In the following article, we discuss the process behind making a first draft for FPL, considering potential formations, the players best suited to each setup and those who have gone under the radar. We also discuss the best rotating pairs and the benefits to planning your line-up around captaincy in Fantasy Premier League.
The UEFA European Championships have finished and it is heartbreak for England fans. Despite this, the tournament has been one of the best in recent memory, with plenty of plot twists creating a high drama spectacle for us to enjoy this summer.
Close to three and a half million people participated in the official UEFA fantasy game, a temporary cure for the symptoms of FPL withdrawal. With the summer of football behind us we now begin the countdown to the 2021/22 Premier League season and with it the return of the most coveted prize in fantasy sports.
At the time of writing, nearly one million people have signed up to Fantasy Premier League and with over a month until kick-off it is possible we are looking at another record breaking year.
With the number of entrants increasing year-on-year and advice and data more accessible than ever, it has never been tougher to compete at the top end of the FPL ranks. The classic benchmark of a top 10k finish is becoming an increasingly narrower target to aim at, with many suggesting that a top 50k, top 100k or even a top 1% finish represents a more realistic way to quantify what counts as elite in today’s game.
No matter what your target rank is, it is likely a strong start will go a long way to helping you achieve it. Setting up a competitive first draft is certainly one of the most important tasks faced by FPL managers in any season, getting it right can be absolutely crucial in getting a head start.
My First Draft
In this section, I will present my first draft and talk through my rationale for picking certain players, teams and price points. I’m certain I will make many changes before kick-off, but based on the fixtures and information currently available I believe this draft to be the most optimal for my strategy at this time.
Starting from back to front, I’ve chosen Robert Sanchez (£4.5m) as my starting keeper. The Spaniard is the template pick in goal and given Brighton’s good starting fixtures I see no reason to go for anyone else. Although he is unlikely to yield the same double digit hauls as last year’s keeping king Emi Martinez (£5.5m), Sanchez comes in at an attractive price in a team that is expected to improve on a season where they under performed on nearly every metric.
Betting on expected goal (xG) variance swinging back into the green is a gamble, but I would be surprised if we don’t see some sort of improvement from Brighton this campaign. As such, Sanchez is a slightly dull but safe pick to start the season with.
I’ve also selected his teammate Tariq Lamptey (£4.5m), the godfather of the xLiveliness movement and one the most popular assets from the start of last season. Sadly, Lamptey’s season was cut short by injury, but the impression he made on FPL managers was profound. The Seagulls’ full back is currently the seventh highest owned defender in the game (19.4%), a testament to how well regarded he is by the FPL community.
Lamptey fully justifies his inclusion, of all the defenders under £5m that are probable starters he accumulated the highest expected goal involvement (xGI) per 90 minutes last season, with 0.14. If we expect Brighton to start well then Lamptey looks like a very easy pick, if he is able to stay fit then the data suggests he will be incredible value. Additionally, with Sanchez so highly owned a Brighton double up could be a great way to combat the early template.
Luke Ayling (£4.5m) is the next best starting budget defender based on xGI per 90, he’ll be on my bench in week one but due to Leeds’ perfect rotation with Brighton over the first six gameweeks I will certainly be subbing him in before long.
Leeds had a mixed season defensively, the first half saw them lose heavily on occasion whereas the second saw them firmly upper mid-table across the defensive metrics. Marcelo Bielsa clearly made changes to his system and was duly rewarded with high profile wins against champions Man City and Leicester, and draws against Man Utd, Liverpool and Chelsea.
I expect Leeds to avoid the dreaded second season syndrome and probably finish in and around the top ten again, their assets are likely to provide tremendous value once more. Ayling’s appeal is similar to Lamptey’s, there is a great sense that we didn’t quite see his full potential in 2020/21.
No defender under performed their xGI as severely as the Leeds right back, he inexplicably drew a season-long blank despite being expected to score or assist roughly four times.
Provided Leeds are as good as last season, I would expect Ayling to be excellent value in a very attacking team. In the short term, his rotation with Lamptey is the main reason for his selection. A combined opening six of Burnley (A), Watford (H), Burnley (A), Brentford (A), Newcastle (A), Palace (A) looks very appealing.
Please see the below graphic for the Lamptey and Ayling rotation, courtesy of Fantasy Football Fix.
