Two forces are currently conspiring to make squad selection as difficult as I ever remember. First is the fact that the market makers have set the prices high on a lot of players, virtually shutting down the mid-price striker market and making it almost as tough to find quality in midfield for a reasonable outlay. Second is the massive uncertainty surrounding many of the safer options from years past, whether because of injury (Gerrard, Hernandez), transfer (Fabregas) or their current situation (Drogba, Tevez, Nani).
This unique situation - along with the free transfers for GW2 - is making a high number of owners gravitate towards a select few players, most of whom come at a premium. In past seasons these elite players were accommodated in our teams by supplementing them with mid-priced, reliable options like Dempsey and N'Zogbia who provided a perfect amount of security and upside for a reasonable price. Looking at the sub-7.5m midfield market now though reveals a dearth of guaranteed talent, with only a handful of players even locked in to play every week, never mind make big fantasy contributions. And so we look elsewhere to save money. The immediate answer is just to simply plug in a couple of 4.5m-5.0m midfielders (which looks like a popular one given the transfer activity surrounding Mikel, Muamba and Tiote) but I think it's dangerous to start down a road where you are effectively reducing your roster by one player (this just in: Muamba is not an attacking midfielder).
The solution I prefer, and will elaborate on here is well known by all but apparently underused. We are talking about picking the cheapest player on a team defense, given that they live and die as a unit, with the exception of attacking points, which are generally hard to predict and often overvalued. The below represent situations where one or more players in a team defense come at a discount to their teammates yet have the chance to play just as often (at least in the short term in some situations). I have not included teams like Bolton where all players cost the same aside from one pricey option (Cahill) as this really comes back to offensive defenders, which have been discussed at length before (see previous link).
Arsenal - Gibbs (5.5m), Koscielny (6.0m), Vermaelen (7.0m), Sagna (6.0m)
He may not be that established yet, and we're far from sure that he's the next Cole/Clichy but until further notice Gibbs is the starter here. If Koscielny and Vermaelen's performance from this weekend is anything to go by, this unit could be better than in prior years, and the departure of quality attacking players may encourage Wenger to try and play it a bit tighter at the back (not sure if I'm convinced by that theory though). For the sake of saving transfers I might be tempted to either go with Sagna or hold off for now and then bring in Gibbs for GW4 when he should have shaken off Tuesday's knock and the transfer window will be closed, allowing us to fully understand his role in this team before the fixtures get pretty easy.
Chelsea - Cole (7.5m), Luiz (6.5m), Terry (7.5m), Ivanovic (7.0m)
It wasn't widely reported but Ivanovic was carrying a knock into the weekend's game, and while he was able to make the bench, I would still wager that he returns to the side when healthy at the expense of Bosingwa. That still leaves Luiz as a cheap link though, presumably due to the apparent threat of Alex who did start at the weekend. I don't see that as a realistic contest for the season though. Luiz is more talented and performed in his debut season last year. Alex meanwhile has been tied with a move away from Stamford Bridge all summer, not the kind of rumour that usually befalls regular starters. I could swallow 0.5m for the security and attacking potential of Cole but I struggle to see how he's worth an extra 1.0m over Luiz (who carries attacking prowess of his own). As soon as he's fit and Villas-Boas picks him, Luiz becomes the best value player in this back line for me by some distance.
On a side note, if Luiz does not prove his fitness by this week, then Bosingwa would appear to be a potentially cheap rental and could be worth owning given the favorable fixture (WB H). Bear in mind though he many only play one more game for you.
Fulham - Riise (6.0m), Hangeland (6.5m), Senderos (4.5m), Hughes (5.0m)
I am still a little wary of Baird's presence here but given the lineup against Villa and the Europa League second leg tie with Split, along with new transfer rumours, it's looking more likely that this spot is Senderos' to lose. Hughes still represents a safer bet but we can use every 0.5m we can get and given that neither offer much offensively, I am very much leaning towards Senderos. Having a 4.5m defender on a very good defensive team who you feel comfortable playing almost every week is a massive bonus for any squad.
Liverpool - Jose Enrique (5.0m), Carragher (6.0m), Agger (6.0m), Johnson (7.0m)
A huge number of managers are already all over Jose Enrique and at 5.0m it's really a bit of a no brainer. There is the slimmest of risks that Agger could slide to left back when Skrtel returns but it's pretty doubtful that Liverpool paid ~7m for a backup. At this price he renders Carragher and Agger as overvalued while Johnson would need have a Baines type season to come close to justifying the extra expenditure. The only downside is that if Liverpool establish their defensive credentials early on, his ownership could easily leap into the 40%+ range.
Man Utd (short term) - Evra (6.5m), Evans (4.5m), Smalling (5.5m), Fabio (5.0m)
The United defense is a total mess right now and picking through the scraps gives us a high risk, high reward strategy. Of these four players mentioned, I wouldn't guarantee that any of them play and Phil Jones still waits in the wings. I'm suggesting Evans will get the call for two reasons. Firstly, he has the most experience at United and would bring at least a semblance of stability. Second, when Vidic went off injured against West Brom, it was Evans rather than Jones who came on.
I am down on Jones a bit as if you're going to spend 5.5m I would go with Smalling who can play at centre back or on the right and looks like a borderline full time starter when everyone is fit. I like Evans because at 4.5m you can play him, fairly safe in the knowledge that if he does miss out you will get a sub coming in, all the while occupying very little of your precious cash.
Man Utd (long term) - Evra (6.5m), Ferdinand (6.5m), Vidic (8.0m), Smalling (5.5m)
With Rafael out for the medium term (12 weeks - shoulder), Smalling would appear to have a jump on the right back spot (he started the Community Shield and GW1 matchup). Fabio is a major threat provided we are convinced he is actually a different person to Rafael, and the danger will be if we get a platoon situation where Smalling plays against stronger teams with Fabio's attacking ability preferred against weaker opponents.
Given the increased likelihood of minutes over the next few weeks though, I think Smalling makes a sensible investment now, and if Fabio does win out at right back or the situation becomes clouded, you've at least had a valuable contributor for 4-6 weeks.
Newcastle - R Taylor (4.0m), S Taylor (4.5m), Coloccini (5.0m), Simpson (4.0m)
In the very short term Ryan Taylor is probably the better play given his ability to take set pieces but Newcastle seem intent on finding a replacement for Jose Enrique and Taylor is probably not a long term solution. Simpson however seems to be fairly safe at right back and until one of the promoted teams establishes themselves as a defensive force, he is probably the only startable 4.0m player.
Stoke - Wilson (5.0m), Shawcross (5.0m), Woodgate (4.5m), Huth (6.0m)
Huth has now played several games at right back (including the Europa League) and Pulis seems fairly happy with the move, allowing Woodgate to slot in alongside Shawcross. Stoke have shown themselves to be fairly reliable defensively over the past couple of seasons but at 5.0m the value might not be there. At 4.5m however Woodgate makes a very good rotatable player who should be able to start the majority of weeks for you. Pairing him with someone like Senderos would give you a potentially great 9.0m pairing to rotate based on matchup (I haven't done the research to see if this pair's fixtures gel but you get the idea).
As you read this you might feel that I'm not really breaking new ground, and you're right. However, only Simpson and Jose Enrique rank as the most selected player on their team with Luiz (5th), Senderos (4th) and Evans (8th) getting no attention at all. Aside from the popular pair noted, only Smalling (7%) tops 5% ownership levels at this point.
I think all these picks are safe aside from Jonny Evans, though be sure to check Luiz and Gibbs' injury status if you are looking at them for this week. Check back soon for the GW2 preview and be sure to post any comments/questions below or at @plfantasy.