Gameweek 11 appears like some spectral mirage, an idyll meadow with a clear-running brook – rising from the desolate, smoking wasteland of Gameweek 10 (GW10). There is nothing which can match our fantasy football devastation at this point; we stumble on hoping that we do not see a mirage, but a real thing.
It has been another week of unrelenting disappointment; 34 points means we fall another 12 points behind even the already low average score. Our main mini-league (ML) leader riding the surge of a solid defence which includes both David de Gea and Phil Jones to 62 points, only pointing out our most abject failure; a lack of steady points-producing defenders. On to GW11 then, but be warned, in keeping with the Halloween season this post has the look of a post-mortem on a still (but-barely) living thing, the Stoosher FC side. So, this week indulge me some self-catharsis and perhaps like the lyric of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ a lesson for you in ‘not to do what I have done’ . . .
What Went Wrong.
No team finds itself in the nether regions of 3.5 mil overall rank (OR) unless it has decided to go ghost ship with an implausibly bad GW1 squad. Or unless the manager has made some catastrophically poor decisions and abandoned some basic principles of success along the way. We find ourselves in the latter category.
With a GW1 squad which read –
– we entered the season with 48 points and a start behind the average but not requiring, at least in GW2, wholesale changes. Indeed, I’d feel very comfortable today with that midfield (possibly moving KdB for a more budget friendly Manchester City mid) and front line. Some tinkering over those first few weeks with the back line, say Cahill for Jones; upgrade one of our 4.5 mil defenders who were dropped by their managers to Ben Davies, and we would have been in a good position for the entire first third of the season with virtually no transfers in midfield or at forward. In other words, we violated the first rule of transfers: fix what is broken; and its corollary: do not chase last week’s points.
But panic set in. GW2 saw a -4 hit to move on Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas, both red-carded in GW1; GW2 produced another miserable week, although our two replacements – Ahmed Hegazi and Henrikh Mhkitaryan – produce 18 points between them. GW2’s poor performance was largely down to the failure of our captain Harry Kane’s 1-pointer that week, an unfortunate circumstance but hardly significant long-term. But remaining at 2.5 mil OR meant further panic about our prospects and we took the unfortunate step of hitting the wildcard button (WC). A dismal 30-point week ensued which included a straight red card for Miguel Britos, who, sadly, remains in my team. And all sense of coherent team structure and planning left the management team.
It has been a case of musical chairs in the front three ever since as we sought to make up OR in a hurry – Roberto Firmino, Javier Henrandez, Sergio Aguero, Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Romelu Lukaku, and Alvaro Morata have all been in (and out) of the team at various points since the WC (along with the much lamented Tammy Abraham, abandoned with the GW3 WC). In short, it has been a circular firing squad. And unfortunately, this panic has left the side with a forlorn defence – most significantly no Manchester United or Tottenham exposure – and without midfield heavyweights such as Christian Eriksen or Mohamed Salah (another WC victim).
As we look back on this rotting corpse of a season, we find we have abandoned a couple of basic principles which have ensured, over the years, 10 seasons out of 11 inside the top 75,000 OR, including one season inside the top 10,000 OR and one season inside the top 2000 OR. There has been a moderately successful plan over the years, I keep reminding myself.
First, we abandoned what I know as the ‘Merritt Rule’ defence, named after my chief ML rival (3 finishes inside the top 10,000 OR, including 2 inside the top 2500). The principle is simple: select and count as ever-presents the three cheapest nailed on defenders from the top four sides most likely to keep clean sheets. This can include a ‘keeper if you like, but your defence should have a bedrock of three players very likely to keep 13-14 (or more) clean sheets. As you look at the GW1 team above, we had slipped here (only Monreal and Cahill qualified); but Tom Heaton felt like a ‘Merritt Rule’ ‘keeper given he was the leading GK points scorer from 2016/17, so we “cheated” on the rule. A very simple way to comply with the ‘Merritt Rule’ in GW1 or an easy road in the first 3 GWs at a reasonable cost: Phil Jones, John Stones, Ben Davies, BUR, 4.0 mil. Count the failure to adopt the ‘Merritt Rule’ defence as a mistake from the off for Stoosher FC.
The Merritt Rule might be controversial for some; too much money in defence if you will, but it has served me well when I have embraced it and it is why I place such a high level of importance on one or two midfield ‘enablers’.
And the second principle we abandon was the simple concept of balance; that is don’t overload any single position – defence/midfield/forward – as it will throw off your flexibility to pick up a bandwagon in another position or upgrade or downgrade as necessary to add a ‘form’ player. You can’t go ‘like for like’ in terms of position and price if you are overloaded in any one position.