I also like the idea of a Watford defender to rotate with Ayling instead of Lamptey as it yields a similarly good run, but with more home games. However, I would wait to see the Hornet’s preferred lineup and how they adjust to the Premier League before picking up one of their defenders.
I don’t need long to explain the benefits of picking Luke Shaw (£5.5m) or Trent Alexander-Arnold (£7.5m), as the table above shows no defenders with regular minutes got close to the pair for chances created per 90 minutes last season.
The duo play for two of the league’s best sides and have a plethora of attacking stars to aim at each week. Despite Liverpool’s inconsistent season and Shaw’s price rise, I still see both as the two outstanding defensive options in the game.
I would expect Liverpool to improve defensively now their injuries have subsided and Shaw has continued to go from strength to strength. With the signings Man Utd have made and are linked with it is likely they will take a step forward again. As such, Shaw has a great chance to improve on his standout campaign.
I usually refrain from labeling players as ‘essential’, but in my own team these two are as close as it gets.
Should Shaw and his England colleagues become doubts for GW1 then I would look to Lucas Digne (£5.5m) assuming he is fit. Everton are expected to tighten up under Rafa Benitez and a fit Digne can be a formidable asset given the Toffees’ favourable early run.
Should Digne be unavailable for GW1, I would nominate Vladimir Coufal (£5.0m) as the next best option. West Ham were one of the better defences in the league last season and Coufal was in inspired form, bagging nine assists and nine clean sheets over the campaign.
We’ll start with the obvious selections. Mo Salah (£12.5m) and Bruno Fernandes (£12.0m) need no introduction. The Egyptian has been the consensus best asset in the game since his arrival in 2017, and Bruno has quickly become FPL royalty and has been the highest points scorer since his debut in January 2020.
As the table above shows, Salah and Fernandes bossed the league for xGI last season. The pair are likely to be duelling for the top spot in FPL again and it would be very difficult to justify going without either.
They take penalties, provide assists and play almost every minute when fit. Similarly priced midfielders Kevin De Bruyne (£12.0m), Sadio Mane (£12.0m) and Raheem Sterling (£11.0m) just don’t offer quite the same combination of points scoring attributes.
KDB is perhaps the closest competitor, but without penalties he will need to do a lot from open play to surpass either man. Mane and Sterling both had poor league seasons and will need to earn back the trust of FPL managers before being legitimate options.
With Liverpool and United both having favourable starts it makes sense to play safe and pick the pair. They also rotate well for captaincy over the first six or seven weeks. United have a very poor run from GW8 and as such it could be a good time to switch over to KDB on wildcard or using transfers.
Please see the below graphic for the Bruno and Salah captaincy rotation, courtesy of Fantasy Football Fix.
Raphinha (£6.5m) is another easy selection for me, the Leeds man looks under priced and lead the league among similarly prices midfielders for xGI per 90 minutes last season. I prefer him to teammate Jack Harrison (£6.0m) based on him being a more regular set piece threat and having superior attacking numbers when averaged out over the season.
Bukayo Saka (£6.5m) is my next favourite option at this price point, the Arsenal man has a great GW1 fixture but I am put off by their fixtures afterward. He is someone I am considering and will certainly look at him when their fixtures turn in GW4.
Leeds have a mixed start but are capable of scoring in any game and as such I’m choosing to go with Raphinha while he is at his cheapest. If the Brazilian starts well it is likely his price will rise quickly and it will be hard to get to him without a reshuffle.
Leeds were a top six side for expected goals, goal-creating actions and shot-creating actions, all signs of a very attacking team. The Yorkshire side start with a tough trip away to Roses derby rivals Man Utd, but only Liverpool represent a definitively tough test in the six games after.
The nature of Leeds’ attacking style makes me confident in backing their attack over the early part of the season and I don’t think it will be long before I look at adding more of their assets to my side.
James Maddison (£7.0m) currently occupies my final starting place, although I am certainly not completely decided on that spot in my side. The Leicester man is bettered on underlying stats by a number of players at his price, but I like the Foxes’ fixtures from an attacking perspective and if Maddison can regain full fitness then I like him as an option.
If Harvey Barnes (£7.0m) is fit to start the season and Leicester move back to a system to accommodate him then he would be my pick over Maddison based on superior goal threat. I also like Diogo Jota (£7.5m), but his injury record and lack of consistent starts is enough to put me off at this stage. Including the Portuguese would also require a downgrade elsewhere and I’m not sure where is best to trim off some money.
