Wednesday, 30 May 2018

No Kane, No Lukaku, No Regrets?

Well, I made it. Thirty-eight whole gameweeks with no Kane or Lukaku anywhere to be seen in my fantasy team. Not only that, it went pretty well – a final overall rank of 115,189th is not to be sniffed at, although it was disappointing not to sneak into the top 100k. The big question, of course, is whether this relative success was because of the enforced absence of two of the biggest hitters in the game or in spite of it.

The numbers show that the lack of Kane, perhaps predictably, hit the hardest. He finished the season as the highest-scoring forward in the game, and the third-highest player overall: given the sheer volume of other fantasy teams in which he appeared, a good week for the Spurs frontman almost always proved a significant setback to my progress. However, crucially, he was not all that far ahead of much cheaper options – Firmino proved to be a more than adequate alternative for an initial 8.5 million, while Jamie Vardy also got within 40 points of Kane. To put it another way, Kane’s advantage over this pair was less than a point per week; this all adds up over the course of a season, but for an outlay of four million more than it cost to acquire either of the other two, it is clear that the value lay with the cheaper options. The point is even more emphatic in relation to Lukaku, who was outscored by both of these cheaper strikers, as well as Sergio Aguero. This clearly suggests that the two most premium forwards were viable but not essential options, and this was arguably borne out by my respectable finish without them.

However, this is reductive for two reasons. Firstly, it assumes the ability to quickly determine who will be able to outstrip Kane and Lukaku up front in terms of value. In reality, this was one of my greatest problems in the first couple of months of the season. Vardy and Firmino hardly came out of the blue in terms of goal-scoring prowess, and indeed the Brazilian made it into my team from the start, but it takes a brave man to shun all of the more expensive options – in my hunt for a frontman who could truly serve as a like-for-like Kane or Lukaku replacement, I went through options including Jesus, Morata, Aguero and Lacazette at an alarming pace. Each hit their stride just as I had given up on them, as followers of early entries to this series will be aware. It is all very well rejecting Kane on the basis that he will not provide the best points-to-cost ratio over the course of a campaign, but this does not capture the reason why he is such a popular pick. The sheer consistency of his returns is what warrants the steep price tag: there is little danger that he will be a high-cost complete flop, which is exactly what the alternative big names proved to be when they appeared in my team. It was only when I abandoned these premium strikers in favour of the mid-tier options, favouring big investment in the midfield, that I truly started to move up the table.

Secondly, and on a related note, saving money on Kane and Lukaku has no inherent value. The additional money in the bank must be spent wisely, not only on alternative striker options but throughout the team. Again, this was a balancing act that it took a while to get right – a September rank below 4.5 millionth was not solely down to bad luck! It is all very well notionally banking seven million by selecting strikers other than the two I chose to avoid, but when this is lavishly splashed on premium defenders who are continually returning blanks this is not so much an achievement as it is stupidity. This was partially down to my defective strategy in terms of where it is usually wise to invest heavily, but it is also an inherent flaw in avoiding the traditional ‘reliable’ options: it is only once trends have genuinely begun to emerge that it starts to become apparent where the ‘smart money’ should be spent. It very much felt as though I just had to hunker down for the first few weeks, hoping that some of my near-blind punts would come off while waiting for something solid upon which to base my buys.

Eventually, I settled upon a ‘middle-loading’ strategy. Many players had come around to this by the end of the season, but the fact that I did not have serious money tied up in attack allowed me to get on it sooner – by the end of the campaign, my team included Sterling, Alli, Eriksen and Salah. De Bruyne was also a regular for much of the run-in. Aside from Salah, these all had ownership that was far from astronomical; price tags that for Kane and Lukaku owners proved prohibitive were positively affordable in my system, and so I profited off the strong returns from these premium midfielders more than most. There was a sustained period where De Bruyne’s returns alone dwarfed those of Kane and Lukaku almost every week. This meant big gains. Even Salah, owned by essentially any active player who wasn’t a masochist, proved more beneficial to me than he did to others because of my strategy; he was a shoe-in for the captain’s armband almost every week, while other players were tempted away by a nice fixture for Kane, or by a renewed purple patch for Lukaku. Of course, on occasion, one or both of these two did outscore Salah. It was a rarity, however, and the Egyptian’s record points tally for any FPL season illustrates that one won’t go too far wrong by repeatedly captaining him.

