Friday, December 13, 2013

Going streaking

Whether you're lucky enough to still have your original wildcard stashed away in your back pocket or not, as we approach the second wildcard window, it's worthwhile putting together a transfer plan to best exploit the fixtures on offer. We have at least four transfers before then (GW16-19) followed by the important period right after we play the wildcard, so with that in mind, let's try and identify a few fixture streaks during which we might want to target specific players.

For simplicity I've only looked at streaks of four gameweeks here. In reality we might want to dig deeper into streaks where you like three out of four games, or four out of six, but this is the starting point, for better or worse. Double gameweeks will also likely cause chaos at some point too, but without knowing where or when they'll strike, their impact is ignored for now.

The below table shows the expected goal total over the four highlighted games above or (below) the team average. So a score of -1.5 suggests that the model believes Arsenal will score 1.5 less goals over those four games than their average GPG to date would suggest (that GPG is based on actual goals scored/conceded, not regressed or expected goals).

I'm going to keep the analysis brief as this data really speaks for itself, but there are a few comments to make on a couple of these streaks.

Arsenal and Liverpool have been firm favourites of fantasy managers to date, yet appear to be risky investments in the immediate future based on the above (more on Arsenal in the longer term below). Both face three away games in the next four, including trips to the likes of the Etihad, Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane. Does this mean you should be targeting Suarez and Ramsey for sale? Probably not, as they still do very well in the weekly rankings, but the lesser players from those sides should be considered expendable, particularly on the defensive end of the pitch.

Sunderland look like they enjoy incredibly easy fixtures as they're forecast to well exceed their goals scored and conceded tallies to date. However, this is more a product of the model thinking they've been somewhat unfortunate to date rather than the fixtures being unbelievably favourable. Saying that, over the next eight gameweeks they do get a number of promising fixtures (NOR, @CAR, AVL, @FUL, SOU, STK) so players such as Giaccherini or Johnson could make useful 4th midfielder types in paired with the right complementary piece.

The model loves Arsenal after GW19, and well it might given their fixture list of @NEW, CAR, @AVL, FUL, @SOU and CRY. This is one situation when careful planning is required, as to potentially get a 1.5 goal bonus on top of the excellent form this team has already shown suggests we should really be trying to squeeze an extra Gunner in our team for this period (the start of that period nicely coincides with the opening of the transfer window so they should be a hot commodity for wildcarding teams).

Another team whose assets you will want to maximise coming out of the transfer window is Man City. They get CRY, @SWA, @NEW and CAR from GW19 - 22, a period of fixtures that suggests we should try and squeeze at least one more attacking player into our sides alongside the presumably ever present Aguero. It isn't always easy to identify such players in this changeable City side, so here's hoping we're seeing some vintage David Silva play by the time Santa delivers that appetising run of games.

West Brom are a massively underrated defensive side with ownership numbers of 3.0% or less across the whole back five. Granted, the results of late have taken a turn for the worse (no clean sheets in the last five games) but they still boast excellent +/- scores of -19% at home and away and have four teams on deck who are all struggling for goals right now (@CAR, HUL, @TOT, @WHU).

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Second Act

As we all know, the fantasy season does not comprise 38 independent events. Medium and even long term plans need to be put in place based on the next 'x' number of games and over-reliance on the now can handcuff your team in the future. Though all teams are constructed differently and thus will encounter these periods at different times, there are also overarching factors which impact all (or at least most) teams in the same way.

Sometimes these are obvious, such as the opening of the second-wildcard transfer window or the real-life transfer window which potential opens the door to new options for our teams. On other occasions, however, the trends are tougher to spot, especially when we're in the eye of them (they are much easier to see with hindsight). We are potentially at a changing point for one of these period-changes.

Like any mostly free market, the demand for players will settle into something of an equilibrium, and for most managers the leading role in determining their level of demand is past performance (yes, if you're reading this you'll almost certainly place more emphasis on future forecasts, but we'd still be hesitant to back a player with a terrible points tally to date, no matter what his underlying data suggested).

Consider the below chart:

Ignoring defenders and 'keepers for a second (whose ownership numbers tend to be a bit more unpredictable), we see just eight players who've amassed 50 or more points and are still owned by less than 10% of managers. 16 such players are owned by 10%+ with half of those owned by a full 20% or more. This is always going to be the case to a degree (the best players, or at least those with the best results, attract the most managers), but it seems as though we're reaching a critical mass with regards to this trend. 

