Gameweek 27 is nearly over, and as such we once again look ahead to the next round in the 2020/21 Fantasy Premier League season. FPL Gameweek 28 represents a welcome break from the double gameweek marathon we have taken part in over the last few weeks, this time it’s just one fixture per team and the whole thing is over in 72 hours.
GW27 has been relatively low scoring compared to the three weeks before it, at the time of writing the overall average sits at 35 points. In fact, we were looking at a far lower average until Spurs duo Harry Kane (£11.3m) and Heung-Min Son (£9.6m) delighted owners with some good scores to complement their high ownership.
However, it was once again teammate Gareth Bale (£9.3m) who stole the headlines with his second double-digit haul in as many gameweeks. The Welshman’s two goals capped another excellent display in which he once again reminded us the attributes that helped make him one of the most feared attackers on the planet.
Both GW26 and GW27 saw a remarkable rise in clean sheets compared to the weeks prior, leaving FPL managers pondering whether defence is once again in vogue. With so many budget and mid-priced options it will be tough to narrow down a shortlist of the very best picks, with blank gameweek 29 on the horizon as well it is more important than ever to nail those key transfers.
With fixture swings ahead for a number of sides, both good and bad, there is huge upside to finding the best value defenders, but how do we sort the hot from the not? Fulham are the focus this week as they became the latest side to keep a clean sheet away to Liverpool, but which of their options is best?
PART 1: Bale vs. Son
A battle of titanic proportions, FPL’s latest man of the hour up against one of the men of the season. Gareth Bale’s resurgence has left FPL managers with a headache, his impactful displays have made him almost impossible to ignore and his ownership is likely to rise sharply this week despite Spurs’ tougher trip to Arsenal.
Bale is doing a lot to silence the doubters, with many previously wary of owning him due to his struggles for form and fitness. The worst appears to be behind him, his four shots and one big chance (BC) in GW27 puts him among the highest performing midfielders this week. He also tops midfielders for expected goals (xG) and expected goal involvement (xGI), with 0.95 and 1.21 respectively, and his four chances and one big chance created ranks only behind Kevin De Bruyne (£11.8m).
In summary, these are very strong numbers and are backed up by the eye test. It’s easy to see the improvement in Bale’s game and the knock on effect this has on his teammates, the stats only serve to complement the dynamic and direct style the Welshman brings to the Spurs attack.
There are still doubts, Bale has come off early in every game he’s started since his return to the team in GW24, suggesting he is yet to find full match fitness. Minutes are unlikely to be a huge issue if he can keep performing well in the time he is given, we should expect him to eventually play longer into games and his manager Jose Mourinho has said he hopes this will be possible sooner rather than later.
The debate for many will be how to fit Bale in, for those that don’t have Son it is simply a straight shootout between the two. In my own team I am likely to make a move for one of the premium Spurs mids in either GW28 or 29, given Liverpool’s lack of form it is likely to be in place of Mo Salah (£12.5m).
Picking between Son and Bale is no easy feat, one has multiple seasons of reliability behind him and is enjoying his best campaign to date, while the other has exploded back onto the scene after an injury-ridden year.
We are also dealing with small sample sizes, we can only judge Bale on his recent displays given how little he has featured across the season.
Above we can see the expected data per 90 minutes for Bale (left) and Son (right) for the last four gameweeks. A few stats immediately standout, Bale’s xG (0.40) is four times higher than Son’s (0.10) and his minutes per xG is better by nearly 600 (aided by playing less minutes).
I touched upon their respective roles in last week’s Differential XI article, but it’s becoming apparent that Bale’s goal threat has pushed Son into a more creative position. This is reflected in the expected assists (xA), with Son tripling Bale’s creativity with an xA of 0.30 and minutes per xA of 257.1. His minutes per chance created of 32 has also improved by nearly 25% against his season average.
With a goal being worth two points more than assists for midfielders, the value is definitely in picking those who are more likely to find the net.
