The dawn of a new season is nearly upon us (which starts on a Friday night, so I am mixing my metaphors. Sorry.). If you are anything like me you are at the point where you just want the season to start merely if it will put you out of your misery of indecision and doubt.
New lines of inquiry are opened with every RMT I see and the drip, drip, drip of injury or lack of match fitness news sends me back to recalibrate the squad. The management team at Stoosher FC have retained its adviser, Ghost Ship Inc. (motto: ‘Transfer ? Why bother ?’), whose enigmatic second half advise last season secured a miracle recovery to mediocrity for the side. GSI’s preseason advice – ‘select a number of popular players and then fill the squad with sure starters and call back around November’ – does not meet the precision in recommendations we require. As with every season, the management team selects its Gameweek 1 (GW1) squad for the long term; yet nearly every season the wildcard is played before the autumn leaves begin to fall. We are hoping to avoid that fate this term . . .
One Reason Why I Usually Have to Wildcard Early
Most veteran managers use some pretty standard principles in selecting a GW1 squad. First, employ some balance between the various positions; do not go too heavy at forward, midfield, or in defence. You are going to need maximum flexibility for those inevitable disappointments in your squad and the ability to switch to a hot hand (an inevitable bandwagon) without major surgery. Second, most managers would agree that a modicum of highly owned players should be in the squad; early season is not the time to go all “differential” or to rely on those not acclimated to the Premier League, no matter the transfer fee which brought them to the Prem (see 2015/16 season and Mikhitaryan, Henrikh; see also, Gundogan, Ilkay). Finally, most managers look to have at least two big budget armband options and try to get as many ‘nailed on’ starters as they can find for the squad. This explains the nearly endless search for that 4.0m defender who is ‘nailed on’; that guy frees up 0.5-1.0m to use elsewhere while providing cover for the inevitable injury or benching to one of your starters.
Unfortunately, I often leave these sound principles along side my toilet with the other quick read material (yes, the library to you) at home when selecting my team. And I’ve pretty much done that this year as well. So here are two things NOT to do in selecting a player; (1) rely on a single preseason game or (2) rely on youtube highlights. As it stands, I have done both.
So, Sead Kolasinac did not even start the Charity Shield game; he came on for the unfortunate Per Mertasacker. Yet I was so impressed with his performance – a beast in the tackle and a beast on set pieces as well as a penchant to charge forward with the ball at his feet – that he immediately went into my side about the 80th minute on Sunday. He looked the sort of, well, beast, Arsenal have been missing in back in forever. So, your saying ‘Stoosher – this guy is coming over from a relegated side in the Bundesliga, no EPL experience; he’s expensive (6.0m) – and he’s straight into your side on the basis of your eyeballing the guy for 60 minutes off the bench’ ? Um, yes, um, well, I get your point . . . yes.
Meanwhile, my search for a budget forward had stalled on Sam Vokes (10 goals in 2000 min last season, not bad) but getting an attacking player from Burnley is about as appealing as selecting the cleanest shirt from the dirty clothes bin. And the fact that Burnley have four forwards to choose from with Jon Walters bringing his inimitable skill set to the stable, has given me pause as to Vokes “nailed-on-ness”. So, while I scoured the less than 6.0m ranks of forwards I remembered mention of Tammy Abraham as a promising Chelsea lad out on loan. A google search demonstrated some promise and so I had to see the kid for himself: I found a youtube of every Abraham goal for Barnsley last year. A poacher and solid finisher (23 goals in 4 minutes, what can go wrong ?) with speed and size. And with Fernando Llorente out with a broken arm for at least a week or two: presto ! Get in my team, Tammy !
Whether these two remain in my side when the deadline shuts on Friday, I do not know. But I would urge you to use a more scientific approach to team selection.
History as Prelude
I suspect most of the big budget assets who played in the Prem last season are sure things (with the possible exception of Alexis Sanchez; assuming he returns to Arsenal after his injury I cannot see another 264 point season (more like 200 points) if he is playing the left wing v. centre forward as he did for much of last season). But Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, and the rest of those priced 9.5m and above look like pretty good odds to end up north of 180 to 210 points. My caveat here is those who played in the Prem last year; Alexandre Lacazette may come flying out of the blocks but everyone thought Mikhitaryan would too last year.
