Thursday, October 30, 2014

Adopt a Team: Liverpool and Newcastle lineups

I'm a little bit pressed for time this week so I'm going to keep this post briefer than before so we have time to get into the stats before the weekend.

Liverpool

Despite losing Suarez who was obviously a big driver behind this team's success last season, it's hard to argue that this squad isn't deeper than it was last year, with quality backups at virtually every position. Despite having seven playable options, the back line has been very settled with Moreno, Lovren, Skrtel and Manquillo each starting virtually every game and never appearing as a substitute. Moreno and Lovren were high profile captures during the off season so it was reaonable to pencil that pair in. Skrtel re-solididied his place in this side last season after a year or so of sporadic play but with Sakho available I still felt there was some risk there. That really hasn't materialised and with Sakho now sidelined, the big Slovakian looks pretty locked in right now. If I'm mildly surprised that Sakho hasn't vultured more minutes in the middle I am close to amazed that Manquillo has been able to make that right back spot his own. Johnson, Toure, Flanagan and even Jose Enrique could well have been fancied over the young Spaniard who had played just six league games for Atletico over the past two seasons and - at least I thought - came to Liverpool on loan as an extended trial to showcase his talent for a potential future transfer. Whatever the thought process, he's made the spot his own so far this season and thus becomes the obvious cheap link in this team. Given his age, there might be some concern that rotation will come in the future, perhaps suggesting Lovren could be worth the 0.4m premium but that's something we'll get to tomorrow when we look at this group's attacking potential.

In midfield, we have a similar situation with job security held by a number of players despite some impressive depth waiting in the wings. Markovic, Lucas, Can, Allen and, lately, Coutinho have found themselves on the outside looking in with Gerrard, Henderson, Sterling and Lallana almost ever present when available. The final spot has rotated between those other players along with Sturridge who was deployed alongside Balotelli when they were both available. Though it's hard to see Coutinho being totally pushed out of this side, he obviously can't be relied upon right now, so that just leaves those four big names plus Balotelli up front to choose from. Sturridge's return is going to cloud that issue somewhat as in the three games he played with Balotelli, a pure defensive option (Allen or Lucas) was deployed, presumably to account for the lack of defensive help from that duo and to an extent Sterling. The job security is useful here as no one really comes cheaply, unless you want to get cute with one of the more defensively minded players. Again, we'll look at whether any of those options are worth looking at in the stats review.

With Liverpool travelling away from Anfield, we might expect them to stick with either Allen or Can (or both) in the middle to monitor Sissoko, Cabella and company, which would mean Coutinho missing out again unless he can displace one of those regulars (or Balotelli is sidelined after his continuing struggle for form).

Newcastle

Though competing in a different part of the league table, the story behind Newcastle's squad this year is somewhat similar to this week's opponents: improved depth but less top tier talent. Newcastle's struggles since Cabaye and Remy left have been well documented, with Pardew once again noting his team's struggles to overcome those losses this week. The replacements certainly have promise with Cabella, Riviere and Ayoze all offering flashes of what excited the Newcastle scouts, while Cisse was something akin to a new signing when he was briefly healthy, playing excellently in a handful of games become succumbing to a knee injury. The results haven't been great but there's more than enough talent here to warrant a closer look.

At the back this has been a very settled team with just six players getting a start and only five of them being in serious contention for starter minutes (Haidara looks like a firm backup for Dummett at left back). Williamson's injury opened the door for Steven Taylor to make a return to the team though we still don't have a definitive answer as to who will hold onto their place when everyone is healthy. Dummett, at 4.0m, looks like the obvious play for this defense but Davide Santon is apparently getting close to full health and will surely have every chance to re-take his starting spot in the coming weeks. We'll touch on the attacking threats in the next post but Coloccini's combination of job security and price tag looks like a strong place to start.

Much like Liverpool, given the depth here it is surprising that Pardew has opted for a fairly settled lineup with Colback, Gouffran and Sissoko being ever present with the other two spots filled by a couple of rotated pairs in Cabella/Obertan and Anita/Tiote. Based on the classic YouTube scouting and sporadic reviews from France, Cabella was the player most people were excited about and he's done okay - good enough to deserve better than his recent benching but not enough to warrant serious fantasy consideration. We'll see what a deeper dive into the stats provides tomorrow but outside of Cabella - who's playing time is in question - I'm not sure there's enough upside here to justify a place in your team.

Having been burned before, managers will be understandably wary of buying into Papiss Cisse's rejuvenation but based on an admittedly small sample, serious attention needs to be paid to him when he returns from a knee injury. Again, we'll dive into detailed stats tomorrow but just know that Cisse's numbers in just a handful of games were excellent and far eclipsed anything managed by teammate Riviere, who was given the chance to lead the line but seems to have fallen out of favour of late. At 6.7m and with underwhelming stats, if Riviere wins this starting job then it might be time to move on. If however the 5.9m Cisse can snag the job, he could become one of the most interesting budget front men to look at over the coming weeks.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Adopt a Team: Everton vs Burnley review

This was an enjoyable game to watch for the neutral spectator, with two teams that were fairly evenly matched on the day and a couple of quality moments which defined the game. If we're being honest, the game was generally close because of Everton's inability to really push on and dominate against the supposed "lesser" team, but credit must be given for Burnley's industry and the way Dyche had his team setup which countered much of what Everton wanted to do.

The game stats show Everton dominating in overall possession (64%) though less so in the amount of time spent in the opponents' half (56%) which highlights the fact that Everton were cautious for long stretches of this game; something that was always likely to be true with Barry, McCarthy and Osman all used in the middle of the field. Though perhaps harsh to criticise a team who scored three away from home, without Mirallas, Barkley and Pienaar I believe this team lacks a bit of creativity and at times they lacked direction in their attacking play. The one exception all day was really the full backs who drove the team forward and provided the extra man in useful positions which led to much of the best attacking play Everton managed. Burnley's full backs showed some potential too, but it was Coleman and particularly Baines who looked truly dynamic and a clear difference in class between these sides.

