The Death of the Third Striker

This is part of our series of build up articles for the new season. In our article on Points Per Cost I made the observation that forwards in general represent poorer value in the game. We explore this in more detail below. 

Background

The third striker has always been one of the most awkward positions in FPL to fill.

Unless you go for something of a ‘power front three’ with all premium forwards, there has always been a choice to make for you in terms of this third slot, who tends to be a player around 6.0m – 7.5m in value (should you be adopting a 3-4-3).

However, in FPL in the past few seasons, filling up this slot has been particularly frustrating. There have been many cases of players in recent years that have driven managers mad, like Callum Wilson‘s feast or famine tendencies, or Tom’s ‘bete noir’ Salomon Rondon.

All of this means that most managers will have more negative stories than positive ones about the third striker spot.

In this article, I am going to make the case that, to achieve the greatest success in FPL, you must consider this position dead.

Nine is the magic number

Icon by Karthik M from the Noun Project

One preliminary observation is that, in other fantasy football games, the forward position is considered differently. This is illustrated in games like Yahoo Daily Fantasy and Fan Duel where the attacking wingers such as Alexis Sanchez are also considered forwards. This was also the case in World Cup Fantasy, where a whole host of midfielders from the Premier League were given the forward classification. In fact, in the case of Victor Moses, he went from being listed as a Defender in FPL to a Forward in World Cup Fantasy!

However, to fit the classification of a Forward in FPL (before this season reopened in any case), due to the way that Premier League teams set up these days, a player had to be playing in the traditional number 9 role to get in the Forward category.

Gone are the days where you would see Premier League teams line up in 4-4-2 formation with 2 traditional forwards. Most teams play with attacking wingers that FPL consider to be midfielders, offering them a big advantage in terms of their FPL point scoring potential.

If you look across the Premier League and really have a think of those talismen that play up front and lead their teams by scoring lots of goals, you instantly think of Harry Kane. After you reminisce about all the goals he scored last season, you may move on and start thinking of Romelu Lukaku. After that, Jamie Vardy may come to your thoughts, perhaps Roberto Firmino, but beyond these guys you’re really going to struggle to pick out a star Forward that played every game for their club last season.

Of course, Manchester City have Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus and Arsenal have Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but with uncertainty for starts (particularly for the City duo), how confident can we be that these players will lead the line for their teams next season?The same can be said for Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata. However, all of these players would fit into the premium category and, when on form, in the most part they will be worth the investment.

The focus, however, of this piece is the third striker, a non-captaincy option who you use what remains of your budget to fit into your team. We will therefore be focusing on the lower reaches of the Premier League and when you do this analysis the shortage of options is really brought out to the fore.

A few of us flirted with the likes of Ayoze Perez, Glenn Murray and Jordan Ayew but even these guys could not maintain any real form or even a starting berth in their teams. Elsewhere we saw Southampton swap their strikers (Charlie Austin, Manolo “Pen Miss” Gabbiadini and Shane “Non goalscoring forward” Long) on a regular basis, Watford switching between Andre Gray and Troy Deeney and the likes of Callum Wilson and Joshua King were not consistent with Bournemouth.

Instead it was often midfield counterparts that drew the plaudits in FPL terms rather then the forwards – see (the now reclassified) Zaha instead of Benteke for Palace, or similarly Arnautovic instead of Hernandez/Carroll for West Ham and Gross instead of Murray for Brighton. These midfielders proved much better value than their forward thinking team mates. Of course Zaha and Arnautovic this season have seen reclassifications and, because of their talisman status, are also featuring heavily in most people’s drafts.

Meddling with Mitrovic? 

(Image: South Shields Gazette)

I saw a number of tweets about Aleksander Mitrovic (likely to be 6.5 this season if he signs for Fulham) during the World Cup, and a suggestion made that he would be a player that would be frustrating to own. My advice would be not to therefore play him at all.

But the thing is, if we are going to be extremely ambitious and say he scores 10 goals and also gets 10 assists and plays every single game, picking up 20 bonus points as part of his efforts, he could score 166 points, which would be an impressive return. However, in this hypothetical, brilliant season for Mitrovic, he still wouldn’t have outscored Azpilicueta, who started this season at 6.5 and as a mainstay in the Chelsea defence (in a season where Chelsea weren’t that impressive) managed a return of 175 points.