If history is, indeed, prelude, the key question is whether to go with Harry Kane, currently the most expensive player in the game. What every manager will need to ask himself or herself is whether the say, 2.0m in savings over, say, Jesus, can make up or exceed what you lose in another Harry Kane 25 goal season (and handed the armband 20+ times) in terms of total points. And are there enough questions around Sergio Aguero’s minutes to question his price at 11.5m ? Is Lukaku in a team which is likely to provide more chances a “must have” at 11.5m ? There isn’t a single player with Prem experience priced at over 9.5m who I look at as overpriced; it is guesswork of course now, but I cannot see any of that group not hitting for 170+ points barring a serious injury. So the question becomes whether you can justify the outlay for the really big budget guys: Kane, Sanchez (out injured for a week or two), Aguero, or Lukaku. Can you justify the outlay for two ? Or three ? Every manager has to make this judgment on his or her own; personally I cannot go into the season without Kane and Lukaku (48% owned). I have made my peace with sacrificing my midfield.
If you have gone for a couple of the big budget guys (Kane and Lukaku drive a 24.0m hole in your budget), you are trying to find a place to squeeze a bit. The rise of the wing back in EPL last year means you probably are riding at least one big budget defender which means the uber-defence is probably not an option. And so you are looking for a midfield “enabler” or two; this is that budget midfielder who either explodes into bandwagon status or rides enough goals and assists to 140+ point glory and a permanent place in your team as your 4th midfielder.
He may be short term and his minutes are very likely dependent on Sanchez and Mesut Ozil’s return from injury but I am looking at Alex Iwobi (5.5m) at least early doors. It’s usually not a great idea to have a player who is a ‘transfer waiting to happen’ but Iwobi satisfies two itches. First, he has good numbers. In 1456 minutes played last year he scored three goals and had five assists for 89 points. Project that points per minute to a full season (2700 min/30 games) and he lands on 165 points. Second, he provides access to a pretty good looking attacking Arsenal side; there will be goals. And a third factor, Arsene Wenger seems to be high on him; he played essentially half a season last year despite the likes of Sanchez, Ozil, Theo Walcott, and Aaron Ramsey about. This is a gamble and you probably shouldn’t gamble with your GW1 squad but all the 5.5m or below lads look a gamble.
The others on my ‘enabler ‘ shortlist all come with something to recommend them but also huge question marks. In no particular order one, possibly two, of these lads will no doubt be in the side come Friday: Matt Ritchie, Christian Atsu, Ryan Fraser, James Ward-Prowse, Pascal Gross, or Iwobi. The schedule has ruled out two lads from consideration, both reasonably consistent: Jason Puncheon and Marc Albrighton. Two others are ruled out through injury: Ilkay Gundogan, Jesse Lingard.
But Kane, Lukaku and two big budget defenders require I find one or two enablers and that means a gamble or two in my GW1 squad. Principles ? Whose got principles ?
From the Engine Room
From our perch above the Stoosher FC training ground just down the road from the BoulStadWest, home to Stoosher FC, we watch the first team manager put the lads through tryouts. It’s a hot August and the lads are sweating profusely. There is a little bit of snap to some of the tackles and one or two of the lads have come out of a tackle with menace in their eyes; certainly some of the lads are desperate to make the squad and want to impress with their willingness if not their ability. Tom Carroll is already in the squad but his work in particular has stood out; he wants to crush those rumours that he is here purely because of his price and is destined to ride the bench. He wants to force his way into the XI. And no one is working harder than Nacho Monreal; as a near ever-present in the Stoosher FC side last year he is looking to keep his erstwhile teammate Sead Kolasinac at bay. He has already pointed out to the manager that he comes with a price savings of 0.5m.
The management team have focused attention on those in midfield, all of those budget lads desperate to make the side. Pascal Gross picking a lovely pass; Christian Atsu all hustle and bustle down the wing; James Ward-Prowse and Matt Ritchie have stayed over an hour after training all week working on free kicks. With only a day to go our decisions have become crusted with ever more tension; our arguments parsed to the nth degree, our reasons for selection increasingly trifling and inconsequential. We’ll get there but it may simply be that we chosen 15 lads because we are too exhausted to parse anymore; too exhausted to measure the merits of Kane and a 7.0m mid v. Jesus and a 9.0m mid; too exhausted to spend another minute thinking about a fantasy game.
Good luck to all you managers out there; may you feel confident in your squad as Arsenal and Leicester City kick off the season Friday. I will probably be the first to greet you in the Members Lounge on Monday morning with what has become my typical post GW1 lament: how could I have been so stupid ?