Everton focus
Defensively the team looked okay and Howard wasn't tested too many times despite Burnley's 8 SiB. Once again it was an error which led to a goal, with Lukaku this time being the culprit with a sloppy pass being intercepted and nicely finished by Ings. That was the league leading sixth error punished with a goal and that area of their game will need to be cleaned up if Baines and company are truly going to be elite defensive options. Some regression will help (they're unlikely to have 50% of all their mistakes converted into goals all season) but there were a number of times where midfielders were also caught in possession in dangerous positions as they looked build the play from the back. Whether or not that tactic helps Everton win games, there's no doubt that at the moment it isn't helping their defensive cause. On my viewing I felt that Alcaraz was a bit patchy and didn't look quite as solid as Jagielka's other partners, yet the stats show he led the team in both interceptions and clearances so perhaps I'm doing him a disservice. Baines actually had one of his worst statistical games with just a single created chance and no shots on goal. Of course, he still wound up with an assist and had almost as many touches in the final third (19) as Naismith and Lukaku (20). As noted in the preview, if you have any faith this team can start registering clean sheets, Baines becomes a player who can now justify that price tag based on his otherworldly attacking numbers.

It's fair to say that the Everton (starting) midfield was somewhat underwhelming but not in a way where they played poorly so much as just not offering anything at all to get excited about. In fairness, a large portion of that is likely due to the instructions from Martinez but it was still extremely noticeable how much more dynamic the team were with Barkley and Pienaar on during the last 20 or so minutes of the game. If it's as simple as a healthy Barkley replacing McCarthy or Osman then you can probably pencil in an uptick in attacking numbers going forward, but the concern is that this will consistently be the "away" lineup, with perhaps Barkley splitting time with Eto'o; a move that would put everyone's job security and ultimate production in question.

There's a chance that everyone's production is in question in large part due to the somewhat disappointing display from Lukaku here which built upon some questions that have been raised by Everton fans for his play to date this season. Again, the Belgian front man wasn't bad, it's just he was a touch sloppy with some of his layoffs and didn't really do enough to apply constant pressure to Burnley's backline which has been shown to be, shall we say, susceptible to such pressure. He did of course end the game with a goal (well finished after his initial effort was blocked) and one could easily play the "best players score when they don't play well" card. Yet, that makes you feel better if you've spent 28 million on a player and can't move on but in fantasy circles we have plenty of other options so I'd personally take the player with the great stats than relying on players to score when they don't "play well". This was just one game though and for the most part Lukaku's stats are just fine and thus he remains an interesting differentiator, though should not be confused for an elite option to compete with the likes of Diego Costa or Aguero.

One of the stand out players in the game was Naismith who provided plenty of energy - as expected - and also some genuine quality which is perhaps lost in his "scrappy" narrative. Unfortunately, with Eto'o playing well and Barkley regaining fitness, you have to think that the chances for the Scot will start to decline in the coming weeks. As for Eto'o, his age is going to be a factor at some point with Martinez highlighting that he was a surprised that the Cameroon star managed another 90 minutes here after playing a full game in midweek. Questions of playing time for Lukaku from a fantasy perspective are moot, as if he plays as he did last year then he's essentially undroppable while if his form suffers then the likes of Eto'o and Naismith will start to steal minutes, but in that scenario he wouldn't be ownable at 9.0m anyway. In short then, he remains an option for now but should be on a short leash should be see any further decline from last season's lofty heights.

Burnley focus
Based on the numbers to date this season, we highlighted Trippier and Arfield as a couple of players to look at and both looked good in this one. It's not a reasonable benchmark to compare Trippier to Baines but the Burnley man is solidly in the next category down with the likes of Cresswell and Roberston. Unlike that pair though, Trippier has a teammate (Duff) who is a full 0.7m less and so while the couple of created chances a week are nice, they aren't enough to justify that premium on paper and nothing I saw in this game really suggests otherwise.

As for Arfield, he took up some promising positions in the space off the front pair and managed to orchestrate what limited attacking possession Burnley had. As a general point, relying on "creative" players from the lower scoring teams can be a risk as you are of course reliant on their other players more than you might be with someone who takes their penalties or accounts for a large share of their shots. The goods news for Arfield is that he is supplementing his useful 10 created chances with an excellent 10 SiB and therefore continues to offer a nice dual threat for his 5.0m tag. In this contest he wasn't able to really get close enough to Howard's goal to create a real threat but he still managed to add another three shots to his total and led his team in passes in the final third (9) so I wouldn't be overly concerned with rolling with Arfield as a very promising 5th midfielder.

One player I didn't get a chance to talk about in the game preview was George Boyd, whose 2% ownership is second to only Duff among the Burnley outfield players. I must say I didn't see a great deal here to really excite me, which echoes what the stat sheet shows with Boyd offering up 7 created chances and 6 SiB. It should be noted that those numbers have come in just six games, but still, they don't particularly leap off the page. However, at 4.4m he comes at a significant saving over Arfield and assuming he offers the same job security (which looks like a fair assumption right now) he certainly justifies consideration as a 5th midfielder who you might only start once a month. This probably wasn't a great game to judge him on either, as he seems to have been pushed particularly deep, perhaps to help deal with the threat of Baines, and so never really got into the kind of positions we'd expect fantasy points to flow from. That doesn't mean he can't be useful, of course, but if your budget stretches, the data still suggests that Arfield is a tick ahead of Boyd as an overall fantasy contributor. It's also worth noting that Dean Marney was playing well by all accounts before his injury and is set to return to the side soon, offering another 4.4m option.