A look at Son’s heatmap gives us a clue as to why his goal threat has reduced. On the left we can see his positioning since Bale’s return to fitness, it is decidedly less central than the four gameweeks previous and with hardly any touches on the right side of the pitch.
The most active areas are just outside the left side corner of the penalty area and on the touchline, midway into the opponents half. As we can see from the concentration of his movement in both areas, it appears Son’s position is now more fixed to one area than before Bale earned his place back.
This increased presence on the left has lead to an increase in crossing frequency, with Son attempting 3.6 per match since GW24 versus 2.2 in the four weeks prior.
Between GW20 and GW23 we can see that not only is his position less confined to a handful of areas but it also spreads more centrally, right up to the more favourable shooting positions on the edge of the D.
This may help explain the data, Son is now being forced to operate and shoot from more difficult positions. However, this wider position is allowing him to create higher quality chances more frequently and the angle at which his passes and crosses are being played from makes them harder to defend against.
We see above the reason for the huge disparity in expected goal threat (Bale = left, Son = right). Bale is shooting far more frequently and in better positions. His 1.4 shots in the box (SiTB) per 90 is more than double Son’s in the last four gameweeks and he is averaging three times as many shots on target. The Welsh winger’s 22.6 minutes per shot dwarfs the South Korean’s 56.3 and he is having twice as many big chances.
All of the stats, combined with the xG, help draw a conclusion that despite it being early in Bale’s resurgence, it looks like his influence has a negative effect on Son’s goal threat and in fact Bale has overtaken his colleague as Kane’s supporting act.
We must be wary of small sample sizes, it must be said that when we compare the averages of Bale’s last four gameweeks to Son’s season averages then the numbers are much closer. Bale does still top Son in for xG and SiTB, but the gap is much smaller and Son has depth in his numbers given the strength of his season to date.
There does appear to be something in the ‘Bale the scorer, Son the creator’ narrative, however. The four gameweeks prior to Bale’s re-emergence show that Son’s xG/90 was double that of the four weeks that Bale has featured in. Son also averaged four times as many shots on target per 90 and nearly twice as many SiTB.
So while we are dealing with a small sample, we can see a correlation between Bale’s arrival and regression in Son’s underlying attacking numbers and goal threat. That is coupled with the improvement in Son’s creative numbers, either by a deliberate tactical or positional switch, or just a natural result of Kane and Bale naturally taking greater responsibility for goal getting.
While we know Son has historically been a high over-performer of expected data, it is this regression in line with Bale’s return and punctuated by a lower shot count that has lead me to this conclusion.
For me it is enough to choose Gareth Bale. I always favour goal threat above all else and the evidence is clear despite the small sample that Bale is simply offering more. Add that his slightly cheaper price, and at time of writing much lower ownership, then I think it is a no brainer to pick Bale. Given the enormous saving and currently much better results, I plan to bring Bale in ahead of GW29 and replace Mo Salah.
That money could then give me a route to own Son as well as Bale and Kane, the uber-differential Spurs triple attack, something I’m very tempted by. At the very least the extra funds will help me adjust to the GW31 fixture swings and help me shape my team for the season’s home stretch.
For those that already own Son it is a tougher decision, a sideways move appears to have potential to payoff but could also come at a loss of team value, making it harder to get him back in. If your goal is to attack your rank rather than hold, I would argue that switching Spurs midfielders represents a great opportunity to upside chase. There is risk attached given Son’s ownership, but if you believe in the data then all signs point towards the move delivering points.
As we saw earlier in the season with the rise of Ilkay Gundogan (£6.2m), there are times when you need to follow the latest bandwagon, hopefully jumping on early enough to make meaningful gains. I believe Bale is likely to be the next and arguably last significant bandwagon of the season, it’s not one I intend to miss.
PART 2: Ful Steam Ahead
Trying to identify cheap, reliable defensive options is a difficult job. Ideally we want defenders with good clean sheet prospects, but also enough goal threat to add to their defensive returns or cover when they do concede.
There’s a few options that have caught my eye lately and some others who are likely to become relevant the other side of blank gameweek 29. With the blank still to come I have looked at defenders that feature that week, have good prospects after the blank and combine defensive potential with attacking threat.
