Neal Thurman

FPL Draft

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Lessons from FPL Draft Year 1

Thursday, May 17, 2018


Suggesting that the first year of the PremierLeague.com Draft Fantasy Premier League game is a watershed is unfair.  I've been playing single-ownership Premier League fantasy games on Fantrax and Togga for a few seasons.  What the Premier League has going for it is pretty obvious though.  They have scale, They have an installed base of four million or so users of their salary cap game to convert to draft.  They have the budget to continue to offer the draft format for free because this is a generational investment in the continued popularity of the league in a world sports landscape that is getting more and more competitive.  

 

With the inevitability of this being the dominant draft FPL platform going forward, it is a worthwhile exercise to look back on the first season of the game and what we can learn about potentially winning draft strategies heading into next season.  Now, before I get too proscriptive with my advice, it is worth pointing out that I didn't win the Clash Across the Pond league that we put together between the Rotoworld team and the FantasyFootballScout.co.uk team.  That said, I did come in 3rd despite having FAR less expertise in the Official FPL scoring system which I've never really covered in depth whereas the two managers who finished ahead of me - Paul McKinnon and Mark Sutherns, both from FFS - have been writing about professionally for some time.  My hope was that being the most experienced draft format player of the group with 25+ years of draft and auction games across MLB, NBA, NFL, and PL plus having far better than beginner knowledge of the PL.com scoring format would see me through.  

 

After Year One, here are my observations.

 

Don't Get Too Attached/Don't Give Up Too Soon

When you write a fantasy column you not only have to put together a draft strategy but you also get somewhat attached to that strategy because, well, you write about it and tell others, from the position of being an expert, that you planned to go about it or actually did go about it in a certain way.  In my case, I had a few things I was counting on heading into my first draft in this format.  One, and perhaps the biggest one, was that people would overreact to transfer speculation surrounding some significant players and that overreaction would allow me to pick them up at a discount due to the worry among many that they'd be gone from the league or in worse circumstances come the final day of August. 

 

From a strategy standpoint, it worked out beautifully.  I took a couple of lumps early as the transfer window played out and some of my value buys like Coutinho, Giroud, Mahrez, and Iheanacho were in flux and Eden Hazard was still recovering from his injury.  After Mahrez and Coutinho made it past the close of the window at their original teams, it was pretty clear I was going to have a strong team for at least the first half of the season on the strength of a midfield of Coutinho, Hazard, Mane, Mahrez, and Son.  Looking at how that group produced during the season Mahrez was the 5th most productive midfielder, Son the 7th most, Hazard 9th, and Mane 14th and Coutinho was on pace to be roughly equivalent to Mahrez over the 22 matches he was at Liverpool.  In an eight team league of managers who know what they're doing you're not going to do much better than that, especially when you figure that none of those players was my first overall pick (that was Romelu Lukaku).  

 

When I put "Don't Get Too Attached" in the title of this section it was not because of any of the above players.  No, it was about the fringe players that I picked up for similar reasons - Olivier Giroud and Kelechi Iheanacho - who didn't pan out as well as the half-season I got from Coutinho and the full season from Mahrez.  The first couple weeks of the season give us a lot of insight on who from the lower levels of the Premier League, especially the newly promoted sides, is likely to make a fantasy impression.  Giroud was always going to be a waiting game until the end of the transfer window and my hope (as a fantasy mangager) that he would end up as a starter at Everton as had been rumored heavily robbed me of the chance to pick up an early surprise at the forward position.  Likewise, it should have been clear quickly that Iheanacho, despite his price and pedigree, wasn't going to be a regular starter.  Failing to move on quickly from both forwards left me to pick among what was left on the waiver wire scrap heap.  My forward group other than Lukaku struggled to produce for me all season until I happened upon Chris Wood in January. 

 

Now, why, you ask did I also throw "Don't Give Up Too Soon" into the title?  Well, that was because I gave up on Son after only eight weeks.  Now, I did drop him in favor of Abdoulaye Doucoure who ended up being excellent but I suspect I would have run away with my league title if I'd had Son over his incredibly productive back half of the season.  My failure was not trusting Son more after an excellent 2016-17 campaign.  The backdrop of my decision is understandable, it was seven weeks into the season and Son had played less than half of the available minutes over the first seven weeks and just been held to three minutes total over Week 6 and 7.  If I'd waited for him to start in Week 8 and then break through with his first goal of the season in Week 9 then I'd probably have been good.  Instead I got impatient and dove in on the shiny new object in Doucoure rather than sticking with a proven commodity.  

