BPL or EPL? An American tries to figure out the other fantasy football

When I hear the term football, I think of NFL football like most Americans. Yet somehow, over the past few years, soccer has crept into my life. I lived with a soccer player; we played FIFA on Xbox. I slowly learned the major teams in the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, and Italy's Serie A. I adopted Tottenham Hotspur - before Simmons did - because of their name's reference to a historical figure and Shakespeare character (I'm a Shakespeare nerd). I started learning rosters and key players. I enjoyed the relegation drama.

To learn more, I think it's time to go even deeper. To really know the contours of the Premier League, it's necessary to do for the other football what we all do for American football - join a fantasy league. This will be one U.S. idiot's endeavor to do just that.

First the basics:
- I am playing in ESPN Soccernet's 'Premier Fantasy' game. It's free to sign up. Read the Rules for all the details.
- It is a basic roster management game (for example: ESPN Best Ball); the budget is $100 and you have 15 roster spots to fill (i.e. starting 11 + 4 subs)
- You get to choose your formation - I'll go into this below
- Your team can be entered into multiple groups, aka leagues
- During the season you get a limited number of transfers (20), meaning when to add/drop players is a critical resource
- Halfway through the season (I think at the start of 2012) you can re-make your entire roster, and scoring re-sets
- Points scoring I haven't totally figured out... as best I can tell it's got the basic stuff like goals, assists, clean sheets, etc. (see Rules)

In order to make sense of playing the other football in a fantasy setting, I went about applying some basic fantasy principles such as opportunity, budgeting, expected value, and sleepers. But first - the unique wrinkle of formation selection.

The most interesting choice, from an American perspective, because it seems to be the biggest determinant of strategy. ESPN Premier Fantasy has 7 options for formation:
(note: formations are listed in the order of Defenders-Midfielders-Forwards)

This seems to me to give an oddly wide range of team choices. Imagine being in an NFL fantasy league in which you could choose to have 2 QBs and no kicker, competing against a team with a traditional roster and another team with five RB/WR/TE flex spots and one QB. It would seem to imbalance team selection, right? Unlike most NFL fantasy leagues, there is no draft and therefore players can be shared, but all positions on a fantasy soccer team are not created equal.

My initial reaction: you want the most possible attacking players. After all, don't they touch the ball the most in attacking positions, giving them the most chances to participate in scoring plays?

In my search for answers, it led me to such blogs as this best formation post from Fantasy Premier League Transfers.com. Their stats, albeit two seasons old, confirm that top forwards and midfielders scored the most (in whatever scoring system they were using) on the order of 20-40 pts more than top defenders.

Conclusion: the 3-4-3 formation is the way to go... or possibly 3-5-2, depending on how much you like certain midfielders. But minimize defenders and maximize attacking players, because they seem to get the most scoring chances. In other words - it's the classic fantasy principle of opportunity.

Having settled on the most attacking-oriented formation, it seems logical to allocate the budget in a similar way. Despite the scoring trying to give defenders a fairer shake - things like double pts for defender goals (8 vs. 4), and 3 points for a defender clean sheet (meaning a shutout) - the sheer volume of greater opportunities for forwards and attacking midfielders should help them pile up goals and assists points. As FPL Transfers advises in this strategy post, focusing on the best attacking players gives the most scoring chances.

However, you need players that actually see action. On top of that, you get 1 fantasy point for a player who sees game action, and 2 extra pts if the player surpasses 60 minutes of playing time. The clubs only can make 3 subs per game, and just like NFL game-day scratches are common due to injury, or the whims of coaches, etc. Therefore, identifying guys who actually get game time is doubly important. My resource has been to check the player stats (click a player's name in the ESPN fantasy roster) and see how many minutes they played recently. A good resource are previews like the Fantasy EPL Blog with its regular updates, or the Guardian's Squad Sheets which will run down injured and inactive players.

$100 for 15 roster spots = $6.7 per slot. The most expensive players are just under $9 and the least expensive players with pulses are $4.5, meaning there is a relatively small margin of discretionary salary to work with. Factor in four subs at, let's say, $5 per person, and we can take $20 out of our budget.

The remaining $80 will, at a minimum, be need to spread around at $4.5 per position just to fill out 11 spots. That means $50 is the minimum for a full squad. How best to spend the remaining $30 of salary?