The standout option for me is Fulham’s Joachim Andersen (£4.5m). His performances have played a major part in the Cottagers’ dash towards Premier League survival, with the West London side only losing two of their last ten matches. This dramatic change in fortune has not come as an accident, the eye test will tell you that Fulham have really found their feet at both ends of the pitch.
On the left we have Fulham’s per 90 averages for the season, compared to the last six matches on the right. We can see that the attacking stats are very similar, but the difference defensively is enormous, with Fulham averaging twice as many clean sheets in the last six and conceding less than half the goals of their season average.
The 0.50 improvement in their xGC/90 and 0.90 reduction in their xG on target conceded provides clear evidence that they are a tighter defence than before. The data has only started to shift over the last six to eight games, however if we look further out we can see that Fulham have only conceded twice in a game three times since GW11 and haven’t conceded more than twice since GW9.
We can see above how well Fulham have performed for xGC lately, their total of 7.28 ranks just behind Man City and their four goals conceded is joint second with West Ham.
All this bodes well for the prospects of Andersen and his colleagues. I’ve picked him as the standout for a few reasons. Firstly, he is one of the only ‘nailed’ players in the Fulham defence, his 720 minutes over the last six gameweeks is only matched by Tosin Adarabioyo (£4.5m). Every other Fulham defender has played at least one and a half matches less than the pair in that time.
Of the two Andersen is shooting more frequently, with six shots vs Tosin’s four over the last six gameweeks, and they are tied on four shots in the box. Andersen has also had more touches in the box and his minutes per chance is more than 30 minutes better.
The Dane also carries more routes to a return, his xGI of 1.33 over the last six equals his more offensive, but less nailed colleague Ola Aina (£4.5m), and is more than double Tosin’s. Andersen carries a higher goal threat and enough assist threat to separate him from his centre back partner.
With Man City in GW28 it is unlikely that many will rush to get a Fulham defender this week, however with a good fixture against Leeds in GW29 I expect they will become more popular then. In fact, Fulham play Leeds, Aston Villa and Wolves in their three matches after the blank, all three sides rank in the bottom half for xGC from set pieces over the season, with Leeds being particularly vulnerable to headed chances.
The potential of a headed goal for Andersen appears to be enhanced over this coming period, and according to the data so are his clean sheet prospects.
Wolves have struggled for goals all season, but Leeds and Villa have consistently been strong in attack. There are signs that the narrative is shifting for both, while they are in the top eight for xG over the season both sides are in the bottom half for the metric over the last six gameweeks.
Leeds are still a very capable attacking force, but their numbers have started to regress, and while I wouldn’t bank on a clean sheet I believe Fulham do have the tools to stifle Biela’s side. With Wolves and Villa fairing even worse for xG lately you would have to be confident that Fulham can continue their good defensive run and pickup some clean sheets in the short term.
Fulham have a good run from GW29 until the end of the season, with Chelsea and Man Utd the only fixtures that look avoidable on paper.
In Villa, Wolves, Burnley, Southampton and Newcastle they play some of the league’s least potent attacks in recent times and with Fulham’s data only improving you can be confident that Andersen will continue to deliver points. At his price he is cheap enough to bench and carry through the GW33 blank and tougher Chelsea fixture just after it.
Fulham’s run is far more favourable than the likes of Leeds and Brighton, who also have potential options for GW29. It’s the mixture of good short and long term fixtures that sets Andersen apart from their assets for me.
I really like him as a pick and he standouts over his Fulham colleagues due to his combination of attacking data and minutes played. At this stage it is probably not a bad option to double up for those that have Alphonse Areola (£4.5m) in goal. For those without a Fulham defensive asset, the signs point towards them continuing to provide incredible value.
At a time where differential picks are vital to helping us finish the season strongly, jumping on the Fulham defence or adding to your investment in it could be a great way to gain an advantage.
*Underlying data and tables obtained via the author’s paid subscription to Fantasy Football Scout*