The early captaincy conundrum

My big weakness

As Nick rightfully mentioned on our maiden pod (starting at 24:33), perhaps one of my biggest weaknesses on FPL is my huge reluctance to captain an early game candidate for the armband.

I absolute hate doing it. I feel like the risk of it going wrong is too much for me to take the gamble.

Yes, I know it’s only a matter of two-and-a-half hours between the 12:30 game and the 3pm kick-offs (the earliest point at which I would countenance my captain playing). But, to my irrational mind, that time makes all the difference, and feels an absolute age.

The way I see it, if my captain has completely blanked in the early game, I’ll be playing catch up straight away, I’ll be thinking that I have a write-off of a game week, and, most importantly (especially for my girlfriend’s sake), I’ll be very grumpy for the rest of the weekend.

FPL is one of those rare things that can affect your mood very powerfully based on its result. We’ve all experienced the highs: your captain smashing it out of the park; an anti-meta punt paying off; a goal from one of your defenders going in at the last minute to ‘save’ your gameweek. But we’ve all experienced the lows, too: captain off injured in the first half; the guy you were thinking of getting in destroying whilst your actual choice blanks; a last-minute goal ruining a precious clean sheet.

And those lows are what I personally focus on, and try to mitigate, when I’m making probably the biggest choice in FPL: who to armband each week.

We know, from sources like this incredibly in-depth recent post by Rob Fraser on Triggerlips (Nick Cummings’ site) that the captaincy assumes great importance in FPL. It’s the often differentiation between a good week and a mediocre/bad one. If you land a differential captain, a green arrow is surely yours. If you have a captain fail, your week, barring a superlative performance from the rest of your squad, is likely to end in a red arrow. Your decision has huge consequences.

As a result of this, the captaincy decision, and the consequence of that decision, takes on a huge psychological importance for FPL managers.

For me, all of this manifests itself in a psychological impact known as affective forecasting.

What is affective forecasting?

Affective forecasting is when people (like yours truly) routinely mispredict how much emotional impact (either positively or negatively) their decisions will have on the happiness of their future self.

OK, you might think: I’m actually quite good at predicting that. You might reason that you know that if you decide to go to the dodgy fried chicken place for dinner, you’re likely to have an upset stomach, so you’ll definitely avoid getting your dinner from there.

Well yes, that’s true, in that case, it’s definitely correct that you can predict how you’ll feel in the future and make a good decision to avoid a negative outcome.

However, numerous psychological studies have shown that, for more complex decisions than simple cause-and-effect scenarios (as in the fried chicken example above), introducing extra dimensions into the decision-making process can cause people to make decisions which are actively detrimental to their future happiness. This is especially true of decisions that have a social element, which is relevant to FPL: think competitive mini leagues and all the banter that comes with it, or the competition you’re in with more than 4 million FPL managers worldwide for OR.

This is particularly related to a concept called focalism, which, as the name suggests, is when you focus disproportionately on certain details of an event, ignoring other factors. Confirmation bias (which we will cover in the future) is also at play – the idea that you favour a certain concept above others, and emphasise information that proves your theory whilst disregarding evidence to the opposite.

This is especially true for me when it comes to the early captain.

My affective forecasting is rooted in the first bad run-in I had with the early captaincy, one weekend back in September 2013 (2 seasons ago) when I handed the armband to that unit of a man, Christian Benteke (or, as we FPL managers know him, Tekkers).

The root cause

Bad memories for Tom!

Villa were away at Norwich that week. It was my first season as an active FPL manager, having recently gotten my first real job and, more importantly, joined my first ever (and still going strong) competitive, cash mini league.

It was a 12:45 kick-off. Tekkers had scored five goals already that season, which was pretty decent for Gameweek 6. For that, and for probably a few other reasons which I now can’t quite recall, I had decided to wrap the armband around his (formidable) bicep for the weekend.

I remember watching the game itself on Sky in my flat. I don’t remember too much about the early stages. But I do remember Sebastian Bassong flying in on Tekkers, and jumping off my seat in terror as they collided.

Tekkers walked off the pitch, seemingly pulling himself up without difficulty from the crumpled heap the Norwich man’s challenge had left him in.

OK, I thought, he’ll be fine… he’ll be fine…

But I vividly remember when he tried to come back on, and his grimace as the pain of his injury saw him slump to the ground once more.

The shattering realisation that he couldn’t continue was my first real taste of that sense of depressing, maddening FPL frustration.

