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Fantasy football round 1: Ten tips to boost your score

One for fantasy managers to avoid: Philippe Senderos (image courtesy of fulhamfc.com)

If, like me, this is the time of year when you start avidly scouring all the preseason match reports, obsessively scanning the websites to seek out the latest injury news (Fulham defender Philippe Senderos, ruptured Achilles tendon, out six months) and examining the Blackpool squad for hidden gems, the chances are that you are preparing yourself for the start of the most important footballing competition in the world: the fantasy football league.

As usual, this season I will be one of the two million or so who are playing the official Premier League fantasy game, and I will be spending an inordinate amount of time this week finalising my squad of 15 players for the start of the competition.

Of course, there is a certain element of luck in playing fantasy football but, as in the real Premier League, the most skilful teams generally rise to the top. After several years playing various fantasy formats, I have learned a lot of lessons (some of them painful) about which tactics generally work well and which don’t. Last season I finished about 8,000th out of two million teams (which put me in the top 0.5% overall) and came top in all four mini-leagues in which I entered, so I think I’ve managed to successfully put theory into practice.

So, free of charge, here are my top ten tips for tacking the 2010/11 fantasy football season. Obviously these are tailored to the rules of the Premier League competition, but the basic principles should hold true for any game. And there is also no one hard and fast route to success: the list below is merely a distillation of my personal game strategies – which have generally served me well – but other approaches are also just as valid. Here goes!

1. Be disloyal to your team

Tottenham keeper Heurelho Gomes

Whatever team or players you support, put those loyalties to one side for the purposes of the game. Fantasy footy is a game of numbers, not emotion – sentiment can be directly equated to squandered points. As an Arsenal fan, I am more likely to select one of my own players – I know their strengths and weaknesses better, after all – but I will not hesitate to drop an Arsenal player who is out of form or injured, or if I can find a better/cheaper alternative.

Similarly, I have even been known to select Tottenham players when the occasion merits. I have no bad feelings at all about my timely inclusion of Jermain Defoe and Heurelho Gomes just as they hit purple patches last season. Those two moves alone were worth at least 50 points to me. Pick the best players, not just the ones you like the most.

2. Choose your formation before you pick your players

I’ll admit that I got this wrong last year. I had originally decided on playing 4-3-3, but by the time the season was six weeks old I could see this was an error as goals rained in from midfield and no one seemed to be able to keep a clean sheet. I quickly reshaped my squad – binning an expensive defender and beefing up my midfield – so I could switch to 3-5-2 or 3-4-3.

The point here is to decide on your formation and then tailor your spending accordingly, and don’t be afraid to overhaul your formation and squad completely if the season starts to pan out differently (your wild card can be very useful here). Don’t pick your favourite players and then shoehorn them into the most convenient formation available.

3. Don’t be average

Your squad comprises 11 starters and four substitutes. Don’t be tempted to fill it with 15 so-so, middling-priced players, as that generally leads to so-so, middling scores. Having settled on my preferred formation – 3-4-3, in case you were wondering – my approach would be to:

  • Pick one ‘star’ defender, midfielder and forward.
  • Select all four of my substitutes – in the case of a 3-4-3 this means a goalkeeper, two defenders and a midfielder – from the cheapest price band.
  • See what I have left over to pick the best combination of players I can afford. That means selecting two strikers, three midfielders, two defenders and a goalkeeper – I generally leave the keeper until last, simply because the difference in cost between a cheap keeper and a top one is not as great as it is in other positions, so you can always find a half-decent one you’re happy with. Again, you’re likely to be better of with a mix of expensive and cheap.
4. Cheap is more important than expensive

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the most expensive half-dozen or so players in each position tend to score highly, so it’s not surprising that players like Rooney, Lampard, Fabregas and Evra feature commonly in many people’s teams. What really separates the best teams from the mediocre ones, though, is how they manage the less expensive parts of their squad, where there is a vast choice of cheap (or cheapish) players to choose from, and it can be a bit harder to spot the unpolished gems, particularly because they often shine only for short parts of the season due to injuries to more senior players, say.

Wolves' Matt Jarvis was a more than useful squad member last season (image courtesy of wolves.co.uk)

Wolves’ left-sided midfielder Matt Jarvis was a prime example of one I got right last year: I picked him up in the bargain basement mid-season having watched him a couple of times and noted that he was a consistent starter, even though at that point he had no goals and no assists; he finished with three and six respectively and accumulated me a lot of points for a tiny investment.

And it doesn’t just have to be regular starters. There are often great short-term punts to be had on backup players (for which read: very cheap) who are filling in for absentees. With Arsenal beset by injury problems in midfield, Jack Wilshere, at just £5.0m, looks an interesting prospect for someone willing to take a flyer in the early weeks of the season.

