Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Selling Salah

Given his exploits last season, and a pretty healthy start to this one, it's hard to believe the thought of selling Salah is even worth exploring. But, international weeks give us time to think through less obvious solutions so let's make a case for it. But first, a few opening notes:
  1. This is a short term measure. Despite Mane's hot start and promising form from the likes of Hazard, I still believe Salah is the best fantasy option for the season. His underlying numbers are excellent, his team looks as good as ever and his playing time is assured (other than the odd rest of course).
  2. This move make more sense if you haven't yet wildcarded, but plan to do so in the next 4-6 weeks, potentially before GW9 during the international break. If you have already played that chip then using three or four transfers in 4 gameweeks to rotate one player (along with a corresponding move) might be tricky (although if you have wildcarded the rest of your team is presumably settled?)
  3. This move arguably makes more sense if you haven't enjoyed the best start of the season and want to shake things up a bit, although I personally try and avoid such thinking at this early stage of the season too much.
The player
We don't need to dwell here, suffice to say that Salah has shown that he is anything but a one season wonder. He leads all midfielders in total shots (19), shots inside the box (12), shots on target (7) and created chances (13). Those totals would place him among the top 2 or 3 forwards too (the majority of which offer very little by way of assist potential). He played at the World Cup, but Egypt of course suffered an early exit so he's also relatively rested (though did face a trip to Egypt over the international break).

The opponents
From GW5-GW8 Liverpool will face Spurs away, Southampton at home, Chelsea away and Man City at home. There's not much argument to be made that this is a tough run. Spurs haven't looked amazing in a couple of their games this year and their 34 SiB conceded is somewhat mediocre, but they've still conceded just 4 in 4, with City and Chelsea both slightly ahead with 3 in 4 (Southampton have also only conceded 4 in 4, though underlying data suggests they have perhaps been a touch fortuitous and aren't a great defense).

In these fixtures last season Liverpool lost 4-1 at Tottenham, beat Southampton 3-0, lost 1-0 at Chelsea and then recorded that memorable 4-3 win over Man City. How to interpet Salah's output during this period is hard to measure. On the one hand, he notched 4 goals and an assist (although one was that fortuitous lob over Ederson after the Brazilian misplayed a pass) - an impressive haul in just 4 games - the kind that earned him his 13.0m price tag. However, Salah's xG was just 1.36 and his xA was 0.35, suggesting he was somewhat fortunate to rack up the points he did. One can note that he exceeded his xG total all season, but 32 goals vs 24 xG is a 33% premium, not the 300% premium we observed in these four games. Admittedly, looking at single game xG isn't really the way it was intended to be used, but I do think it highlights that there remains some question about Salah's output versus these opponents last season.

The alternatives
One of the reasons you can justify Salah's 13.0m price tag is by captaining him most weeks. A 7 point haul for 13.0m doesn't sound great but when you're consistently doubling that to mid-double digit returns, the purchase starts to make much more sense. With that in mind then, whether or not you sell Salah for this short period is in part dependant on who you will give the armband to. It's possible that in three of these fixtures you would likely consider someone else for the captaincy, and thus not having Salah becomes more palatable, and missing out of another captain-worthy option becomes more painful.

A quick reminder of the elite options' fixtures over the next four gameweeks:

  • Kane, Eriksen: LIV, @BHA, @HUD, CAR
  • Hazard: CAR, @WHU, LIV, @SOU
  • Aguero, Sterling et al: FUL, @CAR, BHA, @LIV
  • Lukaku: @WAT, WOL, @WHU, NEW

From this list, I would suggest that all these options are going to offer at least 3 opportunities for captaincy, with the worst game probably being City's trip to Anfield.

Of course, the forwards listed here would require a double transfer to access, but when dealing with such large amounts of cash, I think you'd only make the move if there were specifically two players you really wanted. Who that second player would be is a major question - and possibly subject of its own blog article - but to get an idea of the range of options moving Salah would open up:

  • Salah to Sterling/Hazard frees up 2.0-2.3m which could allow you switch a 2-point bench player like Neves or Kante into a Pedro, Walcott or Richarlison. You could also move a budget defender and jump on the Alonso bandwagon (or any of the other elite defenders)
  • Salah to Eriksen frees up 3.6m which is enough to convert Vardy into Kane or Zaha into Aguero. 
  • Salah to Aguero frees up just 1.7m, although even that can be enough to move up a level among defenders, from either Maguire to Alonso or from Bournemouth to Tottenham.
One final thing we have to consider here is the risk of rotation as we move into the European schedule and bumps and bruises start to take their toll (this might be especially true in a season following a World Cup). The relevant big teams play the below fixtures in all competitions between now and October 20th (the start of GW9, after the international break, and when Liverpool face Huddersfield i.e. the date you probably want Salah back in your side.

