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Fantasy football round 10: Defenders’ goals are vanity, clean sheets are sanity


Over the past two weeks, we have had a look at how to determine the best forwards and midfielders for your fantasy football squad. Today it’s time to turn our attentions to the defence.

When looking for defenders, it is always worth bearing in mind the main sources of fantasy points beyond the usual ones gained for appearances:

  • Goals: worth a whopping six points apiece for defenders.
  • Assists: worth three points each, the same as for other positions.
  • Clean sheets: an extra four points if a defender plays for at least 60 minutes and does not concede a goal while they are on the pitch.
  • Bonus points: between one and three points, if nominated as one of the best players in a match.

When selecting players for your back five, it is certainly worth considering those who are more likely to chip in with additional goals and assists, but that should only be a secondary concern. The most important factor when selecting a defender is whether their team keeps a high proportion of clean sheets.

The maths that supports this assumption is both simple and compelling. Of all the defenders eligible for this year’s game, no one scored more than Arsenal‘s Thomas Vermaelen‘s seven goals and one assist, worth 45 points. But Manchester United racked up 19 clean sheets over the course of the season, equating to an impressive 76 points – the equivalent of nearly 13 goals. In virtually every case, a defender’s clean sheet points will massively outweigh their goals/assists points, unless they are, say, their team’s regular penalty taker and part of a defence which haemorrhages goals (as Burnley‘s Graham Alexander was last year – seven goals, but only three clean sheets).

Clean sheets are also more important than goals conceded. Why? Again, simple mathematics. If a defender is part of a team which concedes one goal every game, they will concede 38 goals per season and earn no clean sheet points. But if a team concedes two goals in half their games and keeps a clean sheet in the other 19 – still conceding 38 goals over a full season – an ever-present defender would net an additional 57 points (76 for the clean sheets, and minus 19 for conceding two goals in each of 19 games).

This is clearly illustrated by the case of Wigan Athletic. Through nine games this season, only two teams (Blackpool and West Ham) had conceded more than the 16 leaked by the Latics. And yet only four teams can boast a defender with more fantasy points than Wigan’s Antolin Alcaraz. This is because Wigan, despite conceding ten goals in their first two games, have kept three clean sheets since – only three teams have blanked more of their opponents. And it is no coincidence that the team with the lowest-scoring starting defenders is Wolves, who have conceded one goal fewer than Wigan, but who are also the only team yet to register a clean sheet.

Don’t get me wrong, in general goals conceded is not a bad proxy for determining high-scoring fantasy defenders, but the number of clean sheets a team keeps is a far better measure. (The Statistics page of the main Premier League website allows you to check this at a glance – simply change the filter above the league table to ‘clean sheets’.)

To demonstrate the correlation between clean sheets and points, the table below ranks teams in order of the number of clean sheets they have kept in the first nine rounds of the season, and indicates the number of points accumulated by their highest scoring defender.

Analysis © Tim Liew, from Fantasy Premier League data. Any errors are my own

As the table shows, there is quite a clear distinction between teams who have kept 3-4 clean sheets – whose top-scoring defenders have between 25 and 44 points – and those who have kept 0-2, where the top-scoring range is just 16-27. And indeed Chelsea, who have kept three clean sheets more than any other team, are so far out in front in this respect that they possess three of the top five defenders overall (Ashley Cole, John Terry, Alex).

Like I said, clean sheets are by far the most important factor in determining a high-scoring defender.

Of course, that’s not to say you should completely discount attacking contributions. If you look at the four teams who have kept three clean sheets, there is a reason why Everton and Birmingham’s top-scoring defenders have markedly more points than Aston Villa‘s – Leighton Baines has one goal and two assists, and Liam Ridgewell has two goals. Defenders who contribute with assists and goals from set plays can certainly boost your points total significantly, but this is often already factored into a player’s transfer value, so the extra cost may not automatically justify the additional scoring potential.

Having said that, there are definitely some bargains to be had because there is not always a clear correlation between score and transfer value. Defenders from recently promoted or lower-ranked teams can offer tremendous value for money, as the table below, which splits out defenders with 25 points or more by their transfer value, demonstrates.

Analysis © Tim Liew, from Fantasy Premier League data. Any errors are my own

Ahmed Elmohamady of Sunderland – who have four clean sheets and have conceded just seven goals, trailing only Chelsea in both categories – is the obvious stand-out bargain. He is the third highest-scoring defender in the game at a current cost of just £5.0m, and yet has been selected by less than 17% of fantasy managers.

The table also shows that, in general, you do not have to pay top dollar for solid defenders. At the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, apart from a handful of obvious exceptions like Ashley Cole, defenders from the ‘big’ clubs are generally overpriced, and there is some great value for money to be had if you are willing to restrict your spending on defenders.

One last point. As I have noted previously, the top fantasy teams tend to play three at the back, so there is no reason to have more than three – or maybe even fewer – costly defenders. In fact, as this final table of the top players by position shows, a good defender is likely to be outscored by a good midfielder or attacker, which you may want to consider when deciding where to invest and where to save money.

Analysis © Tim Liew, from Fantasy Premier League data. Any errors are my own

Hopefully the above analysis has provided you with some food for thought. Next week we’ll finish off this short series on team selection with a look at your last line of defence: the goalkeeper. See you then!

Previous posts in the Fantasy Football series:

Ten tips to boost your score

Don’t panic!

Improving your squad

The importance of formations

A question of rotation

Following and bucking trends

The top 20 forwards

In-form midfielders

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