Wasting Your Wildcard: Tips for Picking Your Winning Fantasy Football Side
It's the perfect time to talent-spot your Fantasy Football dream team. Here, David Wardale - writer for the UK's number one Fantasy Football site, Fantasy Football Scout and author of the forthcoming book on the method and madness of Fantasy Football, Wasting Your Wildcard - offers his tips and tricks for picking a winning side.
The World Cup...a month-long slog through all that is good, bad and rampantly commercial about what some still like to call 'The Beautiful Game'.
Russia 2018 will be no different, just with added Putin and a mascot called Zabivaka; a wolf with glasses who 'radiates fun, charm and confidence' according to the FIFA marketing wonks. And it will also be business as usual for the world's Fantasy Football managers.
Close to six million of them have not long finished a season of Fantasy Premier League (FPL), plotting their way through nine months of highs (owning Mohamed Salah) and lows (not owning Mohamed Salah soon enough). Some will now take the summer off, recharging their virtual batteries ahead of another campaign of pretend football played out across the actual domestic calendar of the English top flight. Many, many more will feed their Fantasy habit by playing one of the plentiful World Cup games out there. And nearly all of them will watch this summer's global showpiece with at least half an eye (and up to two) on what effect the drama in Russia will have on FPL 2018/19 in general, and the early-season make-up of their teams in particular.
The Premier League is a global beast – 64 countries had players in at least one of the 20 teams in 2015/16 – so the vast majority of FPL's stars will be strutting their stuff in Russia.
But will a great World Cup translate to an equally impressive Fantasy campaign next season?
The simple answer: Maybe.
The more complex answer: Maybe, maybe not.
Why? Because international excellence does not always translate into domestic achievement.
Factor in physical fatigue, mental exhaustion and the commercial reality that a good World Cup brings with it any number of off-field distractions - typically starting with 'Real' and ending in 'Madrid's top transfer target' - and suddenly those excelling in June and July might not be the ones to go for when August arrives. In fact, arguably the best players to be considering for your FPL team are the ones not at the World Cup at all.
Paul McKinnon, Head of Content at the Fantasy Football Scout website, certainly thinks so.
“A host of 2017/18’s FPL talents are missing out and should therefore be fresher when the season gets underway. They could be staples in our opening squads.
“That applies, in particular, to defence. Three of FPL's five top scoring defenders – Marcos Alonso, Antonio Valencia and Ben Davies – either didn't qualify or haven't been selected for their national squads.
“Neither did Liverpool's Andrew Robertson, who was level with Alonso for points per match last season.”
The same applies to the two top-scoring midfielders from the 2015/16 and 2016/17 FPL seasons.
“Riyad Mahrez and Alexis Sanchez have the summer off,” adds Paul, “and three of last season's midfield success stories – Marko Arnautovic, Wilfried Zaha and Pascal Gross – can also put their feet up.”
Right up top, things are slightly different, with six of the top seven scoring forwards in FPL – think Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero and Romelu Lukaku – vying for the Russia 2018 Golden Boot. But even that presents the smart Fantasy manager with a steer for the new season. Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang marked his 13-match introduction to English football with a superb 10 goals and four assists. He is from Gabon, a country of 1.98 million people, plenty of hippos and gorillas and a football team that has never qualified for the World Cup. He will be rested, hungry (with new manager Unai Emery to impress) and will have a full pre-season under his belt. As a result, Aubameyang could well be the premium forward with which to start the new season.
But if you're determined to discover some wheat in all the World Cup chaff, you're going to have to base a lot of your decisions on time. The World Cup final is on July 15. The new Premier League season starts on August 11. Any player going deep into the tournament will therefore have precious little time to rest up before they have to return to the clubs who pay their generally disgustingly enormous wages.
Aside from England, Belgium’s progress could also have a weighty impact on domestic matters. The Red Devils boast a number of FPL big-hitters, including Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Thibaut Courtois. A reduced pre-season invariably equates to a sluggish start to the campaign, so it's probably going to be unwise to look at players who go much further than the group stages or the Round of 16 in Russia.
Mohamed Salah – last season’s top scoring FPL player is expected to recover from a shoulder injury, but faces a tough task to even make the knockout stages. Salah’s Egypt face Uruguay and hosts Russia in Group A – get by them and they could be up against Spain or Portugal in the last 16. An early World Cup exit can help the Liverpool winger steal a march on his FPL rivals next season.
Jose Izquierdo – overshadowed by team-mate Pascal Gross last term, the Brighton wide man had a strong second half of the season. From Gameweek 20 onwards, Izquierdo trailed Gross by just three points - 66 to 69 - in FPL. Even if his country, Columbia, progress through Group H, a possible head-to-head with England or Belgium in the first knockout round could send them home early.
Jamie Vardy – he could be set for bench-warming duties if Gareth Southgate opts for a lone striker formation. With Harry Kane almost certain to lead the line for England, the Leicester frontman may be restricted to substitute appearances over the course of the tournament. Only Kane produced more points among FPL forwards than Vardy last season.
A final word of warning – beware the player who ends up being signed by a Premier League club on the back of a stellar World Cup.
Remember El-Hadji Diouf?
The Senegal striker was one of the finds of the 2002 World Cup, prompting Liverpool to buy into him for the upcoming season. The rest was ignominy, with Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher not holding back in his autobiography when he said: “Do you remember being at school and picking sides for a game of football? We do this at Liverpool for the five-a-sides. Diouf was ‘last pick’ within a few weeks.”
So however you watch the World Cup, and whoever you decide to go for because of it, try to avoid the biggest stars, the latest bright young thing and the last men barely standing because they're so knackered.
Unless, that is, you really want a team full of big-boned wheezy boys primed to make your FPL start go with the weakest whimper that Fantasy money can buy.
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