Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lineup Lessons: Gameweeks 1 -4

As we all know, getting too bogged down in data analysis at this stage of this season can be dangerous, as the sample sizes on hand lead to one anomaly having a material impact on our conclusions (whether or not that changes after just 8-10 weeks is an argument for another day, but we can agree that three of four games isn't enough to make too many concrete claims).

One factor, however, that is equally essentially to fantasy success that can be discussed now is playing time. Regular playing time at this stage of the season doesn't guarantee a future spot in the side, but it is indicative that a given player sits atop the depth chart at his position and is at least in a position of privilege for the coming weeks.

One of the charts I included in the recently released e-book showed the defenders for every team for each week of the season, assigning them a status based on whether they were rotated by choice or unavailable for selection. The idea being, that we can deal with injuries and suspensions but seemingly random rotations can ruin a player's fantasy value and thus he shouldn't be considered for ownership, even if he is a 'cheap link' to that defense.

For this season, I've extended this to all players and will track these movements as the season progresses. I will leverage from these charts when performing the 'lineup lesson' analysis that we discussed last season and it will hopefully make it easier to spot trends and avoid potential mistakes.

A couple of quick notes:
  • For simplicity, if a player is on the bench then I will classify him as 'rotated', even if there is some question over his fitness.
  • For player positions, it can sometimes be hard to pinpoint exactly whether a player is playing as an attacking midfielder (AM) / forward (FW) or a central midfielder (CM) / attacking midfielder, but the idea behind these classifications is to show whether someone like Michu is playing as a lone front man or just off a teammate, or whether Jack Wilshere is playing in a holding role or a more advanced position in the front four, so the definition doesn't have to be too precise.
  • Sometimes it is hard to identify whether a player has been rested or is injured, with an injury only revealing itself a week or so later. I will endeavour to get the charts as accurate as possible but if you ever spot an issue, please let me know and I can get that updated.
Here then, are the lineups for the first four weeks of the season:

Arsenal
For the most part, Arsene Wenger seems to be quite settled on the defensive side of the pitch with Szczesny, Gibbs, Mertesacker and Koscielny all playing every game in which they were available. Jenkinson got the nod over Sagna in GW3 and this week the Frenchman deputised at centre back, so we're not 100% clear as to who owns that right back spot at the moment. Unless we see solid evidence that Jenkinson has made the right back spot his own (and thus become an intriguing cheap link at just 4.5m), Mertesacker or Gibbs look like the best choices here.

Going forward, Arsenal enjoy the best strength and depth they've had in recent memory with nine capable players (plus the injured Arteta and Diaby) competing for just five spots. The addition of Ozil will likely limit the number of minutes Wilshere gets in a more advanced role, assuming Cazorla returns to fitness sooner rather than later. With so much competition paired with a couple of heavy hitters (who are likely to start whenever healthy) in Ozil and Walcott, the rest of this midfield looks tough to own, even with their tempting price tags. Perhaps Ramsey - who has done an excellent job at getting forward from deeper positions - is the exception and remains ownable at under 6.0m.

Aston Villa
A very settled team here, with only a couple of optional rotations all season. Whether or not there's any value outside of the excellent Benteke is questionable, but at least we know which players will collect their two points every week!

Cardiff
Not too much excitement here either, though the arrival of Theophile seems to have ended the run in the side for Connolly. Regardless, if you did want to access this defense, Turner at 4.0m looks just as safe yet cheaper. Bellamy missed out this week due to a lack of overall fitness and his ongoing country-vs-club debate should be a red flag for the 4%+ managers who currently own the Welshman.

Chelsea
With this week's round of rotations, only Hazard and Ramires are left among all midfielders and forwards as being ever present for Mourinho (in just three games, remember). The front line looks particularly messy with four legitimate options vying for just a single spot. Given the prices involved that entire group might well prove to be unownable and could well be joined by several of the midfield group if Hazard suffers the same fate as his colleagues in the coming weeks. How to deal with such a situation is tricky and you need to assess if 80% of Hazard is better than 95% of someone like Michu who will start virtually every game when available.

At least things are looking settled along the back line with Cahill and Luiz the only rotation issue to date. Now that Luiz is staying at Stamford Bridge and has regained fitness, we can expect him to feature more often than not and if you have any concerns about Terry's ability to play every week, Luiz could offer a nice option given his discounted price tag compared to the safer Cole.