Believe me, bargains are there to be had, and while there is no guaranteed formula for success, it’s not just a case of sticking a pin in and hoping for the best. There is a wealth of data on the Fantasy Premier League website which provides details on a player’s form and history, or even how many managers have selected or dropped him. Make use of it.

5. Pick players on point-scoring ability, not footballing ability

Javier Mascherano - great player, terrible fantasy football pick (image courtesy ofliverpoolfc.tv)

Javier Mascherano is a great holding midfielder, but he is never going to be a heavy hitter in fantasy football terms because he does not provide goals and assists, which are what rack up the big points in the game. Don’t equate a player’s talent with his utility. So as a general rule, I will choose a creative or wide midfielder over a defensive one.

The same applies to defenders, but not quite to the same extent – while attacking full backs will supplement their defensive points with a sprinkling of goals and assists, there are a number of central defenders who will add their fair share offensively at setpieces. Thomas Vermaelen, despite playing in a porous Arsenal defence, was on track to be at or near the top of the rankings among defenders before his season-ending injury thanks to his goalscoring knack.

6. Play the short game

The ability to make substitutions every week means you can afford a degree of short-termism with your selections, because your squad is never set in stone. So, for instance, although I would like to have Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas in my team, I will not select him this week because I know he is unlikely to play against Liverpool on Sunday – I simply cannot afford to have 12% of my budget unavailable, if only for a week. I will draft him in as a substitute later.

Similarly, don’t be afraid to change your team around tactically from week to week as circumstances suit (see tips seven and eight). Squad rotation is a good thing.

7. Play the long game too

Plan ahead. Every team has spells in the season which are easier, and runs which are more difficult. So putting in a new goalkeeper after they have kept clean sheets against Blackpool and Wigan but just before they are due to play Chelsea, Man U and Arsenal is probably not a brilliant idea.

Postponements due to FA Cup scheduling can provide opportunities for canny managers

Also – and I cannot stress this enough – not every team plays one match in every game week. With individual games being postponed due to weather – remember what happened in January? – European ties or the FA Cup, there will be occasions when teams play twice in a round, or not at all. Pay attention to what is happening two or three weeks ahead, and take advantage of any unusual patterns to plan your substitutions accordingly. On a couple of occasions in the second half of last season, there were gameweeks where, say, four teams played twice and four didn’t play at all – on each occasion, a bit of judicious planning ensured I was loaded up with two-game players and able to benefit from a second bite of the cherry.

8. Not all matches are equal

Play the percentages. If you are trying to decide which of two strikers to select in a given week, say, then consider their opponents. Would you rather field the player who is lining up against Blackpool or the one facing Man City? Also, do not underestimate the value of home advantage: almost universally, teams and players score more goals at home and concede fewer.

9. Wait

Leave your team selections and particularly your substitutions as late as you possibly can. There is no advantage in making your picks the day after a round has finished, only for a player to pick up an injury in training or on international duty during the week. Most managers will hold press conferences a day or two before the weekend’s games, and that is your best source of injury news and likely selection changes. I have found that the information provided on each player profile on the game’s website is not always the most up-to-date – a quick skim of the BBC football website for team news on a Friday evening should be the minimum level of research any aspiring manager should do.

10. Go wild

Finally, everyone has a wild card, which can be played just once, which allows you to change your entire squad without penalty. Depending on your individual situation, I would advocate one of two approaches. If you get off to a disastrous start and feel you need to make six or seven quick changes to redress the problem, then play it immediately; don’t wait until you have limped along miserably for several weeks hemorrhaging points. But if you start well, keep it up your sleeve and save it for a moment later when it can be of maximum benefit.

Last season, I was saving my wild card for one of the later FA Cup rounds when typically only half the teams play, but ended up playing it on that snowy weekend when all but three games were postponed to give me a boost that week and set me up for future weeks.

———-

And that’s it from me. It’s not rocket science by any means, but above all there is no substitute for good preparation and research, and always remember not to allow your heart to rule over your head.

Do let me know if you have any fantasy footy tips of your own you are willing to share. I will report back on a week-by-week basis to let you all know how things are panning out and share what (few) insights I have into the game as it unfolds. In the meantime, come and join The Armchair Sports Fan league using the following code: 87723-272935.

Now if you will just excuse me, I just need to have a look at the West Brom squad …

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

20 Responses to Fantasy football round 1: Ten tips to boost your score

  1. aardvarkian says:

    This is the first time I’ll have attempted online Fantasy Football. I’ve chosen my team and I’ll blog about it later. By the way, I’m a Man Utd supporter. Does this mean you hate me now?

  2. Pingback: Aardvarkian FC « Aardvarkian Tales

  3. Adam Stone says:

    I have just done my team. I doubt I will put it into a league, unless I could join either of you in a league. I will add it my blog later.

  4. Tim says:

    I have now set up a league called Armchair Sports Fan. Please feel free to join at the Fantasy Premier League website using the following code: 87723-272935.

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