Just look at this past gameweek. Nine midfielders and forwards managed to notch double figures but four of them seemed to be owned by everyone (Suarez, Yaya, Ozil and Hazard) and four were - justifiably - owned by no one (Oviedo, Delph, Agbonlahor and Dyer) with Lampard being the sole occupier of the middle ground. Throw in decent contributions from other favourites like Aguero, Ramsey and Lukaku and you're left with a situation where unless you owned all four star performers, a couple of the middle guys and notched a couple of clean sheets, you probably ended up losing ground in the overall leaderboard this week (my own team lost over 4,000 places despite what appeared on its face to be a very healthy 88 point week). 
This all conspires to a very long winded way of saying it's time to push for differentiation.

Now, before we delve into names, let's just lay down a couple of ground rules on what we really mean by this. First, differentiation just for the sake of it should not be pursued. Sometimes there are good reasons for people to be suspicious of a given player and a need to 'stand out' shouldn't interfere with the ultimate goal of points maximisation. Second, even at this relatively early stage of the season, different teams will have different appetite for differentiation based on their league position and objectives. If you've amassed a 100 point lead in your mini league, and your ultimate goal is to win that, rather than strive for the highest overall points finish, then picking Yaya Toure - who is owned by your next three closest competitors - makes more sense than if you're in the chasing pack. I would personally caution against such 'defensive' moves this early in the season, but that's something for each manager to decide.

With the customary caveats in place, let's have a look at some of the most widely owned players right now and see if we can find some reasonable alternatives. For the sake of repetition avoidance, I'll add this disclaimer here just once. These are ideas designed to give some fresh thought to what is becoming an increasingly stagnant fantasy season. I wouldn't (indeed won't ) make the majority of them and I fully understand that they will all likely involve a lot more risk than sticking with who we "know" will have future success (this in itself is a misnomer, but that's a point for another day.

Aaron Ramsey (62% owned)
The Welshman's 62% ownership number is a huge outlier in the earlier chart, though in all honesty, this number could really have peaked higher given the way he's played to date (the 'real' ownership number is much higher, of course, as that 62% is based on a denominator which includes a lot of teams who have gone untouched since GW1 and still roll out the likes of Podolski (1%), Adebayor (0.7%) and Zaha (1.3%)). Ramsey simply leads all midfielders in total points despite opening the year with a price tag of 3.0m+ less than all his closest rivals and appears to have turned the corner from 'someday prospect' to 'everyday star'. 
The model supports Ramsey's high ownership to a degree as his 61 xP ranks 3rd among midfielders (behind the surprising Gerrard and Hazard) but it also suggests that his future forecast is closer to players available for comparable prices and thus he isn't an automatic pickup. Let's filter our data to highlight a couple of options. We're looking for a player who:
  • is available for close to Ramsey's price (we'll give ourselves a 1.0m variance, so a maximum of 8.3m),
  • gets a sufficient number of chances per game (more than 1.0 SiB per 90 minutes),
  • does something with those chances (more than 0.75 SoT per 90 minutes) without benefiting from unsustainable good fortune (SoT% of 50% or less), and
  • can also contribute in the assist department (more than 1.0 CC per 90 minutes)

There's some intrigue here for sure, with Paulinho's 1.9 SiB90 and Sigurdsson's 1.4 SoT90 jumping off the page. However, the first Spurs man seems to be taking too many ill advised shots given his 32% SoT% rate while his Icelandic teammate is hitting the target with long range efforts, but as we know, these tend to hit the back of the net with less regularity than those from close range. Mirallas is probably the safest play here given his solid returns and supporting data yet his tendency to be withdrawn early in games and a lack of explosive upside makes it really tough to part ways with Ramsey for the Belgian wide man right now. As keen as I am to suggest alternatives to Ramsey and as likely it is that he regresses in the coming weeks, no obvious one-for-one replacement is apparent. As we move into wildcard season though, alternative arrangements should certainly be considered.