Both of these teams have the potential to offer solid fantasy options for your team, though few, if any, really jump out as being the "must have" players so many managers talk about. That, of course, is a good thing and represents an opportunity to solidify your team with productive mid-level options who might save you 0.5m here and there and ultimately free up cash to use on the likes of Aguero or Diego Costa in other positions in your team. Baines is the main exception to that trend and he continues to walk a fine line as to whether his price tag can justify the cost. The upcoming fixture list for both these sides look promising and with wildcard season likely approaching, there are worse ideas that taking a chance with a couple of these options - such as Lukaku or Baines - with the knowledge that you can easily bail out in a couple of weeks if they fails to really push on to that next level we all expect.


Next up on the adopt a team schedule we look at two interesting teams not enjoying the best start to the new campaign: Liverpool and Newcastle.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Adopt a Team: Burnley Stats

The above chart doesn't show Burnley in a great light, with a few too many games drifting into that bottom left quadrant, but hey, at least they're (probably) better than QPR! The underlying data suggests their defense has actually been pretty useful with above average performances in every game other than this week's defeat to West Ham and for the most part they've been reasonable value for their three clean sheets. They have conceded 70 SiB which isn't great but given the fact they've already got one meeting with Chelsea and Man Utd out of the way and already travelled to Swansea and West Brom, there's hope that some success might come in the future against fellow bottom dwellers.

Going forward, the team really struggled out of the gates with just a single goal in the first six games, but they have at least come back with two at Leicester and a consolation against West Ham suggesting there might yet be light at the end of the tunnel. The team have created 68 chances to date which puts them 15th in the league, but they compare favourably to the likes of Swansea (57), West Brom (66) and even Tottenham (73) so that number should certainly spark enough interest to not write this whole unit off, despite the fact that Sergio Aguero scored as many goals in just over an hour's work this past week as this team have all season. Let's take a look at who has contributed the most to the team's attacking success (however limited it is) so far this season:

Kieran Trippier The chart looks quite promising for Trippier's credentials as a dual threat defender with Burnley's reasonable defensive record discussed above combined with what appears to be a very good attacking threat (at least when it comes to assist potential). As if often the way in these pages though, we need to pour a bit of water of those flames. If we quickly glance back at the defender chart posted in the Everton stats piece we see that while Trippier has enjoyed some solid statistical games to date, we're unlikely to confuse him for Baines, Ivanovic or even Cresswell anytime soon. Of course, he's also cheaper than the elite class but my concern is that for reasons that aren't clear to me, the market makers priced him at 1.0m more than some his teammates and while that gap has now narrowed to 0.7m, that's still a hefty premium to pay over Michael Duff, who's been ever present for Burnley this season. If we were talking about a mid-upper team who offered a great clean sheet potential every week then you might argue that the increased attacking threat is worth this investment but for a team like Burnley, it's likely you're looking for at best a fourth defender and thus 4.9m is just a bit too steep to bench three of every four weeks. I'm keen to see Trippier play this week against a good side like Everton and see if he can still make a mark in the attacking third but it's going to take something special to suggest he's worth that premium.

Scott Arfield Coming into the season Arfield, along with Danny Ings, was one of the few Burnley players I had real expectations of, and someone I am looking forward to watching this week. So far so good for the young Scot, who has followed up his opening gameweek goal against Chelsea with some impressive stats. Consider the below comparisons (these are not a suggestion that Arfield is necessarily in their overall class, just that he's shown flashes of promise to date, at least in terms of his underlying data):

Arfield 17 shots, 10 SiB, 9 created chances, 0.5% ownership
Nacer Chadli 15 shots, 14 SiB, 10 created chances, 12% ownership
Oscar 16 shots, 10 SiB, 9 created chances, 3% ownership
Schneiderlein 10 shots, 8 SiB, 5 created chances, 18% ownership

This is interesting company for a 5.0m player and his lack of "big" games has surpressed his ownership numbers making his a perfect 5th midfielder candidate. I look forward to seeing him in action tomorrow.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Adopt a Team: Everton stats

Given their tough fixture list to date - Everton have already faced Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man Utd - and having not seen too many of their games myself, I figured a deeper look at the stats would reveal a team who had either been particularly unlucky with their results or were simply victim to those tough teams. To a degree that's true, as they picked up just two points from the three games in which the data falls into the top right quadrant yet their defense has been below average in the other five contests as they've struggled along with just a couple of clean sheets. This week's 3-0 win over Villa will have many assuming the team have turned the corner but those three goals came on just eight SiB (six SoT) suggesting there is still some way to go until we see this attacking unit hit the heights of last season.

It's not surprising to see that Everton have tended to favour the left side of the pitch when going forward with 49% of their created chances and 61% of their crosses come from the left flank. To put those numbers in context, both are the highest in the league with the second highest totals being 44% and 57% respectively (both Crystal Palace). How to capitalise on that trend in the midfield isn't immediately obvious though no such questions remain at the back, with Leighton Baines enjoying an unbelievable start to the season in terms of attacking data (more on that below).

At the back, the 16 goals conceded put them 19th in the league, ahead of only QPR but a couple of factors point towards a brighter future. First, they've surrendered 58 SiB which ranks 12th in the league: not spectacular, but far better than their goal total suggests. Further, the defense have made a league leading 10 errors, five of which have led to goals (which is also a league high). Of course, this kind of error is an issue and will hurt a team's chances at a clean sheet every week but there isn't much evidence that this stat is stable from year to year and there's reason to think they've just been unluckily punished for their slips, compared to, say, Man Utd whose eight errors have led to just a single goal. Everton were a bit error prone last season, ranking 15th with 24 errors, but even so, that pace is a far cry from 10 in just eight games and those 24 errors last year gave rise to just six goals. In short we'd expect a combination of skill and regressing luck to help this team on the error front, which together with a lower conversion rate of shots into goals should help this defense get back to a level (or close to) the one they played at last season.