Crystal Palace
Aside from new signing Mariappa sliding in at right back, Palace have been unchanged for the last three games and look to be one of the more predictable sides in the league. Whether or not we can find anyone to squeeze any fantasy value out of is a question better suited to the upcoming 'fanning the flames' piece.

Everton
Martinez has been incredibly consistent in his team selection, with the departure of Fellaini being the only change of note. He has been replaced in the side by Gareth Barry, which should allow the impressive Ross Barkley to move into Fellaini's old attacking role: a factor which hasn't gone unnoticed by the 24% of managers who have already nabbed the Everton midfielder. In a strange quirk, he actually failed to register a shot this week in that advanced role, after averaging over four in the first three games, though the quality of opponent obviously played a role there too.

With three goals in four games, this Everton side haven't grabbed many headlines to start the year, yet they've managed to register 66 shots (3rd in the league) including 40 inside the box (t1st) and 22 on target (4th). Part of that will be driven by their relatively weak schedule to open the season, but this is shaping up to be a useful team again and given the consistency of players on offer, should offer some fantasy value as the season progresses.

Fulham
The story of this lineup so far has merely been a continuation of last season: stability at the front and back with a total mess filling the midfield. Well, in truth, the middle of the midfield is set with Parker and Sidwell holding down the fort, but while that pair have some value as minimum price plugs, it's the wide positions where we might find some value in this side yet Duff, Kacaniklic, Ruiz, Kasami and Taarabt have all been rotated at will. Given the fact that three players (van Persie, Giroud and Lambert) have taken as many shots inside the box as this entire team, this mess is one to be avoided for the foreseeable future.

Hull
With the new signings settled into this team, there's very little to discuss here with the only question mark being what happens when Sagbo returns (in all likelihood not very much for fantasy managers).

Liverpool
This is an interesting side whose lineup became increasingly complex as the transfer window went on. Though the team has depth at all positions, the 'keeper and full back positions look settled and that's probably where our focus should lie for now when trying to capitalise on this excellent defensive unit. Sakho looked somewhat erratic on debut Monday night, though his physical skills and comfort on the ball were clear to see (perhaps to a fault) and given the large outlay to bring him to Anfield, it's likely that over time he works himself in the starting lineup here ahead of both Skrtel and Toure. For a 0.5m saving though, that risk is currently not worth taking with Jose Enrique and (when fit) Johnson representing the best value here if you want to double down with Mignolet.

The midfield has been fairly predictable to date but with Moses making a scoring debut and Suarez nearing a return from suspension, this situation might start to get messy. Coutinho has quietly emerged as a force within this team and Rodgers noted after the game that his departure really impacted his team's ability going forward. That served as a clue as to how highly Coutinho is valued and he should be able to start most games when healthy. The other spot could be mired in rotation all year so expectations for old favourite Moses should be tempered.

Edit: Coutinho is now said to be out for six weeks which will open the way for someone else to enjoy a brief spell in the side.

Man City
Manuel Pellegrini has already given 19 different players a start this season, with Micah Richards coming close to fitness to become the 20th (and likely end the run of one of only two ever presents in this side - Zabaleta). Pellegrini's approach to rotation was rather strange, with the manager naming an unchanged front six for the opening three games of the year then dropping all but Yaya Toure this week (Silva was injured) for the trip to Stoke. Normally we'd expect a team to cycle through their options, dropping one star every other week or so to keep everyone fresh, and given the disappointing display this week from City (two SiB and three SoT), we might see that next time Pellegrini wants to shuffle his deck.

This rotation probably doesn't a huge impact on City player's value, as we all knew this was coming and it's largely built into their prices already (if we thought Aguero would play 38 games his price would be much closer to van Persie's 14.0m than his current 11.1m). Though his playing time is certainly a plus, I'd encourage Yaya Toure owners to look at the Ivorian's two SoT's and four touches inside the opponents box and then take a long hard look at players like Walcott or Michu who can be had for a similar price.

Man Utd
David Moyes has run out a very settled lineup during his brief time at Old Trafford with most changes being forced on him rather than his desire to rotate. He always favoured a stable lineup at Everton and that seems to have carried over to his new team, a fact that should help reasonably priced options like Welbeck and Valencia become more reliable than in past years.