Chelsea (Premier League games are underlined)
Cardiff H, PAOK A, West Ham A, Liverpool A, Liverpool H, Vidi H, Southampton A

I'm not typically in the business of guessing lineups, but I think it's probably reasonable to say that, as a team, Chelsea has the best situation here (not necessarily in terms of strength of opponent but specifically as it pertains to rotation threat). PAOK are Chelsea's toughest Europa league opponent so Sarri may well send a full strength team to Greece, but then Chelsea still get the normal two days rest before a trip to West Ham on the following Sunday. With Liverpool to come in the league right on the heels of the Carabao Cup fixture, one suspects we'll see rotation there and then the other Europa League game is against lowly Vidi at the Bridge, where we could again expect to see some bench options. With Hazard also being eased into the season already, I'd be even more confident of Hazard's minutes here.

Man City
Fulham H, Lyon H, Cardiff A, Oxford Utd A, Brighton H, Hoffenheim A, Liverpool H

Guardiola will want to start City's Champions League strongly against Lyon, who are on paper their toughest opponent. Given the squad depth, it wouldn't be surprising to see a rotated team head to Cardiff the following weekend, which is a pretty favourable fixture to miss. I'd perhaps feel slightly more confident in Aguero getting the nod as we've sometimes seen Pep drop his "faster" players against sides who might play 11 behind the ball, in a desire to have as many technically gifted players as possible to work in tight spaces. That would arguably favour the Argentine over Sterling but either are liable to be dropped in this run. We can presume that City will want to be at full strength for the visit of Liverpool, meaning potential lost minutes either during the trip to Hoffenheim or in the previous week's visit of Brighton. One could imagine a scenario where Aguero and co start that Brighton game but are quick to be pulled off if City jump out to a lead (something to be considered when handing out the armband).

Man Utd
Watford A, Young Boys H, Wolves H, Derby H, West Ham A, Valencia H, Newcastle H

With Rashford suspended for the next two Premier League games, Lukaku immediately enjoys almost guaranteed starts against Watford and Wolves, with perhaps Rashford spelling him some minutes in the trip to Young Boys - a must win game for United given the other strong opponents in United's group. Assuming we see a rotated team in the Carabao Cup - as we did at this stage last season in the 4-1 win over Burton - that would again leave Lukaku rested to face West Ham. The only question would then we whether the Belgian would be utilized against both Valencia and Newcastle, which if not would be a huge blow as that's a promising fixture despite Newcastle's solid defensive efforts to date. Given how much he was relied on last season, the pressure on Mourinho and the apparent lack of faith in Rashford, I might say that Lukaku is best placed to play all four games over this period. 

That said, he's also on the weakest team, may therefore have less opportunities and, frankly, just isn't as good a player as the other names on this list so this is a very tough call. Sometimes we avoid making decisions for fear of looking foolish, and of all the players to sell Salah for, Lukaku probably has the biggest risk of making you feel idiotic, but don't let that alone scare you off - there is plenty of evidence to support this move.

Tottenham
Liverpool H, Inter A, Brighton A, Watford H, Huddersfield A, Barcelona H, Cardiff H

Other than this week's visit of Liverpool I was very interested in getting access to this Spurs side, especially with Son returning from international duty. The fixture list does complicate things a little though. Spurs have been handed a really tough Champions League group and face two of their toughest games in the coming month. After presumably playing a full strength side against both Liverpool and Inter, one could see a couple of players getting a rest at Brighton, especially those who enjoyed a busy summer and have started every game so far - including Eriksen and Kane. With the visit of Barcelona then focusing the mind, you wonder if those top assets might then again be given a reduced role in either the proceeding trip to Huddersfield or the subsequent visit of Cardiif. 

Normally I would say that Spurs players have the safest roles given the comparative lack of depth compared to the other elite side but with the emergence of Lucas Moura, the obvious fatigue of the players involved at the World Cup and the complication of their very difficult Champions League group, I am now not so sure. If Kane and co were firing on all cylinders I'd be more willing to overlook this concern but as it is, this group seems like too big of a risk to sell Salah for.

The summary
I think the case for Hazard is probably the strongest, especially if that 2.3m will then allow you to access another key target. Lukaku is tempting as a differentiator (8%) owned but my own personal front line is pretty set - Aguero, Wilson and Mitrovic - and I will probably keep them intact until I wildcard. City's fixtures make Sterling really tempting, even if his likelihood of rotation is higher than some of the other options. Again, in my personal situation I already have three City players (Ederson, Mendy and Aguero) who I'm pretty happy with so it's difficult to fit the England man in. The money saved by switching to Eriksen is pretty tempting - the 4.0m in the bank would allow me to switch the freefalling Jota into Sanchez(!) - but those fixtures are a big concern. One move I didn't discuss above is to do Salah to Mane to lessen the financial blow of the tough fixture list, though that seems like a lot of transfers to commit to the project unless you have a strong idea in how as to how to use the 3.0m saved (I'm not yet convinced that Mane will continue to offer equal output to Salah).

There's a case to be made here, for sure, but I think it only makes in specific circumstances so I wouldn't want to force the issue. Those who do make a move face four weeks of watching games from behind the couch, but isn't that what makes fantasy fun!

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