Player Focus

Let's take a look at the Everton squad to date, plotting their goal and assist threats:

Leighton Baines
It's not hard to conclude on who stands out here with Baines enjoying what could be the biggest lead in the assists department over his team-mates as anyone else in the league. Indeed, the lead looks just as ridiculous when we expand the chart to include all defensive players (it should be noted that part of his advantage in the goal threat department is due to how penalties are treated in the model rather than purely his shot totals, but then that seems fair as penalties are obviously much more valuable than your typical shot):

I wrote a few megabytes of blog posts on why Coleman was a better bet than Baines last season and was ultimately rewarded by an incredible campaign from the Irishman where he not only outscored Baines but did so at a significantly lower price tag. So far this season, this trend has very much been reversed. Coleman's success led to a price tag equal to his teammate (which seemed odd given Baines' penalty duties) but to date Baines has been light years ahead when it comes to attacking play with an absurd 22 created chances to Coleman's four. Indeed, Baines has 10 created chances in his last two games; more than all defenders on the season other than Ivanovic and Cresswell. Given the nature of his passes (crosses rather than through balls and short passes) it isn't fair to conclude that his 22 created chances are better than,say, David Silva's 21, but it is without question that when it comes to assist threat, Baines is without peers among his defensive rivals. Whether or not that is worth 7.1m really depends on your view of Everton's defense as while Baines is clearly offering great potential going forward, without clean sheets he simply cannot justify a 2.0m premium over players from Southampton, West Brom or even Burnley who are offering cheap access to clean sheets so far this year. As noted above, I do think there's reason to predict an improvement in Everton's defensive results and that has me considering Baines for my own team for pretty much the first time ever.

Romelo Lukaku
Fantasy managers and Everton fans alike haven't been overly impressed with Lukaku's play to date, despite having notched three goals and an assist already this season. His underlying data is more solid than spectacular and the availability of players like Pelle and Berahino makes a 9.0m price tag suddenly look steep unless you're playing at an Aguero/Diego Costa level. To date, that's a fair assessment of the situation but if we look at the threat levels of all forwards, we see that Lukaku is just about the next best option after that pair of bargains and the all conquering Diego Costa and Aguero, yet the way people are talking suggests he's been a major flop:

The data accrued to date does not support a 9.0m price tag nor inclusion over the likes of Pelle and Berahino, but as we've seen countless times before, eight games is not a conclusive sample and you need to at least place some reliance on your preseason rankings which would surely have had the Belgian ahead of the new group of upstart challengers. If you think Lukaku has underperformed yet still ranks 8th in fantasy points among all forwards (with two of those ahead of him costing significantly more) then he makes for an interesting option to keep in mind and a reasonable gamble given their upcoming fixtures (@BRN, SWA, @SUN, WHU). If nothing else, he might be a nice three week rental for those spooked by Mourinho's cryptic comments about Diego Costa's injury, especially with Chelsea facing trips to Man Utd and Liverpool in the next three gameweeks.

Ross Barkley
I would love to put a chart here to support buying into Barkley, whose potential seems to be legitimately outstanding. Lukaku recently declared the youngster the best player in the team and the man to lead England in the near future yet with just 65 minutes played this year, we only have these soundbites to go on. I only bring him up here because with his injury he's likely flying a bit under the radar now (presumably his 3% ownership is based on people not monitoring their teams) and is a good candidate to quickly explode should he enjoy a breakout game over the next couple of weeks. With Mirallas sidelined for at least another month, this Everton midfield is very much one of function rather than flair and so Barkley should have every opportunity to not only quickly win back a starting job but also secure his place as the the go to option at the attacking end of the pitch.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Adopt a Team: Everton and Burnley Lineups

Everton

Everton have always been one of the sides I enjoy writing about as over the past couple of seasons they've had a pleasing blend of both ability and predictability, all while often flying under the radar of the masses.1 For the most part those trends have continued this year with a solid back line and talented front man, although there isn't really a target player in midfield as we've had in the past with the likes of Arteta, Cahill, Pienaar and Fellaini.

Starting at the back, we have Howard, Baines, Jagielka and Coleman absolutely locked into their respective positions, with at least threee of those options offering about as much security and low upside as you're going to find among premier league starters. We'll get to a comparison of the defenders potential weighed against their price in the next stats post but for now we can conclude that they are all essentially as safe as each other. The last man in when healthy is probably Stones but with the youngster sidelined for a couple of months, Distin probably has the inside track on that final spot. At 5.4m he doesn't offer enough of a discount to be interested in, but one name to watch is Alcaraz who made his first start this week. At 4.3m he does offer an interesting discount to his team-mates and might be worth bearing some risk for if you believe he has a good shot at holding onto that job. For now, all indications seem to be that Distin will return when healthy but it's a situation worth monitoring.

This midfield isn't without talent but with Mirallas and Barkley sidelined it really lacks star power, especially with Pienaar regressing as the miles start to take their toll. Barkley returned this week but has a sizeable price tag (6.7m) to live up to, which is possible but by no means guaranteed based on his somewhat up and down play to date.2 Still, Lukaku reckons he's the best player in the team which is quite high praise considering his teammates and with his season slowed by injury, he's under everybody's radar right now and thus has the makings of an differentiator when he returns to fitness. Again, we'll look at attacking potential in the next post, but in terms of job security we see that Barry and McCarthy has essentially been ever present in the middle with Osman, Naismith, Barkley, Pienaar and McGeady vying to provide the attacking options to support Lukaku. Aside from the potential of the aforementioned Barkley I'm not sure any of this midfield group have the reliability and underlying data to warrant serious interest, as reflected by their generally minuscule ownership numbers. One exception to that latter point is Naismith whose 5.2 price tag has caught the eye of many an owner, and based on playing time alone that appears to be a fair move.3 This lineup is perhaps a touch less reliable than in past years, mainly due to injuries to Barkley and Mirallas, yet with the replacement group not really standing out, it doesn't appear there is too much to be overly concerned about until that duo return. At the back they remain one of the best options around and Lukaku is still one of the remaining, genuine every week starters with enough upside to justify a lofty price tag.