Tekker’s game was over. It was a 2-point performance: the dreaded captaincy fail.

It had promised so much, but it had all gone horribly, spectacularly wrong. And I was very grumpy for the rest of the weekend.

I vowed to never to captain the early captain again.

The after effects

For the rest of that season, and also during last season, I studiously avoided captaining any early options.

I got away with it to some extent: despite some tough (but ultimately futile) competition in our mini-league, superior deployment of the BB and TC chips saw me win at a canter in the end in 15/16. This meant I never had to re-examine my strategy.

This season, however, things changed.

I continued with my strict “no captain in the early match” policy.

It was seemingly working early on, with Costa away to Hull in Gameweek 7 returning 24 (12×2; goal and assist and 3bp), the first time an early captain (Kaku home v Palace, with an 8 point return) had been on my radar.

But, after that, things took a real turn for the worse: as Nick pointed out to me on the pod, my affective forecasting cost me big. Also, I’d imagine that if you share my aversion to the early captaincy, it’s likely that a lot of my decisions were mirrored in what you did with your own sides, too.

Here’s the data:

As you can see, on the occasions Nick picked out where it was a feasible option to captain early, only two of the times I ignored that option (highlighted in yellow) went in my favour.

Cumulatively, I lost out on a (hardly insignificant) twenty-five points because of my affective forecasting weakness. This leaves me with an interesting “what if” as, if I hadn’t have had that negative experience with Benteke in September 2013, I may have not had an aversion to the early armband, and maybe gotten a long way toward the top 10k finish I craved, maybe to 11-14k from my actual 21k finish (I was 38 points off the top 10k in the end).

And, who knows? Maybe it would’ve galvanised me if I’d gotten the monkey off my shoulder early (say, Costa in GW8): I might’ve considered the others more, and gained a lot of momentum through captaining one of them instead of who I went with in reality. Maybe I’d have gotten into the top 10k, or maybe even matched last year’s 2.3k PB finish, freed from the psychological state of being in ‘catch up mode’, which influenced some terrible decisions (Charlie Austin gate springs to mind!)

The point is that, through my inability to recognise how my bias was negatively affecting my performance, I didn’t do as well this season as I’d hoped at the beginning of it.

Understanding that now, through Nick’s analysis (and also through the rose-tinted glass of hindsight), should help me become a better player going forward.

A quick caveat

I did actually captain in the early game once last season.

As I said on the pod when I captained Ibra v. WAT (10pts) and ignored Sanchez v HUL (30pts with armband, a -20 swing), which spectacularly backfired, I did begin to think it wasn’t perhaps the best idea to be ignoring the early captain (which also was the inspiration for this article, a good 4 months later)!

This meant that in Gameweek 33, when an on-fire Spurs had Bournemouth at home, I grudgingly put the captaincy on Eriksen, who scored me 14 points (7×2). It was the best decision for my team that week. However, my neglecting to get Kane (12pts, a goal and assist plus 3bp) back in after his injury (instead opting to bring Vertonghen in for the rotation-risk Valencia) rained on my parade.

Why is this a future trend?

Well, for me, it’s certainly a future trend as I won’t be so reticent to captain early anymore.

Writing this article through revisiting Nick’s in depth research on my poor performance around early captaincy, has proved that I need try to look past my affective forecasting.

However, this is without factoring one of the big unanswered questions about the previous season’s football in terms of scheduling.

Last year, Friday Night Football launched – to a decidedly mixed reception. We don’t know if Sky will continue to push ahead with it and make it a regular thing, but if they do it’s fair to say that they always try to move schedules around the 3pm blackout in the UK, as they are keen to get out as much live football (and attract as many eyeballs and therefore subscribers) as possible.

So it’s a good bet that it might return.

If this is the case, inevitably there will come a game that is “big ticket” on a Friday night, which will prove the ultimate test of my new thinking around early captains, plus also for the many other managers (judging by FFS comments each week) who think like I do about it.

Imagine a Friday night Spurs v. Huddersfield. Could I really talk myself out of Kane captain?

In conclusion, it might be time to put to bed the myth that the early captain isn’t good for us.

But, if the 2-and-a-half hours between the early Saturday game and the 3pm kick-offs are ages, then the gap between the Friday evening 8pm match and the 12:30/3pm kick-offs will be an eternity.

Will we (or I as an individual) be able to truly get over our affective forecasting and take the plunge on a Friday night?

It’ll be fascinating to see next season.