FPL EARLY WILDCARDS – MANY HAPPY RETURNERS 

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We’re only three weeks into the new Fantasy Premier League (FPL) season, but already many managers have taken the international break as a cue to use their first Wildcard and completely reconstruct their squads. Even those not doing so often have two free transfers or are considering a -4 hit to try to keep up with the pack and rectify any early decisions that haven’t worked out.

Three gameweeks is obviously not a lot of data points to work with, but in FPL we never have as many data points as we would like. In Gameweek 37 we’re still agonising over whether to drop a twenty goal striker because they face two suddenly in-form defences when there’s a late-season bloomer playing a top side potentially resting players for a big European night in midweek. 

In this article we use the concept of Returns (5+ FPL points in a Gameweek) and Hauls (10+) introduced in articles on Jumpers for Goalposts last season to look at who the strong early 2019/20 performers were and whether that tells us anything useful for a squad rebuild in mid-September. Did those players who were quick off the mark keep up their performances? How many were caught and passed by slow starters or players who missed the early part of the season?

STRIKERS

We’ll start our exploration at the sharp end. Ideally we would simply take the first three Gameweeks as our guide, but the start to last season was complicated by the extra week’s rest granted to the Manchester clubs because of their European commitments which resulted in them and their scheduled opponents, Burnley and Aston Villa, having no fixture in Gameweek 1. With that in mind we’ll consider data from both the first three and the first four Gameweeks of last season.

What we’re primarily trying to discover is the importance of a strong start to the longer term prospects of FPL assets. We’ll take as our benchmark the end of season standing of players within their respective positions. Is there much correlation between those who topped the charts early on and those who were still there at the end? The result for strikers is a resounding “Yes”:

Every striker who finished in the Top 15 for FPL points at the position had at least one return in their team’s first three fixtures. For Ollie Watkins (4th) and Chris Wood (7th) this came in the fourth actual Gameweek, but remember their clubs had no fixture in Gameweek 1.

The highest finishers who had no return at all in those opening weeks were Kelechi Iheanacho (16th) and Christian Benteke (17th), both of whom struggled to get into their prospective sides early in the season. Clearly, Iheanacho in particular was a completely valid FPL pick once he got his very successful run in the Leicester first XI during the second half of the campaign, but that scenario is not relevant to a discussion of which players we should go for with our first Wildcard. 

What is worth noting is that last season’s evidence suggests that, if your striker is not playing and firing early, it is a considerable leap of faith to imagine that they will suddenly start doing that. If, like Raul Jiménez, they have a history of good scoring in FPL it is a more plausible risk to take, especially if fixtures are kind, but it’s still swimming against the tide.

The data from last season suggests that FPL managers, especially those committing to Wildcards, should think hard before rostering any of this season’s slow striking starters including Jiménez, Iheanacho, Timo Werner, Anthony Martial, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre
Lacazette and Rodrigo.

In the graphic above, those players shaded in dark green made a particularly strong start to the season. Those in paler green also began well, but lacked a double-digit haul in their team’s first three games while those shaded in grey ‘underperformed’ in picking up no early returns at all.

Of the particularly strong starters only two finished outside the top eleven at the end of the season. Richarlison struggled to recapture his early season swagger after being sent off against Liverpool in Gameweek 5 and then missing the next three matches while Neal Maupay got caught up in Brighton’s collective malaise in front of goal. 

At time of writing, of course, millions of FPL managers are transferring in a returning Manchester United forward nearing the end of his career who is yet to kick a Premier League ball this season, but we’ll talk about him in more detail a bit later.

MIDFIELDERS

The situation in the middle of the park is a little less straightforward:

It is still generally the case that the very strong starters (at least two out of three returns including one double-digit haul) keep that form for a considerable period. Three of the Top 5 are in that category and Son Heung-min joined them a week later. Jack Harrison also got two early returns, but Marcus Rashford only had one.

Of the three strong starters that fell away, Wilfried Zaha missed nine Gameweeks and Jack Grealish missed thirteen while his team-mate John McGinn simply never returned to the double-digit heights of Gameweeks 3 and 4.

This is part of a wider issue with midfielders. There are a lot more of them playing regularly than strikers, especially when you consider that leading teams typically operate with only one ‘recognised’ striker and, in Manchester City’s case, potentially without one at all. Therefore there is much more chance for midfielders below the very elite performers like Bruno Fernandes and Mohamed Salah to put together a string of returns or, equally, to lose their best form or be repositioned as formations change over time. 

Consequently, a lot of midfielders who start well (green shaded) go on to have mediocre, or even poor, seasons overall. Beyond the elite it is difficult when early-Wildcarding to identify the midfielders who will keep a good start going, not least because so many of them do make a good start. 

What is clear again, though, is that the pool of strong starters provides an FPL manager’s best hope for longer term returns. Midfielders who make no sort of start at all are very unlikely to come roaring up the midfield charts. Ilkay Gundogan benefitted greatly from a temporary mid-season switch to the ‘false 9’ role in a suddenly rejuvenated Manchester City side and James Ward-Prowse’s unerring set-piece accuracy allied to being ever-present on the field meant both eventually crashed the end of season Top 10 despite starting out with no returns at all. However, the only others to join them in the Top 20 were Bertrand Traoré, who took up at Villa Park where John McGinn left off, and everybody’s favourite mid-price maverick, Raphinha.