Burnley
A few people might be wondering why you're reading about Burnley and Everton rather than Man Utd and Chelsea or even Tottenham and Newcastle. One factor is that this is the only televised game these two teams are in for the next couple of months but the more pressing factor is that I simply haven't seen Burnley play this season - other than oft-abbreviated highlights - and really need to get a handle on them as I've found decent value in the less heralded promoted sides in the past. Luckily for me, and potentially fantasy owners, Sean Dyche seems to have a first team in mind and to date hasn't shuffled his deck too often.

At the back we have a perfect record with five players each starting every game to date. Off the bat this would suggest that Michael Duff (4.2m) is going to be the pick here but I'll reserve judgement until I've seen the attacking threat in detail

The midfield has a few interesting options but could present some selection questions when everyone is healthy. Arfield has been ever present to date while the likes of Boyd, Marney and Jones have generally played when available. Kightly came into the side when Marney went down and has since played reasonably well by all accounts and provides from natural width that teams crave, and is important in the formation Burnley appear to favour. Boyd's playing time, position and price tag look promising and Marney - someone who had caught my eye in the opening games - is set to return soon after being sidelined for the last three gameweeks. Arfield meanwhile leads the team in fantasy point giving us plenty to look at in the data and this week's game.

Up top we have a team who look to be committed to playing two front men with highly rated Danny Ings and new arrival Jutkiewicz looking generally locked into the first team. My concern would be that after a good defensive start to the year (at least in terms of goals conceded if not underlying process), the team has started to ship more goals of late and one response would be to lose one of their front men and try and play tighter. Such a move could render both players too risky to own, although at least their price tags remain attractive. Gun to your head you'd expect Ings to play more often than not, but with talk of him wanting out of the club, it wouldn't be amazing to see Jutkiewicz preferred which makes it tough to really commit to anyone here.

Next up we take a look at these two teams' data to date and what we might expect from the weekend's action


1. With the exception of Leighton Baines, of course, who remains a favourite of the public and a constant point of contention for me
2. That's not meant to be a knock of Barkley - still just 20 - but you don't get a discount for youthful inconsistency in fantasy football
3. I have a feeling that the conclusion once we look at the underlying data will be less kind

Monday, October 20, 2014

Adopt a Team: Arsenal vs Hull review

Despite the suggestions in some section of old media, the so-called "stats" versus "scouting" debate is essentially over. I would imagine most, if not all, teams pay at least some attention to advanced stats with player performance tracked and assessed on an increasingly granular level. The same should be true in fantasy football. The suggestion that you can't scout players purely based on a spreadsheet is completely fair, but is likely something of a straw man argument as I don't know if anyone really believes that to be true. Equally, you are probably missing out if you think you can glean all the information you need by watching games (or more precisely highlights as the majority of games aren't televised in many regions). This game served a nice reminder that both those one sided views are foolish.

The highlights package would give you much of what you need to know in that Arsenal largely dominated the game but were picked off by a couple of Hull attacks and lacked the clinical edge to convert their own chances into goals. The data does a better job at highlighting that dominance:
  • Arsenal: 25 shots, 16 SiB, 9 SoT, 65% possession
  • Hull: 4 shots, 3 SiB, 4 SoT, 35% possession
However, it would also be dangerous to simply open up the box score, see that Hull scored twice on just four shots on target and conclude that this was simply an anomalous result and if you played it 100 times over, Arsenal would win (with a clean sheet), 99 times. Again, the spirit of that argument is true but seeing the game, you really see that the quality of Arsenal's chances was not good and a large portion of that possession was in areas that Hull effectively conceded.

The familiar cliché of Arsenal trying to "walk the ball into the goal" might seem applicable based on the data but from my viewing I might suggest they would have been better advised taking less shots, with several efforts - particularly in the first half after the equaliser - falling into the "hopeful" rather than "expectant" buckets. We'll get to player specifics in a minute but Cazorla and Chamberlain seemed to be the main offenders here.

It's generally dangerous to place too much stock in tired narratives about goals breeding confidence but in this case, the timing of Hull's equaliser did really seem key as the 10 minutes before and the immediate period after the Arsenal opener saw the home team camped in the final third with a second (and third) goal seeming a mere formality. Once they settled down, Hull did an okay job holding possession when they needed to, with Huddlestone and Diame controlling things quite well in the middle.

I won't go through every player in these wrap ups, but a couple of points stood out as being worthy of comment:

Danny Welbeck
The consensus among fans still seems to be that Welbeck simply isn't good enough but he equipped himself well here and impressed both in terms of effort and ability. Welback made dangerous runs all day and of all the Arsenal players it was he - the newest arrival - who seemed most in tune with his teammates, linking up nicely on several occasions. That ability to bring others into play suggests he should be able to contribute both goals and assists this year, something that cannot be said for some of his comparatively priced peers. He finished the day with five shots (all SiB) and a couple of created chances and was overall good value for his goal and single bonus point. Other good options exist in his price range of course but I'd still be more than happy sticking with the England man during Arsenal's upcoming run of games.

Alexis Sanchez 
This might have been the best Sanchez has played for his new team and he was the best player on the pitch for large portions of the game. Five shots (four in the box) and three created chances underline his attacking threat while his nine penalty box touches and eight dribbles highlight his overall involvement. His goal was great but his assist may have been even better and there's really not too much to say about his production or potential, both of which are predictably excellent. The question is whether his price tag is worth (a) the 0.4-0.7 premium over the two Chelsea options and (b) the 1.5m premium over Ramsey - who returned as a late sub here. With Fabregas' ownership up over 50% and a trickier fixture list on deck, the argument is certainly there to be made, but as always it depends on too many factors to try and sum up in a quick blurb, so we'll leave that for another day.