Yaya Toure (38%)
Here we're looking for reliability. Yaya has about as high of a floor as you can find and can contribute solid value over virtually any stretch of games. To replace him, we're therefore looking for the below attributes:
  • ability to score with some consistency (more than 0.75 SiB)
  • maximises his opportunities (more than 0.75 SoT)
  • strong chance at assists (more than 1.1 CC)
  • plays consistently (more than 900 minutes played or return from injury will guarantee playing time)
  • less than 10% ownership (if we're sacrificing his consistency we need to make gains on a lot of other managers)

Of all the alternatives looked at today, this is probably the one that makes the most sense. Some of the best options here currently carry injury concerns so may not considered immediately (Walcott, Michu and Silva) but Coutinho looks well healed and took up some very promising positions in Sturridge's absence, behind the all conquering Suarez these past couple of weeks. Though it's a tiny sample size and too much weight shouldn't be placed on this data set, the fact that Walcott has tripled Toure's SiB90, doubled his SoT90 and doubled his CC90 suggests he could offer significant upside when healthy and should be monitored closely for signs that he's back in Wenger's first team plans. Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't draw some attention to Frank Lampard who in many ways looks exactly like Yaya Toure, just with a lower G/SoT rate. Lampard's currently sits at 33% versus a 42% career rate while the Ivorian's is hovering around 64% compared to a career rate of 30%. If it's reliability you desire, it seems that Lampard should be able to fill a similar role for 2.0m less and with a quarter as many managers sharing in your spoils.

Luis Suarez (39%) / Sergio Aguero (33%)
We're not looking for much here. We just need someone who is averaging over three shots a game, with two on target and . . . ok we can stop now because we've already filtered the entire league. Only five other regular starters (Lukaku, Sturridge, van Persie, Grioud and Remy) are able to average as many SiB as this pair have averaged SoT and none of that group come close to boasting the assist potential of this elite duo. I hate the label "must own" and for the most part this has been wrongly attributed to various players over the years but right now the only real argument against owning this duo is one of value as you could go with a Lukaku-Giroud-Remy trio and save at least 4.0m, but then it isn't really clear who you'd then spend that surplus on. The return from injury of Benteke, Sturridge and van Persie will at least swell the pool of players who could threaten this pair's dominance but of of now, the only reason to look elsewhere would be injury to either of these forwards.

Olivier Giroud (34%)
Given what we've said about Suarez and Aguero above, Giroud is essentially competing with every other forward in the league for the right to be your third front man. Though Giroud does offer some assist potential, we can't be too choosy as we slide down the price list, so to fill this role we're merely looking for a player who:
  • offers a consistent goal threat (over two SiB per 90 minutes),
  • costs the same or less than Giroud (with Suarez and Aguero we're already in danger of committing too much cash to our front men with Giroud),
  • is owned by less than 12% managers (that cut off is clearly fixed so I can include Benteke
  • offers some threat of assists (more than 1.0 CC per 90 minutes)

Giroud has enjoyed a great season to date but all of the above options either strong differentiation potential, cost savings, or both, and given Arsenal's fixtures in the immediate future, this is one move that could be considered for sooner rather than later.

Ross Barkley (28%)

I would imagine a fair number of Barkley's owners still hold him due to more pressing issues in their teams eating up weekly transfers, but still, he's held by an awful lot of managers and with wildcard season approaching, we should be considering everyone's place in our respective squads. There are several options to really like here with Arnautovic particularly catching the eye. The Stoke man has taken a very healthy share of shots given his price bracket, even if the number of target somewhat disappoints. However, his 20% SoT% rate is well below the 33% rate he posted in the Bundesliga while at Bremen and so if that number starts to track back towards his expected average, it should give him a profile to far exceed the somewhat mediocre prospects of the majority of his peers. Digging deeper we have Redmond who is enjoying his prolonged run in the Norwich side following their rash of injuries, and even deeper we have the highly rated Jonny Williams who has finally returned for Palace and could offer intriguing value at just 4.3m. In short, this is a category with a good number of alternatives and if you've transfers to spare, Barkley's waning fortunes should really be taken notice of.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Getting defensive

Attack-minded defenders have long been considered one of the key ingredients to a successful fantasy team, and while I may personally suggest this quest is sometimes overpursued, there's no arguing with the overall premise that such a player can be extremely valuable.

Two issues arise though.

First, managers tend to overvalue this threat, paying huge premiums which simply cannot be justified. The most obvious example of this in recent times has been Leighton Baines (who has rarely justified the huge premium required to get him) though we've seen similar trends in the past with the likes of Thomas Vermaelen, Nemandja Vidic and even Joleon Lescott.