Leeds United’s Brazilian winger offers an interesting example for the late-window arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo to FPL. Raphinha only became an established starter in Gameweek 9 and missed three games in the run-in due to injury, but was still able to scrape into the overall Top 20. He produced 13 returns, good enough for eigth across the season at his position, but only managed two double-digit hauls. His 2019/20 record overall was very similar to Wilfried Zaha’s and it will be interesting to see if his FPL performance remains at that level or makes a step up to look more like Raheem Sterling’s (16 returns, 4 hauls).

Raphinha’s experience demontrates that a new arrival can definitely make up for lost time in terms of a whole FPL season, but he nevertheless finished 27 points behind less-celebrated team-mate Jack Harrison, who appeared in six more Gameweeks, with both players achieving 4.4 FPL points per game.

There’s no  doubt that Cristiano Ronaldo on any given match day can score as many points as anybody in FPL. The two biggest questions are how long will it take him to ‘re-acclimatise’ to the Premier League after more than a decade in Spain and Italy and how often will he be rested in favour of Cavani or Martial with Champions League rounds or the biggest Premier League fixtures only a few days ahead. Mark Suthern’s tour de force of Ronaldo research in the first FPL Black Box of the international break can give you plenty of pointers to the likelihood (or otherwise) of the Portuguese striker settling quickly and scoring freely.

With a 6.5m asset FPL managers can afford a little patience, but if Ronaldo is quiet and/or benched for his first few fixtures then that premium outlay starts to become an issue if the likes of Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku are carrying their teams week after week. For all his seemingly inevitable impact, it’s not a certainty that Ronaldo ends the season with more FPL points than Bruno Fernandes. Or possibly even Marcus Rashford.

DEFENDERS

At first sight the defenders table looks like it offers the best evidence yet that slow starting players (grey shaded) can make that up as the season goes along. But when you look more closely at the six such players making the end of campaign Top 20 you notice that three are from Manchester City, who went on to win the league, and the other three are from Manchester United who were runners up.

This does, however, give us straightforward criteria to apply when selecting defenders at this point in the season: only pick players who have got at least one return in their first three OR who play regularly for recently elite teams whose defenders do not otherwise qualify.

Carried over to this season, that would mean avoiding selecting defenders from any of the following clubs, with the exception of one or two individuals:

  • West Ham (except Cresswell or Coufal)
  • Burnley (except Tarkowski or Lowton)
  • Leeds (except Ayling)
  • Wolves
  • Southampton
  • Newcastle
  • Norwich
  • Watford
  • Arsenal 

As with all these decisions, we are not suggesting that Ben White, Tino Livramento or Nelson Semedo could not go on to be a Top 20 defender this season. What we ARE saying is that, given the defensive starts made by their clubs, the odds are against it and you should consider that carefully before giving them one of your five precious defensive slots, especially if you’re thinking of selecting more than one. A practical version of this might be to write a short ending to the statement “I firmly believe this underperforming defence is about to improve in a big way because…” and then see if you still believe it when you read it back to yourself in an hour’s time.

One thing that is quite notable in the above table is that it’s the first one to show a scattering of the quickest starting players (dark green shading). Only Andy Robertson, of those registering at least two returns including a double-digit haul in their team’s first three matches, finished amongst the Top 10 FPL defenders. Many of those with two returns in the first four games finished back in the forties and fifties or even lower. 

In the longer run, goal involvements are the key to elevating a defender to the FPL Top 20. Only Ruben Dias made it in with as few as two goal involvements (1 goal, 1 assist). The rest of the Top 20 registered at least four with the Top 5 registering 11, 9, 10, 11 and 7 respectively. 11 clean sheets out of 38 is also a minimum requirement for the Top 10 unless you’re Trent Alexander-Arnold (and even he managed ten).

GOALKEEPERS

A moment’s comparison of this table with the one for strikers near the top of the article will tell you why we started with the forwards.

You’d think the goalkeeping position might be the most stable of the quartet, but the evidence of last season shows pretty much the opposite. One thing you could say is that three of the four goalkeepers who managed a double-digit haul amongst their first three appearances went on to finish in the Top 6, but that’s clutching at straws with greasy gloves, especially when the other three didn’t manage a single return between them.

Emíliano Martínez was the very best starter and went on to finish top, which means swallowing hard and spending £5.6m on Hugo Lloris might be FPL money well spent this year, but you’d appear to have almost as much chance of success picking the random starting goalkeeper of your choice.

Perhaps the best option is to follow the prevailing advice mentioned again on this week’s FPL Wire which is to look for goalkeepers who face a lot of shots, but outisde the box and/or with a low xG in hopes of getting amongst the save and bonus points.

The good news is that the ‘punishment’ for getting your FPL goalkeeper decision slightly wrong is likely to be a maximum of 20 points over the season. Martínez racked up an almost unbelievable 186 points, but Ederson in second got 160 while Alisson, Edouard Mendy and Sam Johnstone in equal 6-8th scored 140.

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