Santi Cazorla
I don't really know what Cazorla is anymore. Ostensibly a creator, he seems to spend long stretches of games with players running past him and thus not contributing a great deal at either end of the pitch. He ended the game with a lot of touches of the ball (138) and perhaps that's his designed role but then I don't know what that mean for Jack Whilshere who seemed to spend a good amount of this game stepping on Cazorla's toes and gesturing where he thought the Spaniard should be. For the first goal, Wilshere was caught upfield and seemed to expect Cazorla to cover but by the time he did he was stuck behind the powerful Diame and never recovered enough to influence the play. On the second goal Wilshere just simply didn't track Huddlestone - Cazorla was along way away so this must have been miscommunication with someone else - who ran free to chip the ball to Hernandez.

It's perhaps unfair to hold anyone to this standard, but, if you if look at Fabregas and Yaya Toure, it feels like they basically do the job that both WIlshere and Cazorla did here, which frees their teams up to have Oscar/Silva etc play with essentially no responsibility. I don't know if this has any huge impact on fantasy results but it does feel like this Arsenal side are sometimes lacking an extra body going forward and then at the back, often due to the middle men not seeming to commit to either role.

Mohamed Diame
Four goals in five games could well open the floodgates on Diame who has so far apparently gone unnoticed by the masses (2% ownership and a 0.1m decrease in value since his arrival at Hull). As an actual performance I thought he looked great, offering Hull a strong outlet to try and connect the midfield to Hernandez on the rare occasions they were able to hold onto the ball and, of course, he took his goal very nicely indeed. In fantasy terms though he's the classic regression candidate with nine total shots, four SiB and four SoT barely being enough production to support scoring once every eight games nevermind four times. Considering he seems to be fairly secure in the first team and at least offers something going forward he doesn't look like a terrible investment and wouldn't be a player to target selling but there's not enough here to warrant a transfer either unless you're solely look to capitalise on the likely price rise.

Tom Huddlestone
I've been an admirer of Huddlestone for some time but without wanting to sound like a broken record, while the assist was nice it came on literally his only successful pass in the final third and his average position on the pitch was deeper than Per Mertesacker's. His 13 shots for the season suggest he might get the odd goal but with just one from within the box, they're going to be few and far between (SoB are converted at a rate of about 4% across the league). Again, at 5.4m it's hard to be too critical but I'd suggest either going significantly cheaper or trying to sneak into the next price bracket as there just isn't much potential here other than consistent two-pointers.

Summary
This was a fairly entertaining game from a neutral perspective but with a fantasy football hat on, I'm not sure we learned a great deal more than we already knew. Arsenal are a good but not great side and without Ozil and Giroud the team really looks like it will pick itself for the next couple of months. That is perhaps unfair on Cazorla who isn't without quality but you have to think that Walcott, Ramsey and Sanchez will provide the ammunition for Welbeck more often that not with Wilshere pushed deeper and Chamberlain and Cazorla sliding to the bench (we might even see Chamberlain getting more time in the deeper middle role, where he has impressed in short spells). All four of those attacking options - along with the budget Chambers - look ownable and picking between the midfield trio needs a deeper dive than we're performing here.

As for Hull, this probably isn't the best game to judge them on as they were pinned deep for long stretches of the contest, but in their defense, they showed the moments of quality needed to score against a reasonably good backline and should enjoy success against weaker opponents in the future. Individually, while we see snippets of that quality, no one has the underlying data to really support anything more than a speculative pick, especially without too many promising fixtures in the next couple of weeks. Diame, Ben Arfa and Hernandez showed they have enough talent to offer hope though and so this remains a team worth keeping in mind when filling out the bottom end of your fantasy squad.

This week we're going to look at another of my favourite teams to watch (Everton) face off against newly promoted Burnley.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Adopt a Team: Arsenal stats

Even though we're still just seven weeks into the new season, we've already observed a number of interesting and somewhat strange happenings at the Emirates:
  • in terms of underlying data, the defense has been more impressive than the usually explosive attack
  • in terms of actual results though, the defense has struggled with just a single clean sheet to date
  • Wenger did bring in a relatively big name forward - who's looked great so far - yet there still seems to be a feeling that they need more - probably in part due to the success of Diego Costa on the other side of London
  • the team has quietly assembled the best depth they've enjoyed in recent memory yet they've suffered through so many injuries that the average bench has tended to be more Campbell and Coquelin than Giroud and Cazorla
  • Arsenal out shot Chelsea 10 to five and enjoyed more possesion at Stamford Bridge last time out, yet lost the game (their first of the season) and now find themselves nine points behind the league leaders after just seven games

The below chart attempts to quickly summarise the individual games played to date, using SiB +/- as a proxy for success (or failure).1

The good news is that, at least in terms of giving up shots inside the box, Arsenal's defense have performed very well this year with above average performances in every game except one (at Villa in GW5). Indeed, through seven gameweeks, their dSiB% rate of -33% leads the league, as does their suppression of chances created (-36% dCC%). As we saw in the lineup review, this success has come despite not being able to field their first choice back five once this season. With all but Debuchy now healthy (and Chambers filling in admirably for the Frenchman), it's not impossible that much of this defensive success continues and that would surely give rise to increased fantasy returns in the future. Perhaps their goals per shot on target rate will regress a touch - although at 38% it isn't vastly higher than the surprisingly high league rate of 36%. They will almost certainly benefit from a softer fixture list which sees them face Sunderland, Hull and Burnley in the next three gameweeks and no real marguee opponents until a GW17 trip to Liverpool.2

Player targets: Defense
As suggested in the lineup post, defensively it seems Chambers is the obvious play here, based on nothing more than his bargain price tag (he is unfortunately suspended for this week after picking up an incredible five yellow cards in six starts). Before we commit to that though, let's take a quick look at the attacking potential of the Arsenal players to date:

The chart shows absolute threat rather than that on a per game basis, so playing time needs to be kept in mind, but in short, no one here is really standing out and in fact, it's the bargain Chambers who's offered the best threat to date, thanks to his solid number of created chances.