On balance, then, it is probably fair to say that rejecting both Kane and Lukaku out of hand probably worked in my favour. However, this was contingent on a variety of factors that are far from guaranteed; I managed to at least pick one of the two best mid-tier strikers as a replacement right from the start, and in Salah a genuinely elite player emerged who could pale the significance of contributions from the Spurs and United men. As such, I would struggle to recommend actively writing off players who are known to be very good as a genuine strategy, but then again that was never really the point – rather this experiment has shown that there is cause to truly stop and weigh things up before mindlessly splashing the cash on a big name just because ‘everyone will have him’. Certainly, these findings have shaped how I will approach next season: I intend to start off with some of the ‘safer’ big names, amongst which Salah now finds himself, before branching out into potentially better-value options once enough time has passed to see where that value truly lies.

- @JamesMartin013

Monday, 14 May 2018

Liverpool 4-0 Brighton: Reds Secure Top Four Finish

Liverpool ran out comfortable victors against Brighton on a glorious day at Anfield. They went into the match knowing that a draw would be enough to confirm a spot in the Champions League for next season, but from the outset it was apparent that they were not inclined to sit back and play for the point. The players knew that they had the quality to blow Brighton away, and duly did so – Salah, Lovren, Solanke and Robertson all got on the scoresheet in a 4-0 victory, which in truth was somewhat flattering to the visitors. The strike for Salah means that he is now the outright record-holder for the most goals in a 38-game Premier League season, overtaking the likes of Ronaldo and Suarez; his sensational performances have played a big part in firing Klopp’s team to fourth, and fans will be desperate for one more stellar showing two weeks from now in Kyiv.

It was the kind of performance that has become synonymous with Liverpool this season. The attack had a slightly different look to normal, with Mane, Firmino and Salah all operating behind Dominic Solanke, but it posed as much of a threat as ever – even in quiet spells, there was a feeling that the forwards could be unleashed at any moment. The attacks, when they did come, came in devastating waves: a period of calm would be shattered by a barrage of forays forward. Spartak, Watford, Maribor, Arsenal, Porto, even Manchester City: these are just some of the teams that have succumbed to the blitz tactics of Klopp’s side this campaign, and it was fitting that this approach was employed to full effect once more in this last game of the domestic season. A less satisfying recurring theme was the denial of stonewall penalties, two of which were waved away in the opening exchanges. Fortunately, this did nothing to halt the momentum. Inside half an hour, Liverpool had the opener courtesy of Mohamed Salah. Who else? This was the goal that took his tally to a record-breaking thirty-two in the league, and it was finished with typical composure. The final chance to praise his frankly unbelievable performances in the league cannot be missed: thirty-five million pounds simply isn’t supposed to get you somebody this good. It may well go down as one of the greatest transfers ever. Salah has brought goals to Anfield, but more than that he has brought joy - all of his individual accolades from this extraordinary season are richly deserved.

Liverpool had a second before half-time. Again, it was from a pleasing source: Dejan Lovren, much-maligned for long periods of his time with the club, fully deserved his goal. He has looked significantly better since Virgil van Dijk’s arrival, and has made some important defensive contributions – it is still the case that there is room to upgrade, but all too often people are quick to criticise and slow to praise. Some credit is due, and the Croatian got to drink in the plaudits after rising high to fire a header beyond Matt Ryan. Andy Robertson must also be mentioned; it was he who put in the cross after receiving the ball from Salah, and the delivery was inch-perfect.

While all this was going on, Chelsea were collapsing against Rafa Benitez’ Newcastle side. Nothing but a win would have kept their Champions League hopes alive, but at half-time they found themselves 1-0 down and yet to have a shot at goal. Things only got worse for them after the break, as an Ayoze Perez brace made it 3-0 and condemned the London side to the Europa League. Meanwhile, just to make the claiming of fourth place all the more emphatic, former Chelsea man Dominic Solanke made it 3-0 to Liverpool. The young striker has missed his fair share of chances in his debut campaign under Klopp, but he tucked this one away emphatically: he positively rifled the ball beyond Ryan and into the top corner after being put through by Salah. As with Lovren, there are significant question marks as to whether Solanke is really of the calibre required to cut it with Liverpool in the long term; he has youth on his side, however, and reminded everyone of his credentials with this goal. The rout was rounded off by another man scoring his first league goal for the club: Andy Robertson, whose performances since joining have been a revelation, signed off a wonderful personal campaign with a tidy finish into the bottom corner.

