FPL – Big Scores

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As the latest international break draws slowly to a close FPL managers are once again returning to their squads and looking to kick-start a ride up the Christmas charts. As they ponder whether to bring Conor Gallagher in (yes) or try to afford Reece James AND Ben Chilwell (hmmm) they’ll mostly be pondering versions of a question Adam Hopcroft posted last week which asked whether it was a more “successful FPL decision” to captain somebody with loads of points from negligible xG or vice-versa.

Those of us who like a stat spent a day or two going “Oh ho!” and “Ah ha!” at each other as various angles and twists about this conundrum occurred to us. In the end, Seb Wassell summarised with an observation that is kinda obvious, but every now and then just needs saying to get us all back off the angels’ pinhead:

“… taking the question at face value, you go with the thing you can repeatedly predict.”

Somewhat against the recent FPL fashion I tend to grimace and get fidgety when people start quoting eXpected stats to the nearest hundredth of a goal as if xA is as tangible as the calculation of tides and 0.01 of it as identifiable as a cent or a penny coin. (As an exercise, the reader may like to try describing what a hundredth of an eXpected Woodwork Striking looks or feels like).

This is not to say that eXpected stats are a complete waste of time. Attempts to better define them are throwing up new insights all the time (see StatsBomb’s work on shot impact height) and they can be very helpful in comparing players and teams or putting them into closely matched ‘tiers’. However, while such metrics are still at the ‘tinkering’ phase I’m reluctant to base one big, chunky, capricious transfer decision each gameweek primarily upon them, especially when their generally modest sample sizes would set most statisticians’ teeth on edge.

As regular readers (and thank you both) will know , I prefer to spend a lot of my transfer time looking at actual goals, actual minutes, actual saves, actual clean sheets and actual(ishhhh) assists. It’s a strange world where to write that feels almost heretical, but there we are. Players doing well at these will tend to lead to actual points in the FPL game and they, for better or for worse, are the only measure of success that the game recognises.

With tools, podcasts, threads and articles proliferating now in FPL at a dizzying rate everybody has become much more aware of exactly how they are doing in the game compared to eight million other people around the world, which would be pretty scary whatever we were talking about. In the last season or so individual Gameweeks have taken on huge psychological significance for many and one captaincy decision can feel viscerally like a triumph or a disaster.

As the search for a hundredth of an eXpected Edge becomes ever more feverish I’d like to invite FPL managers to take a step back for a few moments. What does the player points scoring profile for a regular Gameweek look like? How often do players score minus points, or more than eighteen? What are the chances of any random player not ‘blanking’?

The last full season we can examine (thanks to the excellent Gameweek by Gameweek data available at https://www.ffstuff.co.uk/playersFPL202021.php) is the 2020/21 Premier League. Unfortunately, thanks to several factors (but mostly the virus pandemic), Gameweek structures were far from regular last season and almost all games being played behind closed doors is likely to have had its effects.

Nevertheless, 23 of the 38 Gameweeks did involve the simple joys of exactly ten matches taking place.

Using them as a sample on which to base some observations gives us the following headline numbers:

Gameweeks: 23
Matches: 230
Player Scores: 6,183
Average Number of Player Scores per Gameweek: 268.8

The maximum player score for a single Gameweek in that sample was 24, which was achieved twice: once by Son Heung-min in Gameweek 2 and again by Jack Grealish in Gameweek 4. The minimum Gameweek score was a minus 7 for Jan Bednarek in Gameweek 22. Like the final part of a film trilogy, let’s start our tour of the numbers at the sad end and work our way gradually towards happiness.

Although that Bednarek nightmare was very much an outlier, on average one player every Gameweek will register -2, or even fewer, points. He will be joined by another one or two in the misery of an own goal or a pre-clean sheet sending off. What is perhaps surprising is that eleven players with actual minutes on the pitch, almost 5% of all participants in that Gameweek, will come out of it with no FPL points at all.

Illustrated in this second graphic is a very important truth about FPL. In any given Gameweek you can reliably expect 69% of the players (approximately 185 of them) who take the field to ‘blank’ by scoring one, two or three FPL points. If that was a bit more widely recognised perhaps managers might feel able to be less harsh on themselves when it (all too regularly) happens.

Four FPL points represents a strange kind of ‘dead zone’. It’s definitely better than just getting two appearance points,  but you don’t usually feel very happy about it either. It’s the rarest score between 0 and 9 points. Any player landing there is usually either an outfielder with an assist but also a booking or a substitution to take account of, or it’s a goalkeeper with two save points and no clean sheet or bonus.

If you add in the eleven players scoring zero and the three going into minus numbers that’s 76% of all the players in any given Gameweek proving something of a disappointment for their FPL managers. If any of your players scores five or more points they’ve already beaten odds of worse than three to one.

