Fantasy Premier League is back, and oh how we’ve missed it!
For weeks the FPL community has been furiously debating the relative merits of Paul Pogba, whether to go four or even five in defence, and what teams’ pre-season form can tell us - if anything!
Some things never change, though. As always, an ideal opening squad should position you to take advantage of one of the many early bandwagons, allowing you to build team value that will become so crucial later on in the season.
We can allow ourselves a cheeky gamble, but if you’re fighting fires around your squad after GW1, you’re already playing catch-up.
With kick-off just hours away, everyone will have decided on their big hitters by now, so this week’s column will instead focus on those cheaper, under-the-radar prospects that will be doing the hokey-cokey in your team right up until today's 6.45pm deadline - with a nod of approval to the more obvious players who have found favour among the FPL community.
It’s by no means certain, but this season could be the first time we see two starting £4.0m goalkeepers in the game, with both of Rob Elliot (NEW, 4.0) and Julian Speroni (CRY, 4.0) looking likely to start GW1.
Gambling on one or both could allow us to splurge on those altogether sexier outfield players - but it could go horribly wrong.
Popular Picks: Foster (WBA, 4.5), de Gea (MUN, 5.5)
Clean sheets are a defender’s bread-and-butter. Attacking wing-backs may be very much in vogue right now, but the overall strength of each team’s defence must always be our primary consideration.
Burnley were the surprise package at home last year, but have struggled to keep clean sheets since the departure of Michael Keane to Everton.
The Clarets may yet provide us with that holy grail of FPL - the £4.0m starting defender - in the form of Ireland’s own Kevin Long, but this is far from a sure thing. Ben Mee (BUR, 4.5) remains the stultifyingly boring pick here.
So we look to the Premier League new boys for some value, and this season offers more potential than most.
Brighton side picked up an impressive 21 clean sheets on their way to promotion, and while we can hardly expect a similar tally in the Premier League, Chris Hughton’s doggedly defensive approach could work in our favour.
The standout candidate here is Markus Suttner (BRI, 4.5).
The Austrian has played on the wing at times in pre-season and has set-piece duties in his locker too. If you’re happy to bench him for the GW1 visit of Man City, he should reward your patience.
Over at Newcastle, Toon fans have been purring about Rafa’s £8.7m signing Florian Lejeune (NEW, 4.5). Favourable fixtures await the ball-playing centreback and his famously conservative manager.
Huddersfield’s defence is best avoided, having famously achieved promotion despite a negative goal difference!
Over at Bournemouth, Adam Smith (BOU, 5.0) produced the most assists (5) from a defender last season alongside Walker and Trippier, but it’s hard to look past Nathan Aké (BOU, 5.0) - one of the best value points-per-million players in the entire game last season.
There could even be a bargain at Anfield for those brave enough to take a chance on the much-maligned (but keenly priced) Alberto Moreno (LIV, 4.5). He’s been a fixture in Liverpool’s pre-season line-ups, and is “100% back”, according to Klopp.
Back in the £5m range, you won’t go too far wrong with the likes of Daniels (BOU, 5.0) and Dann (CRY, 5.0).
In general, it’s probably best to resist the urge to spend big on your backline at this stage. Clubs with expensive defenders like Chelsea and Arsenal face deceptively tricky opening fixtures, and teams tend to get more clean sheets later in the season in any case.
Popular Picks: Bertrand (SOU, 5.5), Cédric (SOU, 5.0), Kolasinac (ARS, 6.0), Kompany (6.0).
For those determined to wildcard early, Alex Iwobi (ARS, 5.5) provides an enticing route into Arsenal’s midfield as the Gunners weather a mini injury crisis.
When Brighton do manage to score, you can bet Pascal Groß (BRI, 5.5) will be involved. The free-kick taker scored three in pre-season and created more chances (95) than any other player in the Bundesliga before his move to the south coast.
Patriotic Irish readers will be well aware of the danger Robbie Brady (BUR, 5.5) poses on set pieces, and could be an inspired maverick pick.
The departure of Andre Gray to Watford has also opened the door to teammate Jon Walters (BUR, 5.5) to become an out-of-position prospect up front.
If your budget for a fourth midfielder doesn’t quite stretch to these, Jason Puncheon (PAL, 5.0) is an intriguing option. He didn’t have the best of seasons last time out, but a more advanced role, along with free kick and corner duties could make a mockery of that £5.0 asking price.