Newcastle
We're seeing some movement in this team but at the key spots there's enough stability to offer fantasy value. At the back, it isn't clear whether Steven Taylor will be sidelined for good or if this week's benching was a one off, so for now the well priced and versatile Yanga-Mbiwa looks like a cheap link here. Assuming Cabaye is back, this midfield has a good amount of depth which will unfortunately limits everyone's potential aside from the impressive Ben Arfa.

Norwich
Chris Hughton tinkered with his midfield options during the first couple of games of the season but with Snodgrass now fit and Elmander brought in as another forward option, he seems to have settled on a lineup, naming an unchanged side in GW3 and GW4. Defensively the team looks set now that Bassong is fit, though at 4.2m Whittaker looks well placed to offer good value as a cheap link there. Attacking wise, it's been the youngster Redmond who's impressed the most with 10 shots already registered (though it should be noted that just one of these came inside the box).

Southampton
It's not really clear what Southampton are doing at the full back positions, which is significant because Clyne (4.4m), Fox (4.4m) and particularly Chambers (4.0m) come at a discount to the central options in this team. One would expect Shaw (4.7m) and Clyne to eventually take those spots but in the mean time, Boruc (4.5m) and Fonte (4.6m) offer the best combination of reliability and value here.

The midfield appears to be fairly stable, though the arrival of record signing Osvaldo puts Rodriguez's playing time in serious jeopardy. It looks likely that he will split time with young Ward-Prowse to play on the opposite flank from the likely entrenched Lallana (with Lambert, of course, locked in up front). Osvaldo has shown some promising flashes in his limited minutes so far, though it seems almost unconscionable that he comes in with a higher price tag than Lambert, who's league leading seven SoT speak to a player who could (and perhaps should) have a better points haul than he already does.

Stoke
As always Tony Pulis Mark Hughes has rolled out his side with extreme predictability, with the rotation of Crouch and Jones the only real move of note. There's really no reason to get involved at all there, and the best bets in this side could be a couple of minimum priced options in Marc Wilson and Jermaine Pennant. With Glenn Whelan lurking on the bench, it isn't 100% guaranteed that Wilson will be able to hold down that defensive midfield spot, but for now he makes a nice addition as a 5th defender type.

Sunderland
This team is a total disaster right now, and while there is certainly scope for something to rise from the ashes, I wouldn't want to try and pinpoint any one player to back right now. Colback and Johnson are the only ever-present outfield players through four weeks, and considering Colback is a midfielder being deployed as a defender, there's not much to dwell on there (Johnson is a reasonable prospect but feels more like a 5.5m player rather than one costing 6.9m). We'd expect Fletcher and Altidore to get the lion's share of starts up front, but Borini is not without talent and could still upset things, so given the lack of chances going around for this team already (just 11 SoT in four games) it seems prudent to steer clear and see if Di Canio can right this sinking ship.

Swansea
Given the knocks to several midfielders already this season, we still don't have a clear answer as to which of the talented group will be benched with any regularity, though De Guzman can probably be the first name thrown into that dubious category. That would leave Dyer, Hernandez and Routledge fighting for two spots and with returns somewhat limited so far, one is minded to stay away until someone emerges from that group as a legit fantasy threat. At least this defense is nice and settled with four straight games with an unchanged back five.

Tottenham
Let's start with the easy bit. The defense has been unchanged for all four games with Kaboul relegated to backup duty behind Vertonghen and Dawson (who is excellent value at just 5.1m and likely due for another price rise when people realise it). The centre of the park sees Dembele, Paulinho and Capoue scrapping for minutes with the former two looking favourites to play more often than not. Paulinho has seen time in a more advanced role too, but with Eriksen now joining the team and Sigurdsson enjoying a very good game this week, a repeat of that deployment could be limited and thus some restraint needs to be exercised before getting carried away with his promising statistical start. No one has really distanced themselves from the pack here (other than Paulinho) with Chadli probably edging it thanks to his solid assist threat (eight created chances) and affordable price tag (7.5m). Aside from Lamela (9.0m), there are some very promising price tags on offer here and at 7.0m and 5.5m, there's even scope for the likes of Paulinho and Dembele to succeed even if they are held back in deeper roles. Despite the presence of Defoe, it looks as though Soldado will be the clear number one forward, a fact which should set him up nicely to deliver strong returns on his reasonable (though by no means cheap) price tag.

