Fantasy football round 4: The importance of formations

After a fortnight’s break for international matches, we’re back to the hustle and bustle of the Premier League this weekend. And while your first priority this week should be to ascertain who in your squad has come back from their games with injuries (ahem, Theo Walcott), the focus of this post is the thorny subject of your team’s formation.

The rules of the game allow you to arrange your 13 outfield players (five defenders, five midfielders and three forwards) in a variety of different formations, as long as you deploy a minimum of three defenders, two midfielders and one striker. That means your team can line up as 3-4-3, 5-4-1 or anything in between.

Of course, being a fantasy football team, the formation you choose makes absolutely no difference to how it performs, right?


Don’t believe me? Then let me show you the results of some analysis I have been doing during the international break. (You didn’t think I was putting my feet up doing nothing, did you?) What I have done is to look at the formations employed by the very best fantasy managers in gameweek three, and compared them to those lower down the rankings.

The scientific bit

I started by looking at the top 25 teams overall, and discovered the following:

  • 19 out of 25 (76%) used only three defenders in their starting 11.
  • Only six (24%) had a traditional back four – and none selected five defenders.
  • 19 out of 25 (76%) used all three forwards in their 11 – the other six employed two, and none played one up front.
  • By far the most common formation employed was 3-4-3, being used by 68% of the top 25.

I then compared it with a random sample of 25 teams who had exactly half the points of the overall leader (133 vs 266) – placing them below halfway in the overall rankings – and found there were marked differences in their formations:

  • Only six out of 25 (24%) played with three at the back.
  • 17 (68%) had a back four, and two (8%) used their full complement of five defenders.
  • Nine teams (36%) played all three forwards, fifteen (60%) used a pair and one played a lone striker.
  • The most common formation was the traditional 4-4-2, used by 11 teams (44%). 4-3-3 (20%) was more popular than 3-4-3 (16%). There were even a few managers utilising a defensively-minded 5-3-2 or 4-5-1.

So what?

There are some important lessons to be learned here, which I will summarise in four easy steps:

  • There is a strong correlation between the formation you use and your chances of success in the game.
  • As a general rule, it is better to use three defenders than four, and you should avoid using all five wherever humanly possible.
  • Similarly, it is better to use all three strikers, or at the very least two.
  • When in doubt, line up with a 3-4-3 formation.

But why is this the case?

It is not a phenomenon which is unique to this season, or even a statistical quirk resulting from only having three weeks of data. It is simply a function of the game’s own rules and the current goal-happy nature of Premier League football.

Here are some more facts for you to consider (all this information is available in the Fantasy Stats section of the Fantasy Premier League website):

  • The highest scoring goalkeeper after three rounds was Joe Hart, with 21 points.
  • Ashley Cole was the top scoring defender, also with 21.
  • Hart is the only goalkeeper with 20 or more points; Cole one of only two defenders with at least 20 (the other being Chelsea teammate John Terry).
  • However, there are seven midfielders with scores of 20-plus, headed by Florent Malouda with 32 and Theo Walcott with 24.
  • The highest individual scorer in the entire game is Didier Drogba, who has a massive 39 points. He is one of four forwards with at least 20 points.
  • Only one goalkeeper has kept clean sheets in all three matches to date: Chelsea’s Petr Cech. (And only three others – Hart, Edwin van der Sar and Brad Friedel – have kept two.) However, he has only 19 points, largely because he has had to make so few saves.
  • Five teams have yet to keep a clean sheet in any game.
  • Conversely, every team has scored at least once.
  • Four players – Malouda, Walcott, Drogba and Newcastle’s Andy Carroll – have four goals already. The first two of these are classified as midfielders, netting an extra point for every goal they score.
  • 16 players (nine forwards, seven midfielders) have scored at least two goals already.
  • And two players – Drogba and Birmingham’s Sebastian Larsson – have three assists each.

So, all other things being equal, it is generally easier for forwards and goalscoring or creative midfielders to make positive contributions than it is for defenders. The thing is, they are not equal. A clean sheet is worth an additional four points, the same as a forward’s goal, but one fewer than a midfielder’s goal.

Of course, a defender’s goal nets you six points, but how often does that happen? Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen scored seven league goals last season, an immense return for a defender but still fewer than Bolton’s Ivan Klasnic, Burnley’s Steven Fletcher or Portsmouth’s Aruna Dindane. Who? Exactly.

And, of course, even an attacking full back will almost certainly provide fewer assists over the course of a season than even a relatively defensive midfielder. (The midfielder will also pick up a handy bonus point for every clean sheet too, don’t forget.)

Yes, this analysis is only based on three weeks’ worth of results, but at the end of every season you will generally find that the majority of the top scorers in the game are forwards and midfielders. This disparity in performance is reflected in the relative values of players – forwards and midfielders are pricier than defenders and goalkeepers – but that is exactly why you should slant both your spending and your formation towards the attacking half of your squad.

What should I do now?

In an ideal world, the optimum formation is a 3-4-3 containing at least two defenders from strong teams, but with a focus on high-scoring midfielders and forwards. As I have said in previous posts, there are some fantastic bargains to be had lower down the table – as anyone who started with the Newcastle trio of Carroll (originally £5.0m, 27 points), Kevin Nolan (£5.5m, 18) and Joey Barton (£4.5m, 12) will attest. Seek them out, put them in your squad and play them, preferably in a 3-4-3.

Of course, that’s not to say you should stick rigidly to your chosen formation. As players become injured and suspended, it will not always be possible to deploy your ideal line-up. And there will be weeks when the fixture list will suggest you have a better chance of racking up points by replacing your fourth midfielder with a fourth defender, say.

But think carefully about your formation, and if necessary initiate the transfers you need to move strength out of your defence and into your forward line, even if it means completely rewriting your tactics. History dictates that 4-4-2 is as outdated in the fantasy world as it is becoming in the real one – and woe betide you if you stick with a 5-4-1. You have been warned.

Previous entries in my series of Fantasy Football tips:

Fantasy football round 1: Ten tips to boost your score

Fantasy football round 2: Don’t panic! (Five top tips)

Fantasy football round 3: Improving your squad


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

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