Player targets: midfield and forwards
Despite professing an admiration for Arsenal and especially the work of Wenger, I haven't had the chance to see too many of their games this season so as I began this deeper dive into their season to date, I had some expectations that Ramsey would be a player I might need to highlight as not having the supporting stats to support his production. It's not that he isn't a good player, of course, but that centrally deployed role for a midfielder who doesn't take set pieces or penalties can sometimes lead to a lot of touches of the ball but ultimately not a great deal of production. That's not the case for Ramsey though, who has offered the best goal scoring threat in this team - by a distance - while giving as good as anyone in terms of generating assists. Sanchez and Ozil obviously get into those dangerous wide positions more often, racking up 28 and 27 crosses to date to Ramsey's nine, but considering the Welshman has matched them in terms of created chances suggests his potential may even be higher with his passes being more likely to be converted. With Ozil out for several months and Sanchez coming in at a 1.5m premium, Ramsey looks like a perfect candidate to buy back into when he's healthy, especially now that his injury has deflated his once sky high ownership.

Though he's further down the threat ratings to date, the reviews of Welbeck have been complimentary so far and at least per the highlights he seems to have hit the ground running. 13 shots, 10 SiB and five SoT is a reasonable return for four starts and a couple of brief cameos, making Welbeck and intriguing option at just 7.3m. He isn't likely to compete with the Aguero or Diego Costa class of forward, but in his price range he just needs beat out the likes of Pelle, Ulloa, Cisse and Sakho in order to be a relevant fantasy starter. Let's take a look at where he ranks compared to some of his peers to date:

This time we've gone with per game data to allow for better comparability and we see that Welbeck is fairly well placed among both his comparably priced peers and is at least competitive among the more expensive options (scroll the price slider to the right to see Diego Costa, Sergio Aguero et al). Starting this week with Hull, Arsenal have a nice run of games, making Welbeck an intriguing option, although a slight ankle injury makes him something of a risk for this week. With Giroud sidelined, he seems to offer an appealing combination of job security, excellent supporting cast and high upside, which for 7.3m is a package hard to ignore.

Summary
In summary, this Arsenal side hasn't been vintage to date and their shot production is only upper-mid table rather than elite. However, they are creating chances and have looked relatively sharp with Welbeck in the side and there's still reason to think there's more to come. Based on the stats to date, Chambers, Ramsey and Welbeck jump out as the best options at each position but there are plenty of other options to consider, none more so than Sanchez who has looked very good in spells so far this season. I look forward to matching some of the stats with the actual on field performance tomorrow.


1. As a quick reminder, SiB +/- quantifies the percentage of shots inside the box generated or surrendered by a team above or below the opponents' average. So if Chelsea normally concede six SiB and Arsenal manage eight against them, their aSiB +/- would be 33%, representing a 33% premium over the average. Defensively, the idea is the same but a minus number is the sign of a good team as they suppress shot totals compared to the average result.
2. I am half kidding about the exclusion of Man Utd in GW12 there. There's a perception that the team is terrible defensively but can score at will if they want but with an aSiB +/- of -23% on the road, I'll need to see more before I buy into that particular narrative

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Adopt a Team: Hull Lineup

The second team we're going to adopt this week are Arsenal's opponents - Hull - who have been enjoying a reasonable start to the new campaign, although as we'll get to later in the week, their underlying data suggests trouble might be brewing if they don't start to generate more chances for their talented front pair.

Hull have switched between a 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 base formation thus far this year, making their lineup a little harder to forecast on a weekly basis. We don't really have enough of a sample of draw any concrete conclusions about the team scoring/conceding more/less goals when in either formation so I'm not going to focus too much attention there in this post. McGregor, Davies, Dawson, Robertson and Elmohamady all appear to be close to automatic choices here with Chester the first man in if the back three is favoured. Elmohamady is classified as a midfielder in the PL.com game so we'll touch on him in a second, leaving three options to consider. Davies and particularly Dawson come with the stronger reputations, while Bruce and Chester have the higher ownership numbers,1 yet it's Robertson who looks like the most interesting option here. We will get to individual data in the next post, suffice to say that Robertson leads his defensive teammates in created chances by a distance and offers as good a goal threat as any of them. Add in his lower price tag and he becomes the clear player to target here. Between the posts this is still very much McGregor's job, but with him sidelined until towards the end of Novemeber, Harper makes a reasonable rotation option for those looking to save a few pounds.

Whatever the formation, Steve Bruce had tended to deploy the Huddlestone and Livermore combination in the middle of the pitch, yet while that decision may be wise in terms of securing Hull's Premier League status, the pair do little to excite fantasy managers. In one sense, Huddlestone has shown flashes of excitement with 13 shots ranking up among some of the league's more promising midfield talents yet with just one of those coming from within the box, it's tough to forecast anything more than the two goals he chipped in with last time season.

The remaining positions - those which are most important to fantasy managers - are the trickiest to forecast and it's that uncertainty which may temper any enthusiasm surrounding this talented group. Whether in an advanced role or playing alongside Huddlestone and Livermore, Diame seems to have the inside track on one of the remaining midfield spots and he currently leads Hull midfielders in shots inside the box and penalty box touches. However, it's reasonable to assume that Ben Arfa has been brought to the KC Stadium to contribute in the first team sooner rather than later, which puts both these players into the risky category. To date Bruce seems to favour deploying both Jelavic and Hernandez, though it wouldn't be too surprising to see him roll with Ben Arfa, Diame or Ince behind a lone forward in away games, as was the case before Hernanez arrived. All this essentially means we have five players to fit into three spots.2 His pair goals in just four games suggests that Hernandez is the automatic choice here but his nine total shots (five SiB) are not spectacular and a local media review suggests there is still room for improvement in his overall game. He's a player who I will be watching closely at the weekend given his reasonable price tag and upside but I couldn't suggest investing in him just yet until we see how Ben Arfa is going to impact this team.