If his European Super Cup performance is anything to go by, Nemanja Matic (MUN, 5.0) could have more licence to get forward than first thought, and is well worth monitoring.
Christian Atsu (NEW, 5.0) has also impressed in pre-season, clocking up two goals and four assists.
In the £4.5m price rage, Tom Carroll ticks every box and should be the first name on your teamsheet.
Tom Carroll with 3 assists today.— The Mad One (@FPLMad) August 5, 2017
On corners and priced at 4.5.
He's set to start.
Do you need more reasons? #FPL
Now that FPL favourite Gylfi Sigurdsson is Merseyside-bound, Carroll has assumed free-kick duties and will likely spearhead the Swans’ attacking threat from midfield (such as it is).
Although the initial excitement around Ruben Loftus-Cheek (CRY, 4.5) has cooled, he's still the standout option for those putting their faith in Carroll to be their fourth midfielder.
Any other season would see Nathaniel Chalobah (WAT, 4.5) emerge as a stalwart pick for fifth midfielder but alas, he’s been eclipsed by the bigger points ceiling on offered by the previous pair.
Popular Picks: Zaha (CRY, 7.0), Willian (CHE, 7.0), Alli (TOT, 9.5), De Bruyne (MCI, 10.0).
Last season, the most problematic position was, without question, that third striker slot.
After the rise and fall of Charlie Austin, many of us clumsily groped at the likes of Origi, Rondon and Deeney, before biting the bullet and paying a premium for Defoe - just in time for him to hit his barren spell!
Meanwhile, smug mini-league rivals were gleefully packing the likes of Coutinho, Alli and King into their stellar 3-5-2 midfields.
But it looks like the unfortunate disciples of 3-4-3 may get their revenge this season however, as some intriguing mid-priced forwards have emerged.
Still (just about) south of 30 years old and generously priced at just £7m, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez (WHU, 7.0) is no stranger to the Premier League, boasting an overall scoring rate of a goal every 131 minutes - far superior to what the likes of Defoe (221), Benteke (209) and even the almighty Josh King (170) managed last season. One to make space for come GW2 and beyond.
The romantics among us to take their annual punt on a keenly-priced Jay Rodríguez (WBA, 6.0) after his switch to West Brom. Six goals in over 1,000 minutes of football last season doesn’t inspire confidence, but perhaps £6m isn’t a lot to spend on a player with a 15-goal season on his CV.
If you’re not the nostalgic type, perhaps the idea of a real under-the-radar differential with more recent goalscoring form would be more up your alley?
It just goes to show how painfully unfashionable Huddersfield Town are that £6m-priced Steve Mounie’s ownership has barely troubled the 1% mark, despite his 14 goals for 15th-placed Montpellier in Ligue 1 last season. That’s just one behind galactico-in-waiting Kylian Mbappe, you know.
Andre Gray (WAT, 6.5) scored four goals in pre-season and his move to Watford could give him the clean slate he needs to make that step up in class.
Popular Picks: Lukaku (MUN, 11.5), Kane (TOT, 12.5), Firmino (LIV, 8.5).
A new factor to bear in mind this season is the Premier League’s plan to impose retrospective two-match bans for diving. Yellow and red cards given to the opposing player can also be rescinded.
We all have our own pantomime villains in this particular field of endeavour of course, but to help us to cut through our respective biases, one bookmaker puts Sterling, Sanchez and Sane as the 10/1 joint favourites to receive the first ban, with names like Knockaert, Alli, Jesus, Rashford and Zaha not far behind.
He may have to make way for Eden Hazard in September, but until then Willian (CHE, 7.0) represents excellent value for money. He takes a mean free kick and should play on the left of Chelsea’s front three.
Jack Stephens (SOU, 5.0) came from nowhere last season to effortlessly establish himself in The Saints’ backline. The classy centreback should flourish this season and Southampton’s easy opening fixtures should see him continue to rack up those clean sheets and bonus points.
Any Everton players you may have in your current line-up need to go - now.
With a sadistic run of fixtures that includes trips to Man City, Chelsea and Man United, it’s safe to say that now is not the optimal time to buy Everton assets.
Simply wait until GW6 comes around, by which time you’ll have had a look at them, and should be able to pick one up for a rock-bottom price.
Don’t forget to pit your wits against the Sports Department in the Official Irish Examiner FPL mini-league (join code 158003-520394).
Reader Brian Haugh will be there defending his title - do you have what it takes to beat him?