Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Playing Your Card Right Part II: Assembling a Squad

As we approach the time of the year when managers are increasingly interested in playing their wildcard, it's time to start thinking about some of the key principles and themes to bear in mind when making those all important transfers.

In Part I we looked at the importance of looking forward and not dwelling on the past successes of players to date. We now turn our attention to the importance of building a squad, rather than a team, and how this can make the difference between average and bad or great and good weeks.

By my count, only six players managed to play every game last year, four of which were goalkeepers (Baines and Skrtel were the other two). As the chart below shows, the majority of 'keepers played a lot of minutes but the other positions (particularly midfielders and forwards) were less predictable. Just 29% of forwards played in 26 games or more and only 49% even managed to appear in half of their teams' games.

So what does this mean? Well, in short, that no matter how well we avoid injuries and suspensions, our players (the stars and the scrubs) are going to miss time and thus it's important to have players ready to step in when those unexpected absences occur.

If we (somewhat optimistically) suggest that we are able to select 10 players who each play 28 games, that would still leave 100 games worth of appearances available in your side. Granted, you will be able to avoid a number of those with your weekly transfers but even optimistically you're still looking at 50+ appearances required from auto subs off your bench so having a terrible bench could cost you 100 points, and that's assuming everyone else only scores appearance points. In reality, you could be looking at hole of closer to 150 points, just because you chose to save the extra 0.5m and grab Shane Ferguson and Robbie Blake.

How much to spend
Though we're emphasizing the importance of a deep squad, it's important to not get carried away and invest too much on players who will only play in an emergency. My preferred strategy is to try and grab one player who you consider to be rotatable every week and then a couple of players who come with a low price tag but are as locked into their team's lineup as possible. With the relative abundance of cheap defenders this year, there is no reason you couldn't grab three budget defenders with the intention or rotating them, along with a budget forward to go along with your probably elite pairing from the talented group available. That should leave you with enough cash to grab 5 good midfielders and thus you should be able to field a decent XI every week, even when the rotations, injuries and suspensions start mounting up over Christmas.

Defenders from Newcastle, Swansea, Sunderland and QPR all give promising returns in that 4.5m range, while injuries or a change in form could yet give players like Evans, P Robinson or Ward value this year. I therefore see no reason to be holding ~5.0m players on the bench every week. On the flip side, while players like N Taylor and Simpson are appealing, I wouldn't be too worried about spending ~4.5m if you prefer players in that price range, or their fixtures gel better with your premium players (that said, that pair are my favorite players from their respective teams' defense).

In midfield, the budget options are much thinner, and for that reason I would lean towards holding 5 useful options, preferring to save money in defense and up front instead. Looking at FFS's top 20 midfielders based on their ICT index, we see just a couple of sub-6.0m options with good underlying stats: O'Hara, Eagles, Faurlin and Moses. Moses has been brutal this year earning zero (!) points other than those awarded for showing up (and a couple of lousy clean sheet points) while Faurlin has just a single big game to his name. While I advise against relying on the past too much, it's also important to remember that players aren't robots and such a lack of production will be tough to overcome as players lose confidence. I'm not ready to totally give up on Moses but we need to see at least some production before he can considered ownable again. The likes of Eagles and O'Hara give us a couple of budget options who've started the season well but there really aren't too many others to shout about. With that in mind, I would be minded to try and stretch to a ~6.5m budget for your 5th midfielder, bringing the likes of Walters, Ramsey, Larsson and Cabaye into your price range.

Up front there are a number of good budget options, so there's no reason to be regularly a benching a Bendtner, Sturridge or Zamora type. The 6.0m range looks useful with Klasnic, Long and Hoilett bringing excellent underlying stats to match their production, but it's even further down the price list that my attention lies. Morison, Graham, Helguson, Best, Di Santo and Dembele have all provided value at some point this year and those first three at least have the kind of underlying stats which would imply their success should continue. We will delve into the detail there in a future post, but for now, we can certainly conclude that the depth of budget front men is fairly good and so again, there is no reason to have players not playing or contributing with that third forward slot.

I am amazed that more managers aren't employing a third budget forward (Graham 3%, Morison 1% and Helguson 1%), suggesting that the majority are either playing 3 up top every week or benching too much value on a weekly basis. If you're convinced that Ba or Klasnic will continue to score with every other shot that hits the target then he will deliver better production than these budget options, but if you believe that those kind of returns are unsustainable, the cheaper players make more sense (for what it's worth that's the direction I currently lean).

This rule probably hasn't told you much that you didn't already know (14 players are better than 11!) but I hope it's put into the context the fine line you need to tread between keeping a strong team and not overpaying for bench warmers. I don't generally advocate paying for transfers but it's vital to maintain your squad and remove dead weight as soon as possible, rather than keep using transfers only on your premium spots. The injuries are starting to mount, players are reaching the 5 yellow card mark, and Mancini continues to work his infuriating magic, so if your squad's a mess, it might be time to play your wildcard now; just make sure you do it right. 

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