Canvassing fellow fantasy head friends for their views on your possibilities
  • Checking Twitter to see what people (particularly trusted accounts) are saying
  • Posting comments on the Fantasy Football Scout (FFS) forums asking for advice
  • Checking stats, be it FFS’ if you’re a member or other resources
  • Reading the news and analysis from your media sources of choice
  • Going for the ultimate “hail Mary” and asking what your other half thinks you should do (usual answer: eye roll, and then the one they’ve heard of).

Whatever the case, you, as an engaged FPL manager, will take the decision that you feel is the best for your side, oftentimes having weighed up the pros and cons and made the choice that will, you’re 100% sure, guarantee you that explosive gameweek you’ve been craving.

But, when the weekend rolls around, it all goes wrong.

Your captain choice returns below the alternative that you’d considered but ultimately cast aside. Your new man/men blank, gets benched, and/or are outscored by those you transferred out.

This means despair.

As Robert Burns noted (in the days before FPL was on the interwebs… and before the interwebs… and before FPL for that matter):

The best laid schemes o’mice an’ men

Gang aft a-gley.

(Loose translation: despite the your best intentions and efforts, sometimes things just go wrong)

So, what happened?

The meta

Herd is the word

What the little story above – which I’m sure will resonate with the majority of readers of this blog post – shows is that you, as an engaged FPL manager, are liable to have been influenced by the I have previously outlined. Conversely, your more “casual” mates/rivals do not tend to be as influenced by this.

Let’s be perfectly clear what I mean by the meta.

My definition of this is: “the popular opinion of what is best strategy to meet the evolving challenges of FPL, week-by-week”.

As I said in a previous blog post on this, this is driven by “herd mentality” – the psychological tendency to follow the crowd, rooted in twin impulses of fear and greed. This can be by directly reading advice on Twitter, or by being driven by behavioural cues, such as looking a t price rise trends to understand which players you should be looking to get in (and how quickly).

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, this tendency makes complete sense. Imagine the mindset of a figurative caveperson (whom we are not too far removed from). Imagine, suddenly, some food becomes available to you – let’s say a dead antelope or something is brought back to your cave – and you see others start eating it . Caveperson-you would want to get in on the action as well: your survival instinct kicks in, and you don’t want to go without and die (fear) and you want to be nourished and survive another day (greed).

(This can obviously be linked to an array of other emotions and impulses psychologically, like jealousy, but let’s keep this streamlined for now.. we will talk about these other things on the pod as the year progresses)

Let’s apply this to FPL: when you’re looking for the best decision to make for your team, you are liable to being influenced swept along by popular opinion. Lots of people, fishing in a fairly limited set of players, will make a similar decision about what’s the best choice for many questions. Checking many sources for information to help you make your decision exposes you to the prevailing ideas in the FPL community – you’re being influenced by the meta.

Again, we see herd mentality at play in people’s behaviour and decisions they make: greed, because we desire the points output from the players in fashion, and fear, because we don’t want to miss out on the points output from that choice. Though these decisions change in terms of their form as the season progresses, the end result is always the same: you are likely to, quite rightly, be swayed by this simple logic and react to the meta by joining the herd. Survival instinct.

The meta, should you follow it, can lead you to success. Consider not owning Alexis Sanchez for large swathes of the kingdom. Or being oblivious to Spurs as they exploded. Or not owning Joshua King. The chances are that, most of the time, what the many are doing you should probably be doing too. The wisdom of the crowd – the mentality of the herd – is usually (for the reasons I’ve outlined above) completely correct.

However, that’s not always true.

Sometimes the meta gets it completely wrong – through no fault of it’s own. The problem is that we can calculate, weigh up the odds, play the percentages and do our utmost to make the best decisions, using all the information available to us (which includes the output of other doing the exact same thing). But, we ultimately need luck to help our plans come to fruition.

The irritating truth is that random chance plays a big part of our game: sometimes, you’ll invariably get decisions – in some cases, the “big decisions” – completely wrong, just by following an innate human instinct that serves you so well otherwise.

The example

Hazard warning

Cast your mind back to Gameweek 11 of this term, the weekend of 5th November. The pivotal thing in that week was that, as Alexis Sanchez blanked at home in the North London derby (with an awkward looking tie away at United next), in west London Eden Hazard banged in two goals and made another for a rampant looking Chelsea, scoring 19 points with Boro up next, but with poorer ties (tot, MCI) on the horizon.

It very quickly became a case of “what do I do?” The majority owned Sanchez, at 11.3m at that time, but the alluring Hazard promised similar output plus an extra 1.4m in the bank at only 9.9m.