Having identified the problems, we have two-thirds of the season to try to recover some sense of “normal”.
The Way Forward.
Our first step forward is to do nothing. Our consultant, Ghost Ship Inc. (GSI), is heartily in favor of this first step, but in order to restore balance and add the ‘Merritt Rule’ defence we seek, we’ll need 2-3 transfers. And someone in the present side will have to serve as the “bank” given we have only 0.2 mil in funds saved. So we need two free transfers (FT) and perhaps a -4 hit to add 3 players. Adding to the desire to do nothing is that we have the international break ahead of GW12. Sitting on our hands this week is facilitated by the fact that 10 of our 11 starters has a home game and even if Harry Kane does not make the weekend, his potential replacements are Tom Carroll (BHA) or Ahmed Hegazi (hud), both of whom have a fixture where it is feasible either might get something more than a “he showed up” 2-pointer.
One of the issues, of course, is that my seeking three big budget forwards is not borne of nothing. The three most expensive forwards in the game have the most points of all forwards and sit 2nd, 3rd and 6th among all players. Alvaro Morata, another big budget forward, sits 4th among forwards. Yes, if anyone had seen Leroy Sane’s production coming, one might have never bothered with Aguero but my point is that there are very rational reasons to go with a ‘big 3’ up front. So the truth is, I have not completely given up on the idea as my front three are currently: Kane, Aguero and Morata.
Which means my “bank” can only come from three other sources: David Silva, Raheem Sterling or Marcos Alonso and to a slight extent, Cedric Soares, whose schedule is about to enter a melt down zone. So let’s examine some of the targets and what it might take to add them.
The first pair of targets will very likely raise eyebrows. Alberto Moreno (4.5 mil) or Joe Gomez (4.5 mil) of Liverpool. What sticks in most casual fans’ memories are the 5-0 City defeat and the 4-1 Tottenham defeat. But in its other eight games, Liverpool have conceded seven goals. And have 4 clean sheets (including 0-0 with United); our mathematics experts will understand that is 40% of Liverpool’s league games. Liverpool had 12 clean sheets last season as well. And ‘pool have an excellent run of fixtures through to Boxing Day.
Bournemouth have a good run of fixtures ahead as well, and Charlie Daniels and Nathan Ake might be good bets, but they fall outside my paradigm; I am looking for defenders under 6.0 mil from top sides who I can “set and forget”, essentially for the season.
If we stick with a maximum of 6.0 mil, it is almost impossible to look past Phil Jones, an ever-present in a side with eight clean sheets. The previously mentioned John Stones or Nicolas Otamendi, either of Tottenham’s two centre-backs (Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier definitely come into the reckoning if they appear nailed on); Arsenal had 12 clean sheets last season and have three excellent 6.0 mil or less options or David Luiz if we choose to downgrade Alonso but keep a Chelsea defensive asset ahead of a good run of fixtures – all come into the reckoning. Even City’s ‘keeper Ederson and United’s David de Gea will get consideration as Ben Foster continues to falter in keeping clean sheets.
But we will find three ‘top side’ defenders in the next couple of weeks to “set and forget”. Because that’s where the clean sheets are and a defender’s bread and butter is clean sheets.
This really becomes a game of whether we are going to downgrade a forward to add a big budget mid and defensive solidity or downgrade a City mid to an ‘enabler’ purely to find the defensive solidity we crave. It is hard to look past Mohamed Salah and it is one of my more idiotic moves to drop him in the GW3 WC. In a side which will very likely finish top 3 in goals scored, Salah is absolutely integral. Yes, he misses chances, much like a certain Belgian forward we all know (see Lukaku, Romelu) but he earns so many it hardly matters. To add Salah, we’ve got to cause some pain in our lineup but it may well be worth it. Another factor is his ownership; the most owned mid in the game, you lose rank every time he scores if you don’t have him.
Obviously, Christian Eriksen and Delli Alli are in the mix too, if we are going to strip out a big budget forward.
Another reason I am reluctant to make any move this week is that I am anticipating Paul Pogba’s return after the international break. 31 points from 4 starts to begin the season, and a good chemistry with Lukaku, suggests a bargain for 8.0 mil upon his return. Currently my squad is without Lukaku, so the squad could use some exposure to United’s attack. Pogba’s ‘shoot-on-sight’ approach is also good for his fantasy appeal. His early season reminded me a lot of the old ‘Shootinho’ who has done a remarkable job of cleaning up his act. Maybe Pogba is on that path, but if he is not, selfishness can be good from a fantasy perspective.