Reviewing the released prices further, Callum Wilson, another player that many found frustrating to own, is 6.0 this season, as is Andre Gray. They’re both more expensive than Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal who have both been priced at 5.5. My question would be that, seeing as neither Gray nor Wilson have been able to match Monreal or Bellerin’s FPL points output in any of the seasons they have played in the Premier League, then why would you pick a 6.0 forward and own a very unlikely to play 4.0 defender, rather than a 5.5 defender who will outscore that 6.0 forward and a very unlikely to play 4.5 forward?

If we were to drill down more heavily into last year’s data, we will find that this is backed up more credibly across the board. This is reflected in the data sets first published in our points per cost analysis:

No strikers appear in the top 20 for points per cost. Firmino is 50th!

As mentioned previously, there wasn’t a single forward who proved themselves as truly good value for money. Even discounting the appearance points, the best value forward (Firmino) was outscored by 10 defenders and 17 midfielders.

The problem

As you may have realised, I am essentially campaigning here that we ditch the third striker altogether and invest our money more wisely in midfielders and defenders who are likely to provide you with less frustration and much better returns for the same price.

However, you cannot scrap this position completely, and have to fill it up somehow.  If you don’t have a player priced at 6.0 or above, you are going to have to write-off a bench position by putting in someone (e.g. a 4.0 defender) who isn’t likely to play week in, week out.

Now, there is the off chance that a 4.5 striker does emerge – and if that is the case you are laughing. But, normally, their output isn’t anything to write home about (see your Colin Quaners or Victor Anichebes). In comparison, there are a lot of good value options at 4.5m in defence or midfield who emerge, with the likes of the Burnley defence and Luka Milivojevic last season proving particularly good value for money in among a plethora of options (though this year 4.5m midfielders seem thin on the ground).

Regardless, if you have used the extra money by downgrading your third forward, you should have enough money in the bank that the rest of your bench is covered with playing options.

Looking at a budget of 4.5 to spend on your third forward, the options are Colin Quaner and well.. not much else. Maybe Aboubakar Kamara, a player who scored seven times in 30 appearances last season (but also got seven cautions and one red) could be another option. Many will also, due to budget constraints use one slot with a non-playing 4.0 defender – I’ve opted to do this in the past.

However, now I think the optimal play is kill one of your forward slots.

An alternative

Maybe you are tearing your hair out reading this, thinking I am not going to win anything with an ultra-defensive five key men at the back type strategy and that playing with fewer forwards means less options for captaincy and less potential for explosive returns – remembering bang theory.

There is an alternative, and that is the premium front line.

The reclassification of Zaha and Arnautovic mentioned earlier has accommodated this option, and you could potentially have both of those guys alongside the likes of Firmino and still have a healthy 76.5 million to spend on your side. But when you start to extend the budget to fit the likes of Kane, Lukaku and Aubameyang all into your team, that’s when you will start to run into budget constraints. You’ll solve this either by crippling your defence or sacrificing your premium midfielders like Salah, or others like Eriksen and Sane.

The problem is that players in midfield and defence proved themselves better value to own than any forward in the game.

In conclusion

Now I may end up with egg on my face as there is that risk that a good value striker really hits the ground running this season as one of the smaller clubs in the Premier League hits a rich vein of form.

There are also a couple of cheaper forwards that could easily have great seasons, Chris Wood and Charlie Austin, two that spring to mind. Maybe Marko Arnautovic or Wilfried Zaha will be an ideal companion to a Kane and Aubameyang premium pairing.

However, as is the experience of the last few seasons, it has been the midfielders instead that have most recently been the best value players offensively in FPL, particularly those playing as forward wingers for their clubs.

Last season I played a 4-3-3 as my starting line up as I made the case for going big at the back, looking at the output of the likes of Kyle Walker and Gary Cahill against similarly priced players in midfield and up front.

This was a formation that paid off very well for me initially but there was still a third striker that consistently let me down and I missed out on decent returns from the likes of Gross, Shaqiri and Doucoure in midfield.

This season my approach has evolved somewhat with aim of a flexible 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 formation, with two 4.5 defenders that can easily drop in and out of the first team, a 4.5 forward and a 4.5-5.5 5th midfielder.

This also appears to have been intuitively understood by the community, with a striker set up of Premium/7.0/4.5 now seeming commonplace in drafts we’re seeing, and indeed in our own set ups. Only Sørloth at 5.0 appears to buck this trend, but even he appears to be being included as a sub option rather than a regular starter.

Time will only tell whether this will bring success or failure as we prepare for another season of FPL action, but I am convinced of at least starting the season to come on the proviso that the third striker is a dead position to me.