Even the most pessimistic of Fantasy Premier League pundits never thought it would get this bad.
It’s been a trying time for FPL managers in recent weeks, as we’ve watched a relentless procession of heretofore reliable players fall foul of suspension, injury and squad rotation.
Fielding 10 or even fewer players each week has become commonplace, as the virtue of having a deep bench became painfully clear.
The FPL Cup offered little comfort for many active managers, many of whom had to endure watching “ghost ship” teams sail past them, thanks to 11 points from pre-season favourite David de Gea (MUN, 5.8) and the failure of popular GW17 captains like Kane and Salah. Even long-time world Number 1 Damir TeNay lost out to a manager ranked around 4.5 million - the magic of the cup, eh?
But with all the plate-spinning in our midfield and forward lines, the emergence of standout picks in defence has largely gone unnoticed - and not just the “pound-shop” variety, either.
A Power Three backline costs less than you think
They may not be “premium defenders” in the traditional sense of the term, but three affordable players from big teams have emerged for those canny enough to snap them up.
Now that Phil Jones (MUN, 5.3) is back, he should be top of everyone’s shopping list. He may yet be rested over the manic festive fixture list, but when he plays, you can almost take a clean sheet and bonus points for granted.
Phil Jones always gets bonus points when he keeps a clean sheet and Man Utd score less than 3 goals.
Has any other outfield player with zero goals/assists scored 10 bonus points?— Ben Crellin (@BenCrellin) December 13, 2017
Similarly, Shkodran Mustafi (ARS, 5.4) has helped Arsenal keep a clean sheet in seven of the eight games he’s played 90 minutes in. Given that the Gunners have conceded in all but one of the remaining nine, we can expect the German to be a fixture in Wenger's team again sooner rather than later.
"Mustafi will be out] a little bit longer. He’s out in training, running. The medical staff have decided that he’s not completely ready. Will he be ready for Saturday against Newcastle? Yes." #AFC— Ben Dinnery (@BenDinnery) December 12, 2017
It seemed too good to be true, but Andreas Christensen (CHE, 5.5) has emerged as a cut-price route into the Chelsea defence. Having been already out of favour with Antonio Conte before his mysterious knee injury, a quick return for David Luiz seems more unlikely with every passing week.
Christensen still only has 3.5% ownership 🤔— TheTinkerMen (@TheTinkerMen) December 13, 2017
A Chelsea/Arsenal/Man United back three should provide some headache-free team selection most weeks, but there’s no need to end your defensive recruitment drive there, given the treasure trove of value to be found at the uber-budget end of the market.
The likes Chancel Mbemba (NEW, 4.0) and Kyle Naughton (SWA, 4.6), who have been hanging on like grim death in many teams as managers fight fires elsewhere, need to be shown the door at the earliest opportunity - with Everton an obvious target for investment.
The new breed of budget defenders
It’s not often a club manager gives the FPL world something we can really hang our hats on, but new Everton boss Sam Allardyce did just that on a recent episode of Monday Night Football.
“Clean sheets give you the platform to be successful in a season,” he said, on his way to delivering three of them in four games.
Mason Holgate (EVE, 4.2) and Jonjoe Kenny (EVE, 4.4) have seen their stock rise rapidly, with the latter proving an able deputy until Seamus Coleman’s eventual return from injury.
With four consecutive starts under his belt, it might finally be time to make the leap of faith that Ben Chilwell (LEI, 4.3) is that rarest of FPL gems - a dirt-cheap, out-of-position defender, playing as a proper midfielder (unlike those flatter-to-deceive wing-backs).
He'll never be the marauding winger we'd love him to be of course, but £4.3m for a Leicester defender is already more than reasonable, and if he happens to side-pass to Riyad Mahrez (LEI, 8.5) before another mazy solo goal, his owners won’t be complaining.
Elsewhere, Angelo Ogbonna (WHU, 4.3) has returned in his last three matches for David Moyes’ resurgent West Ham side. If you can absorb his blank in GW21, he has the fixtures in the short and medium term to make a mockery of that pricetag.
Finally, although Adrian Mariappa (WAT, 4.1) may look tempting, Christian Kabasele (WAT, 4.6) offers greater security of starts, as well as some goal threat as Watford look to take advantage of their favourable run of fixtures.