With two okay-ish enablers in my side already, Richarlison and Eric Choupo-Moting, I am reluctant to add another but it is hard to look past Christian Gross (yes, I know, he was in my GW1 squad). On the ATFPL season ticker Brighton’s schedule is among the top 3 for attacking returns and Gross has been involved in 7 of the 10 Brighton league goals this year. Gross would free ~2.2 mil, making two ‘top side’ defenders a pretty easy reach.
If we truly want to establish balance in the squad, one of Morata, Aguero or Kane will have to go. In last week’s A Manager’s Preview I talked myself out of Jamie Vardy. I looked at his record from last year and from 2014/15 and concluded that his 24 goals, 8 assists in the championship winning season was a bit of a fluke and last season’s 161 points was an absolute upside. And that 8.6 mil was probably too much for those points. But after watching new manager Claude Puel’s Leicester, I am having a rethink. A home game against an out-of-sorts, managerless (I mean that quite literally given David Unsworth’s team sheet and second half subs) is probably not the best place to make a 180 degree change in thinking but, yes, well, I have. Six goals in 10 games, including games against Arsenal, United, Chelsea, and Liverpool, seems a pretty good return. Vardy does not bring complete balance to the squad, but he probably gives you something close to Morata’s expected returns at 1.6 mil in savings to invest in midfield and defence. Obviously, if I am prepared to sacrifice Aguero, there are more savings. And Puel seems to have reinvigorated the Claudio Ranieri counter attacking model.
Roberto Firmino is another of these options who looks a bit overpriced for returns, but like Vardy he is nailed on but in an even more explosive team. And he looks certain to deliver in that 150-160 point area. But are we prepared to ride Firmino’s inevitable blank streaks ?
Really restoring balance would be re-inserting Tammy Abraham into the side. He is punching above his weight just under the big boys (4 goals, 1 assist) at a budget price. Will Swansea generate enough in attack to get Abraham enough opportunities to get 13-14 goals – a credible return for a budget forward ? They have seven goals in 10 matches and in the games I have seen, simply do not look like scoring. Hmm, balance v. continuing frustration . . .
Unfortunately, there is no one else under 8.0 mil on the radar. Wayne Rooney has ticked over pretty nicely with a nightmare early schedule, but Everton are rudderless. And, while I was a Javier Hernandez backer early doors, Slaven Bilic’s occasional experiments with Chicharito on the left of a front three has put me off.
Bournemouth are another side with great fixtures for attacking returns ahead. One possibility, a gamble at this point, but can Callum Wilson regain his fitness and form ? We cannot forget his mercurial start to life in the Prem in 2015/16 with five goals in just 771 minutes, but injuries have laid him low these past two years. But when he plays he scores goals.
In the Engine Room.
After a meeting with ownership on Sunday in which they made the very real threat of turning over management exclusively to GSI, the board suggested we let staff train the side, and the management team take a three day blow. It was a sobering reminder that the board recognised how bankrupt we are mentally and emotionally even at this relatively early stage of the season.
The reference to Ernest Hemingway’s simple short story is not an error, for I found myself headed north to the cottage on Lake Huron in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to contemplate the fate of the side and certain other matters. The cottage is a small, wooden affair, close by the big lake. The temperature has relocated to the norms here in the north after a mild autumn, which is to say a constant, remorseless chill: just about freezing at night and not much better below the ever present grey clouds of day. When I arrived, the waves were pounding the shore and one feared it might be the witching hour for any freighters out there in the middle of the Great Lakes. A light rain was falling, whipped by a cold wind. It was no day for a summer “porch beer” but I had one anyway, in a heavy duster as the wind and rain whipped across the porch screens. There was something vaguely comfortable about being in the cabin, safe and dry and alone despite the windswept rain and cold and the tumultuous thoughts coursing through my mind.
The trees are bare and desolate now, shorn of leaves by the ‘three day blow’ which may have preceded my return to the north. It is hard to imagine that I have so much mental and emotional energy invested in the fate of a fantasy team. That is football, of course. And the danger of heartache and, yes, the pure joy, is, of course, greater with the team of actual flesh and blood players I coach. But still this fantasy season has made even watching games painful and has played havoc with my mental landscape, matched here by the heavy grey sky and chilling wind.
But we have a quiet and happy place to ponder these issues. We have put away the phone, (and put away concerns of a Jones price rise and Cedric price drop (and so we must act now!)), put away thoughts of the world we know in disarray. We will take some walks through the woods or along the rocky lakeshore where the iron grey sky meets the grey and green hue of white capped water along the horizon in an indissoluble union of all which we might fear and all which might give us comfort. We will have a few beers near the fire at night. Perhaps read, once again, Hemingway’s Michigan stories.
And then we will head home in the morning a day ahead of GW11, rested, mind clear. Ready to look at the team in a new light.