There is without doubt talent in this team yet with unremarkable team totals - despite playing a softer schedule to date - and some uncertainty around which of the attacking will play and how they will be deployed it's hard to immediately focus on any one player to monitor. Hernandez, Ben Arfa and Jelavic all carry solid price tags though and may yet offer some value in the future. At the back, it's the promising Robertson who stands out and he'll be another key focus for the weekend as he's tested against some of the league's finest. Next up is a focus on individual and team stats to date to potentially highlight some areas to capitalise on or avoid.
1. I was never a fan of essentially punting a spot on your bench just to save, at best, 0.5m so would not condone the 11% ownership of Bruce here. We all get stuck with dead weight from time to time as we concentrate transfers on other parts of our teams but Bruce is buried on this depth chart and will contribute essentially nothing for his price tag.
2. I'm assuming that Elmohamady will be preferred either as a wing back or as a more traditional winger in a four man midfield given that he offers the only natural width in this midfield pack.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Adopt a Team: Arsenal Lineup

The first team we're "adopting" this week is Arsenal, and so we'll start with the basics and look at who's played so far and who's likely to keep playing in the future. At the back there isn't too much to talk about with a fairly clear first choice back four of Gibbs, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Debuchy with Chambers likely providing the first bench option in both the middle and on the right with Monreal serving as Gibbs' understudy. Injuries have prevented that lineup from playing together all season, and that trend will continue with Debuchy (three months, ankle) sidelined for a sustained period. That will allow Chambers to continue his impressive start at the Emirates (after his GW8 suspension) and so at 4.6m he would be the clear short-medium term option to use here.

Despite the constant criticism of not spending enough money or being able to compete with the league's big spenders, Wenger has assembled a deep and talented midfield unit; one that is the core strength of this side (at least in terms of the attacking options). The easier portion to forecast is the piece that is of less interest from a fantasy perspective, with Flamini, Wilshere and Arteta essentially competing for two spots in the middle of the park.1 With Arteta currently sidelined (three weeks, calf), those two spots look settled, though their potential value is less clear and something we can touch on in the upcoming player stat review.

Despite the depth, the attacking trio was also shaping up to be relatively predictable with Ozil, Ramsey and Sanchez getting the lion's share of starts to date. Ozil (three months, knee) and Ramsey's (three weeks, hamstring) injuries throw that group into question with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla and Rosicky currently competing for time while Walcott and Gnabry will provide further options in a matter of weeks, or even days. One would expect Walcott to be given every opportunity to win a healthy share of playing time once he's fit, though unlike in previous years, he's unlikely to earn too many minutes in that lone forward role given the arrival of Welbeck. Ramsey looks close enough to a return that his replacement (probably Cazorla) shouldn't really be relied upon, but Ozil is out long enough to be ignored for now, and that should open the window for a returning Walcott to offer a differential option. That said, for 0.2m less, Ramsey is now held by a more manageable proportion of managers (18%) and there's no real reason to think his excellent start to the year wasn't legitimate and so he should remain a key option to consider.2

Up front, the intrigue about how Welbeck and Giroud can fit together is a moot point with the Frenchman sidelined until the new year with an ankle injury. Welbeck looked very promising in his first three games (the team understandably struggled at Chelsea) and will be well placed to excel if he makes that role his own. Perhaps Walcott, Podolski or Campbell vulture minutes here and there but from what we've seen and based on the transfer fee paid, Wenger clearly thinks Welbeck can lead the line for his team on a weekly basis and thus he becomes extremely intriguing for just 7.3m.

Despite Wenger assembling one of the best squads during his tenure at Arsenal, and indeed one of the best around the league, there remains plenty of reliable options here, aided of course by key injuries to Ozil, Giroud and Debuchy. In the next post we'll dig a bit deeper into exactly how players have contributed so far, and try and identify a couple of targets to focus on for the coming weeks.


1. Ramsey can of course play this role too, as he did in GW5, but it looks like his preferred role is behind the front man and he should generally be free to push forward rather than provide defensive support
2. We'll look at a comparison between him and Sanchez in the player stat post to see which player should be targetted going forward for the coming weeks and months

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Adopt a team

With a busy schedule of late, I didn't see much action last weekend and then with the international break in play I've been struggling for inspiration. Like all resourceful bloggers I have stolen settled on an idea for the next few weeks of action. Taking a page from my favourite NFL podcast (Grantland), I am going to "adopt" two teams each week and focus coverage on them in the lead up to their games (ideally against each other which allows a more comprehensive review after the game). The idea being that trying to cover 20 teams on your own is (a) difficult and (b) leads to average coverage of all teams rather than great coverage of some. I would suggest this idea works best in all media, though of course a lot of local news is terrible, but that tends to be because it panders to ridiculous local interests and biases rather than because it's a flawed principle.

The schedule for each team will run roughly from Tuesday - Tuesday and try to feature (as much as possible), a review of the season to date, player highlights, future forecasts and then a review of their game with a light touch on their tactics.1

At least for the first few weeks, I have tried to pick two teams who are facing each other, with the below being the initial schedule.2 I will either give this week's teams a bit more attention or look at a more general topic in the coming days if anything jumps out as a I catch up on the data:

Gameweek 8 - Arsenal and Hull
Gameweek 9 - Burnley and Everton
Gameweek 10 - Newcastle and Liverpool
Gameweek 11 - QPR and Man City
Gameweek 12 - Chelsea and West Brom
Gameweek 13/14 - Man Utd and Stoke




1. I am far from a tactical expert, and so while that doesn't seem to stop many throwing around their "trequartistas", "registas" and other sexy, international names for fairly mundane concepts, I will try and keep things in my wheel house

2. The teams have been selected on which games I have televised here in Canada