The beauty of these budget buys will always be the relatively low risk involved. If they don’t fulfil their promise, you haven’t spent much in the attempt - which is a lot more than can be said for some other players...
Are those top-priced players really worth keeping ?
We saw the best and worst of owning Harry Kane (TOT, 12.9) over the last few days. No sooner had we finished hailing his return as the sure-fire captain choice than another defensive team conspired to deny him at Wembley.
But only the bravest of FPL managers will feel comfortable going without the Spurs man for Double Gameweek 22 against Swansea and West Ham, so any plan to abandon him now must surely include a strategy to bring him back.
Even by this season’s standards, the sheer scale of the recent fire-sale of Álvaro Morata (CHE, 10.7) has been puzzling.
Despite (because of?) Chelsea’s obvious reliance on him, he was always going to be rested at some stage in December. Conte even had the decency to let us know in advance - and this is how we repay him!
His four yellow cards are a concern, but we need look no further than his petulant predecessor for a reminder of what can happen when that dominates our thoughts.
When you consider that Chelsea face Southampton, Brighton and Stoke at home in three of their next four fixtures - and of those three, only Brighton have managed more than one away win this season - selling the Spaniard for the sake of one missed game seems premature.
The same ‘hold’ status could also be applied to his teammate Eden Hazard (CHE, 10.9), however much his owners might despise him right now.
The Hazard pyramid.
1. You don't own him and suddenly he returns a mega haul.
2. See his low ownership, do a bit of surgery and get him in your squad.
3. Blanks continuously with the odd return.
Repeat.— FPL Junior (@FPL_Junior) December 12, 2017
Massive FPL returns so often happen when top teams take on the ‘cannon fodder’ sides. West Ham, Palace and Everton were recent candidates before their managerial changes, and right now Swansea are firmly in the firing line.
Their only away victory came way back in GW3, against a struggling Palace side, and they now face trips to Everton, Liverpool and Watford in their next four - something to consider in your transfer and captaincy deliberations.
Perhaps it's the new haircut, but David Silva (MCI, 8.2) increasingly seems like a different player this season than the one we've seen for the previous two.
Already that most valuable of commodities - a nailed-on Man City attacking midfielder - the Spaniard is finally starting to convert chances as well as create them.
His brace against Swansea saw him pass the century mark of points to leave him just one shy of Kevin De Bruyne - and a full £2m cheaper.
13 - David Silva has been involved in 13 Premier League goals in 17 games this season (five goals, eight assists) – already more than in the whole of 2016-17 (11 goal involvements in 34 games). Service. pic.twitter.com/z6fwRlo6X3— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 13, 2017
Another player seemingly inspired by a new hairdo, the recent form of Riyad Mahrez (LEI, 8.5) has become impossible to ignore.
With that goal tonight, Mahrez now on ⚽️⚽️⚽️🅰️ and 30 #FPL Pts (and counting) in his past 4 games. He may have been priced out of many people's teams to begin the season but he is on 🔥. Thinking of getting him in? pic.twitter.com/D47EE0baUN
With that goal tonight, Mahrez now on ⚽️⚽️⚽️🅰️ and 30 #FPL Pts (and counting) in his past 4 games. He may have been priced out of many people's teams to begin the season but he is on 🔥. Thinking of getting him in? pic.twitter.com/D47EE0baUN— Divocks Dad #FPL 🇨🇽 (@TheMarpleCurse) December 13, 2017
The underlying stats don’t lie, either. His shot accuracy has improved from 21.1% to 61.1% since Claude Puel took over, with his goal conversion rate jumping from 5.3% to 22.2%. His assist potential has also increased, creating a chance every 46 minutes compared to his previous 70.
His pricetag and mixed fixtures may dissuade some, but we all know what he’s capable of when playing at his peak.
If his latest one-point return - courtesy of another last-minute substitute appearance - doesn’t convince the near-16% of FPL managers who still own Ben Davies (TOT, 5.6) to sell, surely nothing will.
The Welshman has become bonafide FPL kryptonite, and should be avoided, along with the other Spurs full-backs.
Top of the League
Despite five of his squad failing to return any points at all, will c and his 420 Fedora Fanatics side managed to jump to the top of the Official Irish Examiner League (join code: 158003-520394) this week.
Disappointing, but hardly uncommon, scores from Niall Gavin and Eoin O'Brien saw them slip back to second and third, but there’s not much in it as we head into GW18.
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