Five FPL points is the score where you start to feel that your player has properly Returned. There’s been an assist (however uneXpected) or perhaps a defensive clean sheet marred by a yellow card. Clean sheets without exercising the referee’s handwriting account for the upsurge at six points, not least because goalkeepers and defenders will achieve it together at the team level. Notice, however, that, on average, slightly fewer players (21) each Gameweek score six points than the collection of midfielders quietly compiling a clean sheet and goalkeepers with a single save point that make up the three-pointers (22).

Seven points is the beginning of “bonus point territory”, a region hidden from defensive midfielders since the dawn of time (1992). Virtually as many players (8) are as likely to get eight points as seven and together those two scores define the “minor” area of “bonus point territory”.

The six players (or five players plus the inevitable Raphinha) each Gameweek landing on exactly nine points join the four-pointers in another awkward borderland. Should an FPL manager be pleased that their player nearly made it to double figures or annoyed that they didn’t?

It’s got a lot to do with western civilisation’s decision to go with the whole base ten counting thing, but there is definitely a psychological effect recognised throughout the FPL community of your player Hauling by getting their Gameweek score into double digits. The combination of actual football and the way FPL scores it re-inforces this by generating a 50% drop-off from the six players per Gameweek who score exactly nine points to the three who make it to exactly ten.

Eleven players per Gameweek make it into this exclusive “major bonus point territory” of 10+ points. The Salahs, De Bruynes and Kanes of this world manage it several times a season, but a mere handful manage it on more than four occasions and the maximum is around ten with almost all candidates being midfielders or strikers. Increasingly they might also be the sort of ‘wing-backs’ who would keep bumping into Bobby Charlton or Mario Kempes on the edge of the area if they were still playing.

The Frequency column above adds up to 256, underlining that an awful lot of players managed a score of 10+ only once or twice. Expanding my focus, for a moment, to the whole of the 2020/21 season (rather than just the 23 ‘standard’ gameweeks) the overall pattern of positions, players and their double-digit hauls looks like this:

For goalkeepers, it’s a fairly even spread: they are about equally as likely to get one, two, three or more than three Gameweek Hauls in a season. With the strikers, we start to see the more expected tapering off, but it’s not particularly sharp. Only about a third of the strikers that get a double-figure score fail to get another one.

The defenders exhibit a more classic decline: 60% of those Hauling in a Gameweek never repeat the feat and only 5% of them manage it four or more times (the same number as for goalkeepers). Twice as many strikers achieve that higher level of performance, but the numbers are still low.

Midfielders are clearly a different matter. A given midfielder is about as likely to be “one and done” on a double-digit score as a defender, but then there’s a very big drop-off at exactly two hauls to barely more players (9) than the strikers (7). Counter-intuitively, though, the midfielder numbers start to rise again, surging back above defenders at exactly three double-digit hauls and then outpacing the other positions combined the rest of the way.

Clearly, the two largest numbers in the survey are those for defenders and midfielders achieving one double-digit Haul and then never doing so again. This tells us that those combined 91 Hauls were both very unpredictable and very unreliable.

When FPL managers see a defender or midfielder Hauling and are tempted to jump on that bandwagon there is a high chance of disappointment, particularly with defenders. If you missed it, cover up that first column and look at the chances of them doing that again, particularly more than once. If you’re still interested, have a good look to see if they are at least regular Returners.

And so we arrive at the FPL “stratosphere”, the rarefied region which only a few Gameweek scores reach each season. The graphic above shows eleven scores of eighteen FPL points or higher in the 23 ‘standard’ Gameweeks of last season, suggesting that we can expect a score like this once every OTHER Gameweek and should rightly celebrate if we happen to have the player that achieves it in our FPL team that round (especially if we captained them).

Of those eleven scores, only Son Heung-min managed more than one. He tallied 24 in Gameweek 2 and then 18 in Gameweek 4, a round which on its own accounted for five of the 18+ scores. Harry Kane joined his team-mate with a 21 in Gameweek 2 and the other top totals came in Gameweeks 10, 14, 30 and 38. It’s a very small sample, but seven of these eleven performances happening in the first four Gameweeks suggests that there might be a tendency for them to happen early on in the season when teams are still sorting themselves out after the summer.

Those of you who have made it this far (and thanks to both of you again) might be wondering how the general landscape of Hauls and Returns changes in ‘non-standard’ Gameweeks where the number of matches is something other than ten. The sample sizes are, naturally, very small and only from one rather odd season, but here are the FPL numbers for 2020/21:

Without attempting to draw any firm conclusions, there are some points worth noting. In a standard ten-match Gameweek 24% of players with minutes get a Return of 5+ points and 4% get a Haul of 10+ points. Add two more matches and the Returns tick up 5% but the Hauls almost keep pace with an increase of 3%, nearly doubling the ‘standard’ percentage.

Returns continue to increase steadily until by the 17 matches of Gameweek 26 sheer accumlation of appearance points and minor additions like save points are bringing 41% of all players up to 5 Gameweek points or more. Hauls also reach the stage where three in every twenty players is getting into double-figures. If this season offers us another Gameweek with 15 or more matches it looks saving the Bench Boost for it would be a sound investment.

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