Referring back to FPL Transfers' strategy post, we could save about $3 by going with a cheaper keeper and a total of about $10 by going with cheaper defenders in the backfield, giving more money to spend on the best forwards and midfielders.

I am personally looking to focus on getting 3 really good strikers up front, then very good (but not super expensive) midfielders to round it out. The key is finding the players who deliver the most bang for the buck; in other words, the best values.

Expected Value
Finding players who outperform their acquisition cost is the heart of any fantasy draft or roster budgeting. The search for value has led me to read a variety of useful articles such as the Bleacher Report's fantasy recommendations and, of all things, About.com's Fantasy Premier League Tips. Both contain advice for the best values for money at each position.

In Premier fantasy, player value is relative to the position they play. If we were really fancy, we would do a Christopher Harris -style 'value-based drafting' analysis of how many points the top 20 players at each position scored, the spread of scores from top to bottom, and therefore the incremental value of each dollar spent at each position. But I don't have time to do those calculations, so I'm gonna wing it.

Keepers - every team has exactly one keeper, and they are all going to score baseline points for minutes played and for some saves. The keepers on the best teams are likely to have more shutouts, but they also may get fewer saves since their team will prevent the other team from shooting as much. The bargain play here is to find guys from mid-pack teams with good defenses, such as Stoke City and Fulham. The aggressive play is to roster a keeper from a top team such as Chelsea, Manchester City, or Manchester United. I've opted for the Man City keeper; we'll see if he provides enough additional points to be worth the extra $3.

Defenders - a similar bargain theory as above applies... look for defenders on mid-pack teams with good defenses. The bargain play here would be guys from squads such as Stoke City, Fulham, and maybe Everton. The aggressive play would be to find an attacking right or left back, who comes up and gets involved in the offense with more changes for goals and assists. I believe Patrice Evra of Man Utd would fall into this category. I went with Stoke, Fulham, and Tottenham defenders.

Midfielders - this is where the value picks really come into play. My theory for EPL fantasy is that most leagues are won and lost based on the best decisions of who you play in the midfield (being that D is less relevant and the best strikers are obvious). To that end, the people who get the most bang for their buck here will probably win out. We'll see if my theory holds. The bargain play is to get standout players from mediocre teams and hope their opportunities result in points. The more aggressive play is to take non-superstar midfielders from the top teams, and hope they participate in the success of the team and can feed their strikers, get assists, etc. The most aggressive play is to take the absolute top-tier players like Nani, Florent Malouda, Steven Gerrard, and Rafael Van der Vaart and hope to cash in as they lead their teams' elite offenses. I personally went for a mix of good middies on top-flight teams (the Manchesters, Liverpool) and mid-level teams (Tottenham, Aston Villa).

Forwards - the striker position is the most glamorous in real life and on my EPL fantasy squad. Guys like Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Dimitar Berbatov, and Robin Van Persie are perennially among the EPL's top scorers. These guys will definitely get the most chances to score based on their pedigree and the fact that their teams will likely be dominating most matches. The bargain play is to get up-and-coming strikers from lesser squads and hope they can capitalize on the chances they get. The aggressive play is to take 3 of the guys above (or their ilk) and watch the fireworks. I also think there is something to be said for taking second-tier strikers with good opportunities - or who are just straight-up underpriced - like Sergio "Kun" Aguero, Luis "Suarez" Suarez, Darren Bent, and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. That's what I've done.

Subs - no matter your formation, you get 1 Goalie, 2 Defenders, and 1 Midfielder on your bench. Since they automatically get swapped into your lineup only in case of injury to your top guys, you can treat this one of two ways: 1) you can get the cheapest possible guys (or extreme values, you might say) because they'll rarely do anything, or 2) you might be able to use the subs as a place to hold onto potential sleepers, swapping them in for good matchups.

In addition the players you roster now because of their value, one trait of a fantasy winner is to identify who the up-and-coming stars are and to hitch up to those gravy trains early. (Yes, my analogies are becoming loopier as this column stretches.) I have found general Premier League columns such as The Reducer by Chris Ryan of Grantland very useful in this regard. His league preview article identifies several such players, from teams good and bad, who might develop into standouts this year.

I won't go too deep into individual sleepers here. We can discuss that later. But make a list of guys who are young or returning from injury, and track how they are doing. For example, here is a Bleacher Report list of the Top 12 Teenagers in the Premiership. Keeping in mind the opportunity and value principles above, I'm watching a the attacking players who are getting opportunities and might start capitalizing on them. That means even bottom- to mid-tier teams could be mined for good fantasy sleepers. Stay tuned for updates.