Emi Buendia (£6.5m) intrigues me, but I am avoiding currently. I’d prefer to see how the former Norwich man fits into the Aston Villa side before committing and their sudden fixture swing in GW4 means another transfer booked in most likely. I’m not ruling the Argentine out completely but at present I think there are better options.
Jack Grealish (£8.0m) is another notable omission, the Villa man posted comparable per 90 stats to Raphinha and will no doubt be an excellent option again this season. In a 3-4-3 I find it hard to include him as, like Jota, it requires a difficult decision to made elsewhere in the team. In a 3-5-2 I think he is a much easier pick and will definitely be in my side if I decide to go down that route.
Last season was the year of the budget forward, this time it appears to be all about the mid-priced strikers. Below is a table containing forwards I’m considering for GW1, sorted by xGI per 90.
The three in my current draft are Michail Antonio (£7.5m), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (£8.0m) and Ollie Watkins (£7.5m). Antonio is typically a stats monster and I like West Ham’s opening run, given his injury record I’m looking to get some use out of him before the Hammers’ European campaign becomes a problem.
Antonio is the most secure of my forward picks and I’m backing him to start the season strongly. West Ham are in a really good place under David Moyes and there’s no reason they won’t continue their excellent form from last season. There’s always risk with Antonio so I would have one eye on a replacement at all times in case the worst happens, but while fit he’s one of the best value assets in the game.
Watkins is pretty much nailed on to start for me in GW1 too, Villa’s opening three fixtures are mouthwatering and with Buendia and a fit again Grealish supplying him, I believe the former Brentford man is primed to hit the ground running.
He can be frustrating, but Watkins is a 90 minute man and may take penalties when Anwar El Ghazi (£6.0m) is not on the field. His performances last season suggest he can be streaky but with a full year of top flight football under his belt Watkins should only continue to improve.
Watkins is also a frequent shooter, his total of 2.24 shots in the box (SiTB) per 90 ranked behind only Patrick Bamford (£8.0m), Harry Kane (£12.5m) and Jamie Vardy (£10.5m) of forwards with similar game time last season.
I don’t like booking in transfers, but Watkins to Raul Jimenez (£7.5m) in GW4 looks like an obvious early strategy to employ. Wolves’ good fixture swing coincides perfectly with Aston Villa’s sudden negative swing and switching forwards seems like a great way to attack easier matches over the first seven or eight weeks.
Calvert-Lewin is the least nailed of my front three and I’m not certain that he’ll still be in my side when the season kicks off. Everton have a good start on paper but it remains to be seen how they will setup under Rafa Benitez or adapt to the Spaniard’s typically pragmatic style.
It would be a safe pick to go with DCL and right now he’s in my side as a ‘shield’ pick as much as anything. Everton’s fixtures are good but I’m not sure they are as good as they appear at first glance. Southampton had a poor 2020/21 season but rarely make things easy for their opponents, Leeds are an improved defence and will be backed by a raucous Elland Road crowd and Brighton are a team widely backed to improve and will no doubt provide a stern test.
GW4 at home to Burnley and GW6 at home to Norwich are clearly fixtures to target, but I’m tempted to punt on Callum Wilson (£7.5m) instead. Newcastle have a similar start to Everton and have shown more attacking threat since changing system towards the end of last season.
At only 4.8% ownership Wilson is a significant differential, he is probably the most appealing low owned asset at this stage and going with him could be a great way to get ahead of the early template. I like Wilson’s numbers and the fact he is on penalties is also a big plus.
The decision between him and DCL will likely go to the wire.
Kelechi Iheanacho (£7.5m) also interests me, however I’ll need to be certain of his starting spot in order to have him in my side. If he is confirmed to start then I’d seriously consider the Leicester man and probably look to avoid a double up by shifting Maddison to Diogo Jota using the extra £0.5m a DCL downgrade would provide.
Ben Foster (£4.0m) is my current backup keeper and I don’t see much of a reason to look elsewhere. The self proclaimed ‘cycling GK’ is probably the most likely to get minutes of the players at his price and in previous FPL seasons he has been a solid asset. It is also unlikely you will want more than 2 other Watford players during the first half of the season.
Javier Manquillo (£4.0m) is my bench fodder defender. The Spaniard wasn’t a starter last season but some have suggested he may be thrust into contention should one of his competitors be sold. It’s not looking good for the £4.0m defenders this season with none of the options sure starters at this stage.