 

Stick To Your Guns

I was mad at myself the minute this one happened but that's the problem with the heat of the moment in draft.  I had had a back and forth email discussion/preview of the Draft League with Mark Sutherns.  One of our biggest disagreements was over the left back spot at Liverpool.  He was convinced that James Milner was going to keep his spot and benefit greatly from the reclassification to defense and the clean sheet point boost that would come with it.  I was convinced that Andrew Robertson was going to take Milner's job from the start of the season and be a significant upgrade.  

 

I am generally not one to question myself when I have a strong opinion about a player.  Why did I do it this time? Mark founded Fantasy Football Scout and he's one of the few people on the planet who can say that Fantasy Premier League analysis and punditry is his day job.  Confronted with someone who might have better information or better perspective on the topic I caved in the heat of the moment and drafted Milner in the middle rounds at the cost of diving in on a beter bet as my second forward than the Iheanacho/Giroud duo that I took big risks on late in the draft. 

 

Looking back there were probably decisions that Mark got right that I didn't and ones that I got right and he didn't (we tied on points and he finished above me on total points scored so at least one season in we're on similar footing in this format while he is certainly the more accomplished player in the salary cap format).  I get calls wrong all the time but what made this one particularly hard to handle is that it wasn't mine.  Robertson took his time making the job his and wouldn't have been a better pick.  Still, I could have lived with picking Robertson there and stciking with my opinion rather than having co-opted someone else's take and seen it be wrong. 

 

Mo Salah Is An Outlier

Mo Salah has had an incredible season.  This is even more true for a midfielder.  Midfielders just don't score at this clip. Ever.  The mistake that everyone is likely to make in the draft next season is looking for the "next Salah".  Should you consider drafting Salah with the first overall pick in your draft? Absolutely, he should be the prohibitive favorite for that honor in all leagues.  What you shouldn't do is expect another midfielder to approximate that sort of production.  We saw Alexis Sanchez produce excellent fantasy results as a central forward listed as a midfielder for much of last season at Arsenal.  This season, returned to an actual wide attacker role at both Arsenal and Manchester United, he was far less potent (but still very good compared to most other fantasy midfielders). 

 

My point is that once you get past Salah in your draft, the highest picks should still be forwards.  The top group of forwards - Kane, Firmino, Vardy, Lukaku, and Aguero (or Jesus if Aguero leaves City) are just so much more productive than the next tier as compared to the 2nd-5th most productive midfielders vs 6th - 20th.  The point is, outside of Salah's unicorn-ness, the scarcity is still at forward. 

 

Form Is Temporary, Class Is Permanent

Perhaps this is just re-making the point about Son above.  I have to admit that I got caught up in Marco Silva Mania at Watford early this season.  I was impressed by him at Hull City late last season and thought that he was going to be dynamite at Vicarage Road and bring fantasy value with him.  For a while, I was right.  Richarlison and Doucoure were the early stars as the Hornets raced to the heights of the non-Manchester City part of the Premier League table.  What I didn't do well was understand the thin margins below the elite of the Premier League. 

While I would still be on board with Arsenal hiring Silva and fully expect that Everton will finally get their man over the summer and he'll do good things there, I didn't count on the fragile nature of the locker room and the potential impact of Everton's flirtation and Silva's return of same.  Playing fantasy games you tend to forget that these are people who want a stable work environment and are willing to put in the blood, sweat and tears if they feel like the rest of their team and their manager are in it with them as they make personal sacrifices.  If it looks like the manager is "out" then the motivation to adhere to his game plan or do that extra training or conditiioning probably wanes just enough to lose your edge. 

It took me too long to react to this happening at Watford and moving Doucoure out content that I had gotten the best he was going to give in the 2017/2018 campaign.  

 

What's Next?

I don't have any inside knowledge of what changes are in store for us moving from Year 1 to Year 2 of the Premier League draft fantasy format.  I had a long conversation with the people at the Premeir League in charge of the game where they solicited my opinion on what would make for a better game experience.  They seemed to have the approach that Year 1 was always supposed to be the tip of the iceberg and that they were intending to grow both features/functions as well as coverage.  I am optimistic that Year 2 will offer some fun new wrinkles (trades? roster flexibility?) that will give us more opportunities to be active as managers and leagues.  

 

I'll be back soon with some analysis of players to watch from the newly promoted sides, the relegated sides, and holes in returning sides that are likely to be filled that will be valuable.

 

Enjoy your summer and rest up because the 2018-19 fantasy draft season will be upon us before you know it. 



Neal Thurman manages the Rotoworld's Premier League coverage and contributes to Never Manage Alone which he co-founded. He is also a diehard Arsenal supporter. You can find him on Twitter @NealJThurman.
Email :Neal Thurman





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