Second, managers tend to overvalue past success, which can be ill advised at the best of times but is particularly dangerous with defenders. With a few notable exceptions, defenders tend to enjoy limited chances to earn points and the sample sizes involved are generally very small. Thus, a player with the odd goal coming from a handful of shots is no more likely to score again than any number of comparative players who haven't yet registered a goal this season. Of course, we're not saying those "unlucky" few are any more likely either, but the latter are almost certainly held by fewer managers and probably come with a lower price and thus deserve our attention.

The chart below can be sorted by team and plots a player's price against his expected points purely from attacking means (xP). We're trying to identify players whose production exceeds or matches those available in his price bracket and this is best done on a team by team basis (as otherwise you are trying to compare too many variables at once). Once you identify the 'best' options from each team, you can then move on to comparing them all considering other factors.

A note on expected points. In the model, two bonus points are awarded for each goal, based on a approximate study of how these are generally handed out. Hence, if a player has racked up enough shots to score exactly one goal, his xP would be eight rather than the six you might expect.

Sagna and Mertesacker have produced the same attacking points to date with the Frenchman ahead by a couple of points in xP. Given this fact alongside Mertesacker's much higher ownership number (15% vs 1%) and Sagna's slight discount, Sagna looks like the better pick if you were choosing one today, though Mertesacker owners shouldn't feel overly rushed to move him.

Aston Villa
There's really nothing to see here and if you want to invest in this back line you should do so based on playing time and price tag. That could lead one to settle on Baker given his 3.9m price, assuming you are confident on him holding off the challenge of Clark when Luna resumes his left back duties. This isn't a great defense but they've been reasonably good both at home (-1% SiB +/-) and away (-3%), but don't expect to get much on the attacking side of the pitch from your Villains.

Caulker is the only defensive player to notch any points, and coupling that with his name recognition leads to a potentially dangerous situation. Four total attempts, with two on target strongly suggests that his two goal haul to date has been fortuitous and thus that 0.9m premium over Ben Turner looks unjustified.

Ivanovic leads all defenders in xP to date with a very impressive 17 and managers have done well to recognise this, with a 25% ownership already racked up. With a risk rating of 1.2, he looks as safe as anyone in this team and the other 25% of managers who currently own Terry, or particularly Cole and Luiz, should strongly consider making a move to Ivanovic next time they have a spare transfer (or use their wildcard).

Crystal Palace
Delaney owns a slight advantage in xP here, but not enough to justify his higher price tag. If you are interested in this defense (hot tip: you shouldn't be) then Moxey - who boasts a perfect risk rating of 1.0 - is your man.

To date, this one is a no brainer. Coleman trails Baines in actual points by five but that total is far from enough to justify the extra 2.2m required outlay. Add in the fact that Coleman actually tops Baines in xP and you see that the young Irishman should be the pick here. One caveat which the model doesn't account for is Baines' threat from the spot but it's highly unlikely that Everton will earn enough spot kicks for Baines to deliver superior value to his cheaper colleague. The 17% of owners still holding Jagielka - who offers a reasonable though unexciting attacking threat - should consider a move to Coleman when re-shuffling their pack.

You really don't want to touch this entire team right now and there's nothing here to change that well reasoned opinion. Riether enjoys a marginal advantage in the attacking threat column but is well overpriced at 5.0m, even if he does carry a low risk rating. Just don't bother, please.

Davies boasts by far the best xP and actual points to date but seeing as you're surely only employing a Hull defender as a minimum price bench filler, 4.6m seems too steep a price to pay for only a marginal attacking advantage. This isn't a bad defense (SiB +/- of -2% at home and away) and they certainly hold value as 5th defender types but I'd personally lean towards one of the 4.0m options with Rosenoir looking nicely settled in this lineup at right back with Elmohamady moving further upfield.

Glen Johnson has been the best attacking threat to date, yet hasn't been rewarded for his efforts so far. Purely on this added threat, he doesn't appear to justify the extra cost, but given his added security in the first team (he's yet to be benched and his risk rating is only impacted by injuries) it might just be worth looking at Johnson if you either don't have Mignolet or want to double down on this useful unit. If Cissokho really locks down that left back spot it becomes arguable that Johnson's superiority in xP is insufficient to justify the extra 0.7m outlay but for now the Englishman just about holds the edge.