Josh Brownhill (£4.5m) looks like good value in the budget midfielder position. The Burnley man registered an assist, ten clean sheet points and just two bookings last season, about as much as you can ask for from a player at that price. Yves Bissouma (£4.5m) is likely to be popular again but I’m steering clear to avoid blocking off a Brighton spot and in truth there is little to separate him and Brownhill.
One thing I’m trying to do this season is maximise flexibility from the start, one of the best ways to do that is by picking defenders who rotate well.
In my own side I’ve gone for Ayling and Lamptey, who rotate very well early on (see above). Being able to target good fixtures without needing to make transfers on cheap defenders is a great way to help focus on areas of the team with more upside, instead of getting bogged down in changing your defence constantly.
Brighton also rotate well with Leicester, Wesley Fofana (£4.5m) is the best pick from the Foxes but I would wait to see what system they deploy before committing. A back four will see one of Leicester’s center backs drop out and as such I would avoid Fofana unless it is certain that he will feature.
Arsenal defenders also make a good pairing for Brighton assets, should Ben White (£4.5m) move to the London side then he would be a great option to start in GW1 and then bench till GW4. Rob Holding (£4.5m) appears to be trusted by Mikel Arteta and could once again provide good value in FPL.
One of the most important attributes a GW1 squad should have is flexibility. As mentioned, rotation is one way to achieve this but formation and price points also play a massive part.
Diverting too much money to one position will make it difficult to upgrade elsewhere if needed, likewise spreading funds too wide will mean any significant changes will likely require multiple moves and possibly more hits.
It’s why I’m only looking to start with two premium assets, going for three would ruin the balance of my team and while the top price players are that way for a reason it will likely leave you scraping the bottom of the barrel for players elsewhere by going for more than two. Whether I keep both in midfield will largely depend on where Harry Kane starts the season.
I mentioned earlier that I prefer Jack Grealish in a 3-5-2, rather than a 3-4-3. In a five man midfield Grealish effectively substitutes a £7.5/8m striker, the transition is straight forward and requires little adjustment elsewhere whereas Grealish in four man midfield likely requires dropping an Antonio or Watkins to an Ivan Toney (£6.5m) or Danny Welbeck (£6.0m).
That’s fine if you believe either of the budget strikers will do well, but if Antonio or Watkins were to do better then it’s hard to jump back up without making sacrifices in other areas and probably requires a hit or two transfers.
Flexibility is part of the reason I’ve gone for Trent Alexander-Arnold, aside from being a great asset he is the most expensive defender and should he under perform it is possible to drop down to any other defender in the game. Similar can be said of Calvert-Lewin, who has a plethora of closely priced or cheaper replacements should Everton start slowly.
Overall, the aim should be to minimise potential transfers and build a squad that is ideally one move, or at most two, from any player in the game.
Captaincy was a success for me last season as I broke the 620 point mark for a second consecutive year. Planning around who you will give the armband to is a great way to build a squad as it ensures you likely have the best or most popular asset more often than not.
Salah and Bruno are set to be my captains until I likely wildcard in GW7 or GW8. While a City asset appeals in GW2 and Spurs look a good bet for GW3 and GW4, I have decided to start with the players who give me the best spread of captaincy picks over the initial weeks.
In the week City play Norwich, Mo Salah hosts Burnley, and Bruno Fernandes plays Wolves and Newcastle in the same weeks Spurs play Watford and Crystal Palace. There is little need to look beyond the Liverpool and United men in the early weeks and their fixtures outside of the aforementioned games are significantly better than those of City and Spurs.
If you felt that strongly about captaining a KDB or Kane in those weeks then it may even be shrewd to use transfers to hop between the best captaincy candidates in each gameweek. Upside chasing is a hard skill to master but can be hugely profitable when done correctly and a superb way to get ahead in the early weeks.
More to come
I hope you enjoyed my first article of the season, there will be plenty more to come before the big kick-off and I’ll be producing a weekly gameweek preview again this season once we are underway.
At FPL Connect, we are taking our content to another level this year and have a lot lined up for the campaign. Keep an eye on our Twitter and Reddit page for more articles from our superb writing team. This will include the excellent weekly content we started last year but also some topical standalone pieces.
*Data, tables and underlying numbers obtained via FBref.com and the author’s paid subscription to Fantasy Football Scout. Rotation planner obtained via editor’s paid subscription to Fantasy Football Fix.*