West Brom
With the recent signings only just coming into contention, it's tough to forecast how this team is going to shake out. With just one goal to their name through four games, it's clear that something needs to change and thus we probably can't write any of the incumbent attacking players into Clarke's future team sheets in anything more than pencil (the defense looks settled but haven't performed overly well so offer little right now). There is talent here and it's a team worth watching but there are simply too many question marks to get involved with old favourites like Sessegnon, Sinclair or Anelka just yet.

West Ham
Sam Allardyce has opted for a consistent lineup again so far this season with only a couple of voluntary changes made to date. The biggest long term question is who will miss out when Downing, Jarvis, Cole and Nolan are all healthy, though the most useful of those options - Nolan - also looks like the most secure so there's nothing to lose sleep over here. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Shot data: a terrifyingly early look at team totals

I simultaneously love and hate writing posts at this time of year. On the plus side, there is so much happening with new transfer signings bedding into their respective teams, the promoted sides showing what they're made of and familiar faces emerging or fading as fantasy stars. With all that excitement though, comes the nagging issue of sample size, which needs to be trotted out with boring regularity during these early stages of the season. I don't think anyone reading these pages would be naive enough to assume that Liverpool have emerged as the best defensive unit of all time, yet to totally ignore their impressive start seems a bit too conservative in the other direction and might lead us to miss out on emerging trends.

With this in mind, I'm going to have a very tentative peak at the shots created/conceded by each team compared with their 2012/13 totals and see if we can we start to spot any flags which need to be watched more closely in the coming weeks. Remember, any variance here is absolutely not a reason to conclude anything, just a mere flag to look deeper as to what might be causing that difference in the coming weeks.

Attacking data
One point to note, which will have been picked up by anyone who's even casually glanced at the weekly scores is that goals are down so far this year and this is backed up by lower shot/created chance numbers. The variance isn't huge (it amounts to about one less shot inside the box per team each week) but it could be an early indication of a more defensive league, in part due to the arrival of a number of generally conservative managers at the league's best teams (no matter the opponents, it was rare for United to get shutout in back-to-back games under Ferguson's leadership. Indeed, United only threw out two zeros in all of 2012-13 in the league).

Liverpool have the greatest variance to date, averaging just 12 shots through three games compared to 19 for last season, though that is largely driven by their woeful display against Villa (five total shots) and one game should not cause too much alarm just yet, especially with their talisman Suarez due back in a couple of weeks.

If we look at the volume of created chances we see that all but three teams come within a variance of two chances from last season - a sign to suggest that using prior year data is probably a reasonable approximation during these early stages of the season.

Defensive data
As noted above, defensive data is generally improved across the board so it's no surprise to see a couple of strong performers here. Sunderland's improvement is as much to do with their terrible record last season (17 shots conceded) as their strong play this year (11), though in fairness, continued play like this would push them into ownable territory; a marked improvement from last campaign. Everton's data looks outstanding, though the strength of their opponents needs to be considered. Still, beating up on weak teams is a definite asset for a fantasy defense and with three strong performences from three attempts, this is probably the most significant finding to date.

As we said, there's nothing here to overreact to, with the main conclusion being that prior year data is probably a useful benchmark and thus will continue to dominate the mechanics behind the weekly rankings for the coming weeks.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Coming up

I'm back on solid ground and back to reality so the blog will be getting back into full swing very soon. Over the last three weeks I haven't had much of an internet connection and didn't have a laptop, so it's going to take me a couple of days to get the data recorded and catch up with the latest news, but I hope to have a limited data set ready for GW4 and everything up and running by GW5. In reality, this is fine as two or three weeks of current year data isn't going to help us too much anyway, so the only real value I can offer in the early weeks is some rambling notes over who is starting and who isn't.

The priority then is to get all the underlying data work done and then put together a bumper "lineup lessons" to discuss the new transfers and a couple of unexpected surprise names.

Thanks for sticking with me through this quiet period and thanks again to everyone who bought the e-book.