So there you have it, the FIWK English Premer League Fantasy Preview. Written by dummies, for dummies. Do you have any strategy or player recommendations? Who are your top picks this year?

And no matter what happens, remember to have fun.


  1. By the way, the Wikipedia entry for BPL is pretty entertaining. The range of possible meanings goes from soccer leagues to libraries to economic indicators. My personal favorite is "Bounded-error Probabilistic Logarithmic-space". So, there's that.

  2. Another entertaining drop that I neglected is the "Don't Tread" rap music video for Clint "Deuce" Dempsey which surely justifies adding $1 to his fantasy salary. That has to be the best soccer rap song in existence.

  3. I completely agree with the maximizing opportunities strategies. I looked up which teams scored the most goals and which teams allowed the fewest goals. Now my forwards and mids are from ManU and Arsenal (the two teams that scored the most goals) and my defenders and keeper from from Chelsea and Man City.

    My additional strategem is that midfielders get more points from a goal than forwards. And defenders/keepers get more points than mids. So I am targeting attacking mids on teams that are likely to score many goals and hopefully those guys get the most opportunities just from being around the net. I also agree with maximizing the combined number of mids and forwards as the scoring seems to reward offense just a little more. So it seems that a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 are the two best options to choose from and of those, I am opting for the 3-5-2 and spending a lot of money on my midfielders.

  4. This was, uh, impressive. How'd your strategies work out? I went 3-5-2, trying to focus on:

    Defenders: more attack-minded defenders with legitimate overall defenses and keepers (e.g. Alex).

    Midfielders: Attack! Attack! Attack! Give me the elite attackers from this group (e.g. Nani & David Silva).

    Strikers: Goals Galore! Give me top producers (e.g. Rooney).

    Bench: I went somewhat overboard with my starters, so my bench leaves a bit to be desired.

  5. First week of fantasy went okay by this strategy... my strikers scored 2 goals and 1 assist between the 3 of them for 18 pts. Not the top performance of the week but not bad. My midfield was more hit and miss, with only 19 fantasy pts scored between the 4 of them. I went attack-minded but saved a little money here as I wanted to spend bigger on 3 strikers. Ironically, my biggest splurge was Rafael Van de Vaart who did basically nothing. You're supposed to be scoring and assisting, dammit!

    My defenders were basically worthless... my 3 defenders + keeper totaled 8 points between the 4 of them, which abysmal considering a player gets 3 pts just for playing at least 60 mins. My cheap defenders, fine, but I spent $8.50 on the most expensive keeper in the game and he got 2 pts. That ain't cutting it.

    Part of it is also the randomness of fantasy. For instance, Manchester United got 3 goals yesterday but pricey midfielders Nani and Ashley Young participated in none of them. Rooney got his late in the game as Man U was piling it on. Meanwhile, unheralded Danny Welbeck got a goal and assist, and is only 1.1% owned and costs only $5.50. I wouldn't read too much into those performances, as fluctuations are typical in fantasy. Although personally Rooney is the only Man U striker I'd feel comfortable owning right now, until they figure out what to do with Welbeck and Chicharito (now healthy apparently) and finish shipping Berbatov off to Siberia.

  6. It's going to be exciting to see Welbeck's ownership jump to 15% this week, only to see him not start & come on as a 70th minute substitute.

  7. I know right. Although Suarez played only 20 mins, apparently, but still had a goal this week for Liverpool.

    Between the Man U striker situation and Nasri finally landing in Man City, I'm curious about how the opportunities are going to shake out for some of the top players over the next few weeks. Sounds like a topic deserving of a post this week.

  8. I like what you just did there...

  9. I am currently in second, and I believe the biggest factor was checking the squad sheets to see who as projected to start. My big scorers were Bosingwa, a defender, Malouda at midfield and my captain Rooney. Getting to double his 7 points was very important to helping me score so well.

  10. Captain selection is pretty critical. My captin, Aguero, only got 3 pts; the 4 extra points from Rooney was critical.

    I predicted that midfielder selection would determine the winner, but the winner also may be determined by captain selection. It remains to be seen whether week-to-week performance is random enough that the top scorer can't be properly predicted and might even out.

  11. Gee, sure wish I'd read this before picking my squad.