That question took over the meta that week. FFS blew up with those claiming their prophetic power on the matter (e.g. “Had Haz the last two weeks, © today :sunglasses:”), those desperately clambering on board (“Haz in for a hit? On a -8… Posted Saturday, 17:00”) and those unsure of what do to (“Haz in for A) Sanchez ...” ). I imagine Twitter was eagerly debating this, too.

FFS frontman Mark Sutherns had been mentioning Hazard for quite a few weeks already on the new FPL show, and said on the week after Hazard’s explosion that:

“I didn’t really see him doing what he did against Everton, that surprised me. And now it’s just so difficult to ignore him. He’s on set pieces. He’s on penalties. He’s one of the only few midfield players to be on penalties…. Chelsea’s fixtures are so strong: everything points to getting in Hazard.”

FPL Show 11th Nov, 05:45 – 06:12

And the stats were absolutely on his side. If you’re an FFS member, run a comparison between Sanchez and Hazard GW 10-12. Here’s Squawka’s comparison:

This shows that Hazard (with a performance score, roughly analogous to the bonus system, of 276) was significantly outperforming Sanchez (91).

The meta completely bought into it meaning that many went for the switcheroo: we were scared of missing out on another explosion, and wanted that explosion in our points totals, plus that extra 1.4m or so for our teams. He had poor upcoming fixtures (Spurs home, City away) but he was in such good form that he was passing every conceivable “eye test” across any information source you happened upon.

Sanchez saw minus 133,760 as his net transfers, whereas Hazard was welcomed into 336,401 teams. Including mine.

In the next gameweek, Hazard blanked but kept a clean sheet and came away with a random bonus for 4, and Sanchez blanked totally for the 2. Phew, we thought.

The next couple of gameweeks, however, would prove awful if you did to the change: Sanchez scored a brace to help Arsenal beat Bournemouth 3-1 (14pts), and then would score a hattrick and supply an assist in a 5-1 thumping of West Ham (23 pts). Our new man Haz couldn’t muster anything in the 2-1 beating of Spurs (2 pts), and scored 1 in the 3-1 away loss to City (9 points).

A total swing of 26 points (37-11).

The meta was completely right. But following it turned out to be completely wrong.

In my view, nothing was to blame except luck. Who was to say that Hazard would suddenly stop producing from an FPL point of view, with 5 goals and 2 assists in his last 5 games? Who was to say that Sanchez, whose form was patchy (2 goals and 1 assist in the same period) was worth keeping? OK the fixtures for Hazard weren’t as good as Sanchez’s, but the stats said that Hazard was in unstoppable form whereas Sanchez could be covered by other Gunners such as Walcott and Giroud.

In many ways, random chance, as per the event above, had a hugely negative impact on my season, and many other’s too. I would’ve been in the top 20k if I’d have kept Sanchez, maybe in the top 10k if things such as my issues with the early captain were solved earlier.

The fact is, despite how intelligent we are in our analysis, there’s sometimes very little we can do when luck doesn’t go our way.

Rounding off the series

It can hit hard
Credit: SONY DSC

Why have I ended on the series (for now, anyway) on this note?

Well, I think it’s just because, having thought about FPL deeply for a little while, I do need to sometimes take a step back and recognise it’s meant to be fun. And part of that fun is the random part of the game, the luck element, that I have little control over. Past 11:30am on Saturday (or whenever the deadline is) I am literally powerless to change events, no matter how well I’ve set up my team nor how informed the decision I made.

We can layer on analysis and do a strong job in explaining why some – maybe most – things happen. But, equally, some curveballs can only be explained by the luck factor in FPL.

This is a future trend because it’s inevitably going to play a big part in FPL. Always has, always will.

So I say let’s embrace it. We can use our brains and our biases to help carve out the best chance of succeeding, week-by-week, meta-by-meta, but we need to accept that luck will play a factor.

At Who Got The Assist?, we’ll be measuring this all season through what we’ll call the WAG choice. Each Gameweek, we will ask our partners (Nick’s wife, my girlfriend, hence WAG) for their captain choices as non-engaged individuals, and measure their results versus our choices week-by-week to see how luck fares against our highly involved choices.

All you can do is be mindful of your decisions, listen to our pod, read our blog, and, of course, read and listen to everyone else in the really cool FPL community. We’ll do our best to assist you in cutting through to the crux of what’s going on in the meta to inform your decision making.

But luck will always play a huge role in FPL, and sometimes we’ll have to hold our hands up – either as a differential voice as a part of the herd – and say, you know what, we just got unlucky.