Man City
Not unexpectedly, Kolarov leads this team in xP yet - again, as expected - it's his risk factor (2.8) which renders him very hard to own unless your team budget has swelled to the point when you can routinely sit a 5.3m player. Even then it would be hard to own him as you're never quite sure who will start but if you feel you have a good read on Pellegrini's team selections, it's hard to argue with Kolarov's upside. Elsewhere no one really excels and you're faced with a contest between Nastasic and Zabaleta who are closely matched in terms of risk factor and attacking points potential.

Man Utd
Purely on attacking threat, Evra is just about worth the extra expense over his cheaper colleagues, but when you factor in his risk rating, he becomes even more attractive. Jones' occasional deployment in midfield has been something of a non-issue to date with the utility man failing to offer much going forward even when deployed further upfield. At 0.5m cheaper than Evra he's a tempting proposition though with Rafael on the mend to vulture a large slice of the right back minutes, the ever reliable Frenchman remains a solid investment.

Putting this week's poorly timed suspension aside (the Magpies get Norwich at home next), Debuchy is the clear pick here and is one of the more extreme outliers in this piece. He enjoys a perfect risk rating, leads the team in actual attacking points which are totally supported by his xP, yet he's owned by just 1% of owners, only good for 3rd on his own team. This isn't a great defense so if you're planning on benching a Newcastle player most weeks then perhaps Yanga-Mbiwa at 4.4m makes some sense, but if you plan on starting him, Debuchy's high floor and ceiling make him a useful pickup.

No one really stands out here and thus it seems prudent to defer to risk rating rather than attacking potential, which would point us towards Turner as the best investment here. Whittaker's owners - presumably not paying attention or putting out other fires - should obviously look to divest with their man offering neither security nor upside.

Lovren's 11 attacking points are nice, but his price is getting dangerously high and if you're looking to buy now, you're too late. Clyne should be a consideration given his significantly lower price tag and increasing security (he's played every game since GW4), ahead of Shaw who seems to face a more sustained threat from Fox. At 5.4m, Fonte might be the 'Goldilocks' option with a nice balance of security, price and upside, though if pushed I would personally lean towards the potential value of Clyne.

Huth and Shawcross just about justify their half million premium over Cameron and Pieters, though it's probably close enough that you wouldn't rush to make a move if you owned either of the full backs. Fans of differentiation will want to note Huth's 2% ownership versus Shawcross' 10%.

Bardsley's heroics this past weekend catapult him atop these rankings, yet his risk rating suggests he's all but impossible to buy into. Sunderland have been a very solid defensive unit at home and there's room to add a Mackem as a 4th / 5th rotation type defender, yet it's hard to really pinpoint anyone who offers too much excitement. Looking purely at this team, O'Shea's low risk profile looks appealing, but higher upside can be found on other teams in his price bracket and thus if you want to buy in, you might need to take a calculated risk that Brown or Bardsley can lock down their places at a reduced cost.

Chico's position on this chart will surprise many (include your humble blogger) as Davies and Rangel often impress going forward for Laudrup's team. This isn't the solid unit we saw for much of the last couple of seasons, but at 5.0m Chico's attacking upside, playing time and at least some promise of defensive value make him an intriguing option.

This one isn't so much obvious who we should pick as much as who we shouldn't. At 7.2m Vertonghen is valued as a defensive player who contributes big time attacking scores on a regular basis yet he's not managed to achieve that in either the actual (3) or xP (5) columns. He's essentially offered the same profile as Dawson at a 1.8m premium which is essentially the same as choosing a 5.4m scrub over Rickie Lambert.

West Brom
With Jones' injury McAuley's overall profile now looks quite promising and he just about deserves consideration despite some discomfort in paying 5.4m for him. West Brom have a good defense though, especially at home (-16% SiB +/-) and McAuley offers a sufficient upgrade over his peers to make that 0.5m worthwhile.

West Ham
Reid leads the team in xP and ownership (6%) but it doesn't look like the former justifies the latter. We saw plenty of early turnover in this team which has limited the risk rating of some players, but with Rat and Tomkins playing the last six games, they can probably be considered to be reasonably safe in Allardyce's first team and thus their lower price tags make them more attractive compared to the comparatively pricey Reid. Collins - who has yet to be voluntarily benched - looks to be the best value of all, assuming he can put his injuries woes behind him for a sustained period, though be forewarned that you are signing up for very little attacking threat.