Barely two minutes had passed before Fantasy Premier League managers were greeted with their first bizarre sight of Gameweek 29.
Life is confusing enough when you own one of Everton's carousel of attacking players without the club's graphics department making things even worse.
Niasse benched 😂 pic.twitter.com/U9baEenxXy— FPL General (@FPLGeneral) March 3, 2018
Own-goal king Lewis Dunk (BRI, 4.5) finally did the business for his long-suffering owners, despite being second or even third sub for many of them.
Then came the frankly bizarre sight of Chelsea’s approach to coming back from 1-0 down against Man City.
“Your opponent has left the match” pic.twitter.com/XMZmIlYjKY— sir cartier (@JAHJOESTAR) March 4, 2018
When the dust settled, star turns from players like Riyad Mahrez (LEI, 8.7) and David Silva (MCI, 8.0) soon saw a sea change in the mood among managers when it came to perhaps the dominant theme of recent FPL discourse.
Did we focus too much on planning Blank Gameweek 31?
Taking a look at the list of most transferred-in players so far this Gameweek, you have to go all the way down to number 12 (Shaqiri) to find a player with a fixture in BGW31.
Normally, you’d put it down to typical short-termism or a lack of awareness among ‘casual’ players, but this time seems different. Many FPL managers have simply declared GW31 a bust and refused to allow it influence their transfer policy any longer.
Being poorly set up for GW30 could be far more damaging than being poorly set up for GW31.
Don’t put on the BGW glasses when making your transfer this gameweek!#FPL— FPL Strategist (@FPLStrategist) March 8, 2018
Who could blame them, when the players who were meant to see us through GW31 and beyond have, on the whole, been such dismal failures?
We’ve seen an alarming slide in form for Callum Wilson (BOU, 5.9), who has nothing to show for his last four starts.
Subbed off without so much as a goal attempt to his name last Saturday against Leicester, the 26-year-old’s place in the Bournemouth side is now under serious threat.
For disillusioned Theo Walcott (EVE, 7.2) owners looking for a straw to clutch, he at least seems to be getting opportunities - firing three shots in the box against Burnley in GW29. Maybe he’ll actually finish one of them in the next couple of weeks.
Hats off to those who saw this coming and got rid last week, but unfortunately for the rest of us, the closer we get the Blank, the better the case for keeping them (however reluctantly).
A note of caution for those abandoning their GW31 plan altogether - too much of a swing back towards short-term thinking can be just as calamitous.
Those who held on to Heung-Min Son (TOT, 8.1) certainly had the last laugh in GW29, but those opting to bring him in now may not have thought this one through.
With almost 80% of his FPL points so far this season coming at Wembley, buying this home bird ahead of three away fixtures in a row could be ill-advised. Having started three fixtures in a week recently, a place on the teamsheet against Bournemouth is far from a given.
Raheem Sterling (MCI, 8.7) is comfortably the most transferred-out player this week, despite an apparent return to fitness. Although it’s hard to criticise his most popular replacements (Sane and Mahrez), he could yet punish former owners - if not against Stoke, then surely at home against Everton.
Good #FPL managers don’t chase points, they eye up where the next haul may come from.
Pep, on Sterling: “I don’t know if tomorrow [he is] going to play. But maybe for Stoke City [he] will be ready”
For those who prefer to look long-term, there could be some valuable assets from unlikely sources.
The impact Carlos Carvalhal has made since his arrival goes way beyond any previous ‘new manager bounce’. Swansea could be one of those teams we look back on at the end of the season and ask ourselves “It was so obvious - why didn’t I invest in them sooner?”
Swansea City have lost just two of their 15 games since Carlos Carvahal took charge in December 2017, conceding just 14 goals in the process. Rejuvenated.— 90MAAT⚽ (@90MAAT_) March 3, 2018
Similarly, Watford have delighted recent investors with two clean sheets in a row.
I'm buzzing with my Prödl signing - more bargain basement than Primark, B&M and Poundland combined but he's weighed in with a debut clean sheet! 👍🏻⚽️
Sometimes it's the small victories in FPL! 😂— James Egersdorff (@JEgersdorff) March 3, 2018
Their next fixtures may not promise much in the short-term, but for anyone looking for a cheap defensive enabler need look no further than Adrian Mariappa (WAT, 4.2).
