Anyone who read the blog last year will know that I am huge advocate of playing the fixture list and picking players based almost as much on their matchup as their innate footballing talent. I assess a team's strength of schedule by looking at how their opponents have fared at home and on the road, for example:
Arsenal face the following three opponents: @Eve, Sun, @MNU. Their strength of schedule would be calculated as the average number of goals Everton score at home, plus the average goals scored at on the road by Sunderland plus United's average home goals, divided by three. As you can see, it isn't rocket science but it can highlight some surprising insights (eg. statistically, Blackburn away is only a slightly tougher fixture in terms of goals per game than United at home).
For this season, I am taking a slightly different approach and rather than just calculate a team's strength of schedule, I am combining it with the average goals conceded by that team at home/away to give an adjusted average goals conceded. This will show the best defensive plays each week, accounting for both the strength of the defensive team and the strength of the opponent.
Of course, there are limitations to this analysis, with the biggest issue right now being that we are having to base the goals per game on last year's stats. There is no way to really solve this until we have a few weeks of data for the new season so until then I have used an adjustment factor to increase/decrease a team's goal production based on new signings/losses/injuries etc so far in the offseason.
Without further delay then, the defensive rankings based on the stats for the first 8 weeks of the season are as below (I have excluded the promoted teams as we have no data whatsoever on these teams and I would have to rely on pure conjecture, which is exactly what I am trying to avoid):
17. Hull City
No real surprise here, as Hull have the ugly combo of the worst non-relegated defense from last year and a schedule that includes trips to Liverpool and Chelsea. I would have avoided Hull defenders before this analysis and this only confirms my gut feeling.
16. Stoke City
Stoke had a great home defense last year (5th) but struggled on the road (20th) and trips to Liverpool, Everton and Bolton make for a tough start to the league for Stoke. They also welcome United and Chelsea to the Brittania Stadium, rounding out one of the toughest schedules in the league. I actually quite like the Stoke defense, and I made my case for taking Sorensen a few weeks back. However, that was purely on the basis of rotation and this opening set of fixtures should discourage you from relying on the Stoke back five as starters at this point.
Pompey's team on paper is pretty weak (especially if Distin departs) and this analysis makes grim reading from the boys on the South coast. With James overvalued at 5m, I see absolutely no value in the Portsmouth back five and would not consider any of them right now.
This is a bit of a surprise as we tend to think of Allardyce teams as very solid at the back, but they were poor on the road last year (16th) and face tricky trips to Fulham, Everton and Arsenal in the opening 8 games. This could work in your favour though, as long term I like the Rovers defense to improve by a good distance this year and this sticky opening patch will allow us to (a) see how any new signings fit in, (b) see who is in the starting lineup and if any bargains (Nelsen 4.5m) can be had, and (c) if these guys really can make such a jump. Stay away for now but watch this space for week 11 onwards when the fixtures look very nice.
With Steve Bruce gone, Wigan could take a step back this year and Roberto Martinez is hardly known to be a stout defensive minded coach. No new players have come in at the back, and Wigan face 5 of the top 6 teams in the first 7 games to open the season. The Wigan boys are cheap again so should still garner rotation value (as I mentioned with Sorensen above) but I do not see anyone making the jump to an every week starter over the first quarter of the season.
12. West Ham
With City reportedly chasing Matt Upson, the Hammers defense looks a bit thin, which is a shame as the opening fixtures are fairly decent for Zola's men (though Liverpool and City back-to-back could be tricky). With only Upson and Ilunga valued over 4.5m there are bargains to be had here once we now who is in the first team so I would advise a similar strategy as with Blackburn, though with Wolves to open the season, they may be decent squad players from day one.
11. Man City
This ranking is probably not that useful as just how much has the City defense improved is anyone's guess. They have signed one of the league's better centre backs of the last 5 years in Kolo Toure, and seem intent in bringing in another in the shape of Joleon Lescott. Put those two alongside Wayne Bridge and Micah Richards and you have three England internationals and Toure ahead of arguably the best keeper in the league. Toure (6.5m) and Lescott (7.5m) are overpriced in this unproven defense so the best option is probably Bridge (5.5m) who seems assured of a first team place (until City launch a bid for perhaps Gael Clichy or Maxwell). The fixture list is also a bit tricky with trips to rivals United and Villa as well as welcoming Arsenal to the middle Eastlands. Bridge is probably a decent option to open the season with but don't expect fireworks or any bonus points!
Sunderland ranked 13th in defense last year but enjoy a decent fixture list which sees them promoted up this list a bit. While they do have to face United and Chelsea, they also get Blackburn, Hull and Wolves at home as well as trips to Stoke and Burnley. I would not like to predict the back four right now, but Ferdinand would likely be assured of a place and at 4.5m he could be worth a look to open the season with.