Key players for relegation-threatened teams should also start to show their value over the final few weeks as the title and top-four places are wrapped up.
Early moves for players like Pascal Groß (BRI, 5.9), Wilfried Zaha (CRY, 6.8), Xherdan Shaqiri (STO, 6.3), Marko Arnautovic (WHU, 7.0) and Steve Mounie (HUD, 5.7) could really pay off.
Instead of complaining about the bonus points system, it could be time to capitalise on those who best exploit it.
Jack Butland (STO, 5.0) enjoyed his second maximum bonus haul in a row, and his 103 saves this season is second only to Fabianski (in three fewer starts) - clocking up two BPS each time.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s (ARS, 10.4) economy of effort when it comes to taking shots also makes him a bonus-points magnet. Players lose 1 BPS for every shot that goes wide - and he’s missed just one in four Gameweeks, compared to eight from Kane and five from Salah.
Bonus points vs points. Salah is the clear outlier here pic.twitter.com/FVrZ0K1iaX— Fantasy Football Fix (@FantasyFootyFix) March 7, 2018
If none of these players appeal and it all seems a bit pointless at this stage, don’t worry - you’re not alone.
Dealing with FPL burnout
All but the best-performing managers have taken their fair share of knocks this season. Wild swings in form have seen even the most rational of FPL managers begin to wonder if they have personally inflicted some karmic misfortune on a player by virtue of a mere click of that ‘Confirm Transfer’ button.
As soon as I own Callum Wilson in FPL pic.twitter.com/UyrYBBQczC— Sketchy FPL (@SketchyFPL) March 3, 2018
The plodding advance of what’s set to be the dullest Gameweek of the season, hanging around like a boring uncle at a party that you know you have to talk to at some stage, hardly helps.
So we search for a new saviour, only to find few players we can trust, much less get genuinely excited about.
It can be tempting to throw in towel, but stay the course.
Recovering from sizeable mini-league deficits is difficult, but not impossible - particularly if you have more chips than your rival and are prepared to use them creatively (Free Hit in DGW34, anyone?)
And if you think you’re frustrated now, imagine how you’ll feel as you watch that inevitable run of form from players you were going to captain or transfer in. It won’t be long before some back-of-a-napkin calculations will have you kicking yourself.
So have some fun with it - go maverick, if that’s what it takes. Throw away the spreadsheets and get those differentials you’re normally too cautious to consider.
Things can only get better, right?
Being as it’s the first year of the Free Hit chip, we’re all naturally tentative about it - and with good reason. It could potentially end up costing a precious free transfer if not deployed correctly.
If you're going to Free Hit in Gameweek 31, you should make sure that you use your free transfer(s) this week because any transfer that you make next week will be reversed and you won't be able to carry a free transfer into Gameweek 32.— Ben Crellin (@BenCrellin) March 7, 2018
With his starting place seemingly assured at Huddersfield, record signing Steve Mounie (HUD, 5.7) could be the solution to our persistent third-striker problem.
With solid returns in the two weeks before an expected blank against Spurs at Wembley, he has the form, fixtures and low ownership to reward early investment.
Harry Maguire's (LEI, 5.5) six shots inside the box against Bournemouth certainly raised a few eyebrows, and he’ll fancy his chances against a chaotic West Brom defence.
The six points for a defender goal (and the reasonable prospect of bonus points that come with it) can send a Gameweek into the stratosphere - although it has been one of many garden paths we’ve been led down this season.
This section should really have been retired after last week’s clanger, but we’ll struggle on regardless (albeit cautiously).
They may hang on for another week or two, but it’s time to start planning an exit strategy for Everton’s stand-in full-backs Cuco Martina (EVE, 4.4) and Jonjoe Kenny (EVE, 4.3).
It would be nice to say “they’ve served us well”, but that really hasn’t been true since GW20.
Top of the League
It’s as you were at the top of the Official Irish Examiner League, with Eoin O'Brien’s aptly-named Kroos Control maintaining his lead at the top, courtesy of a healthy 59-point GW29 return.
Big moves were always unlikely in what turned out to be a pretty low-scoring Gameweek, but Seamus O'Dowd, Manuj Bhagat and Kevin Fahy remain in hot pursuit.
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