9. Tottenham only make the 9th spot despite their league leading home defense (10 goals) from last season. No additions have been made as yet and Woodgate, King, Dawson and Bale are all injured. The fixtures are a mixed bag as they play last year's top three as well as two of the promoted sides. I think these guys are a good bet in the long run but I would probably shy away for now due to the injuries and the fact that no one stands out as highly undervalued.
'Solid' describes both Bolton's performances last year as well as the new recruits brought in by Gary Megson in the offseason. So long as Cahill sticks around, Bolton should be okay again this year and now have some depth which they lacked last year. The fixtures are very kind to open the season with only one (Liverpool at home) red light game. Games against Sunderland, Hull, Portsmouth, Stoke and Birmingham will all provide decent opportunities for clean sheets for the Wanderers. Aside from Cahill and Steinsson it is unclear who will play in the back four so I would go with one of these for now, or the always reliable Jaaskelainen who is a snip at 4.5m.
Last year's fantasy gold mine miss the top 5 on account of their tricky fixtures which see them face no green light games in their opening 8. At home, where they were so good last year, they face Chelsea, Everton and Arsenal, none of which look like great clean sheet opportunities. They do also welcome Blackburn though and road games to Portsmouth and Wolves look more appealing. If you think Fulham can replicate last year's success then I would not let these fixtures totally turn me off the Cottagers but I would certainly not over commit at this early stage and instead focus on weeks 12-19 when the fixtures look very generous.
6. Aston Villa
This one comes with a bit of a caveat due to the losses of Martin Laursen and to a lesser extent Zat Knight. This leaves Villa with just 5 fantasy defenders, one of whom is Wilfred Bouma (eek!). If Villa can bring in a player of Distin or Upson's ability then I think they should be able to continue their success from last year and a good looking fixture list should aid this. Villa have a bye in week 2 then face Liverpool away in week 3 but after that their opponents in the next 5 average just a goal a game and only City at home looks at all threatening. Assuming he is fit, Young (5m) looks like the bargain here, along with Distin (5m) if he arrives from Pompey.
The departure of Kolo Toure shouldn't hurt too much, so long as Thomas Vermaelen can contribute from day one. The fixtures are sweet and sour with trips to United and City offset by home games against Portsmouth, Wigan and Blackburn. They too have a bye though which is again hard to work around and must be considered throughout. My argument against Arsenal players is that there are no bargains below 6.5m and with tough fixtures and a bye you might be better off with the teams below.
Joleon Lescott's departure would hurt here though so long as someone of Premier League quality was brought in, I think Everton can again be near the top of defensive charts. After a week one game against Arsenal followed by a bye, Everton could rattle off a number of clean sheets over the coming weeks with homes games against Wigan, Blackburn, Stoke and Wolves all looking rather tasty. Yobo (6m) would be the cheap pick here though Baines (6.5m) could make the leap into the fantasy elite if he continues the form from the second half of last year. If you can weather the Arsenal/bye week start, having two Everton defenders might not be the worst idea in the world.
Few surprises for the top 3 here, which goes to show that while fixtures are important, talent and performance will still dominate. Liverpool's fixtures look fairly good with only a tricky trip to Stamford Bridge flashing up as a red light. Stoke, Burnley and Hull at home should provide good opportunities to get Carragher and co off the mark. Insua (6m) could be a bargain here though I wouldn't be totally confident of a new arrival not shaking this up before kick off. My favourite is Skrtel who, if fit, should feature ahead of Agger and prove to a steal at 6m. Johnson looks overvalued at 7.5m as he surely will be reined in somewhat under Benitez's more restrained system.
As with Liverpool above, the only real test is when the two sides meet in week 8 with visits from Hull and Burnley as well as trips to Stoke and Wigan looking like good sources of defensive points. The likely back four are all over 7m so the real value could lie with new-boy Zhirkov who has featured on the left side of Ancelotti's diamond in the pre-season. If he holds that place down ahead of Cole and Maoluda he is suddenly extremely valuable, indeed perhaps the value defender in the whole league. I will keep you posted on how this story develops over the next couple of weeks.
1. Man United
The Champions are in a familiar position back on top, after leading the league in defense last year with 24 goals conceded. All the defenders are back and the depth is improved by the return from injury of Neville and Brown. The only opponents who should cause United problems - City and Arsenal - both have to travel to Old Trafford, while United open the season against Birmingham, Burnley and Wigan. Evra (6.5m) looks to be good value despite his average production last year while Vidic (8m) looks to be just too costly. Whoever grabs the right back role will be a bargain, especially if it falls the able feet of Rafael who could be very dangerous at 5.5m.
There we have it, not too many huge shocks but hopefully some interesting points to help you pick your defense to open the season with. As always, let me know what you think and continue to follow the transfer dealings on twitter.