The win was comfortable enough to allow Klopp to withdraw Mane, Firmino and Salah from the action before the ninety minutes were up. This was a sensible move in terms of avoiding potential injuries before Kyiv, but one suspects sentimentality had a larger part to play in the manager’s thinking. Each of the trio were treated to richly-deserved standing ovations from the Anfield faithful: simply put, it has been a pleasure to watch the three of them play over the course of this campaign. Of course, Salah has been the main man in terms of goals, but all three of them have combined excellently to create one of the most dynamic attacks this league has ever seen. Firmino in particular is a uniquely wonderful player – he, more than anyone, is the embodiment of Klopp’s team.  Rumours have already begun to swirl about improvements in other areas over the summer window; a few additions behind the ‘fab three’, and the team will undoubtedly be a force to be reckoned with. However, for now, unwavering faith must be placed in the existing squad for one last time. It has been a Herculean effort to secure fourth place while also progressing to the final of The Champions League despite a relative lack of depth: each and every player can immortalise themselves on the 26th May with a win.

In a sense, however, the result against Real Madrid will change very little. Certainly the big picture remains the same – Liverpool have reinstated themselves as a regular presence in Europe, and have demonstrated that they can more than hold their own against the elite. They have a clear identity, more so than at any point in the last decade: it is an exciting, daring philosophy, one that not only delights fans but attracts even more talent to the club. All of this has been engineered by Jurgen Klopp, who has a knack for bringing the best out of his players and who is a major pull factor for potential signings. In short, the rejuvenation of a giant of the game is well underway. This cannot be changed by the result in Kyiv, but a win would be a glorious way to announce to the world that Liverpool Football Club is back. 

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Roma 4-2 Liverpool: Kyiv Awaits

Rarely has a defeat been greeted with such joy. Liverpool fans rose as one at the final whistle, their chants becoming a battle cry: bring on Real Madrid. For this is what lies ahead for this remarkable side that Klopp has assembled – a Champions League final against the team looking to win it for the third time in a row. The whispers, if not yet shouts, are becoming more insistent: “we could do this, you know”. Such things dreams are made of, and yet the Liverpool players are one win away from making it an unbelievable reality, forever enshrining themselves in legend in the process.

Memories of the Manchester City tie would undoubtedly have been fresh in their minds as they stepped out onto the pitch with a three-goal aggregate lead from the first leg. Their defence of such a margin began disastrously at the Etihad, but lessons had been learned: Liverpool did not start like a team with a lead to hold onto, instead going about their business in the usual attacking way. Reward was reaped almost immediately – Sadio Mane, who was exceptional throughout the evening, was on hand to fire past Alisson after a defensive error provided the opportunity to score. Some of the tension, inevitable in any Champions League semi-final regardless of the context of the tie, was released; Roma now needed four. Nobody who has supported Liverpool for any length of time thought that this was impossible, and anyone who was labouring under this illusion was quickly disabused of it. The hosts had one back just minutes later in freakish circumstances: a hacked clearance hit James Milner in the face and positively rocketed beyond Karius. It was hugely unfortunate, both for the team and the individual; Milner, of course, was responsible for the penalty at the end of the first leg too, but there was very little he could do about either incident. Roma sniffed a chance, and the crowd at the Olimpico whipped up a feverish atmosphere.

Liverpool, however, were unperturbed. Virgil Van Dijk was imperious in the face of the howls of the crowd, bringing an element of calmness that in the circumstances felt almost out of place. It was his countryman, though, who sparked wild celebrations from the away end – the Champions League continued its uncanny habit of producing irresistible narratives, as Gini Wijnaldum scored his first away goal since arriving in English football on the biggest possible stage. It was not particularly pretty – Van Dijk went up for a header from a corner and missed it, but the defensive clearance looped up towards Wijnaldum who was lurking on the edge of the six-yard box. The ball arched off his head and into the net: the roars of elation rose in a crescendo, as fans realised that it was not offside and that Wijnaldum, of all people, had just scored the vital second away goal. This left Roma needing four once again, and even this would only have been enough to force extra-time. The goal made Liverpool’s the most prolific Champions League campaign ever, surpassing that of Barcelona in 1999/2000; the sheer firepower looked to have proved too much for Roma.

In fairness to the Italians, they certainly did not give up. History, even recent history, can have intangible effects on teams – Roma played like a side who knew they could overturn impossible odds in the face of world class opposition. The first stages of the second half felt in many ways like the barrage to which Liverpool were subjected by Manchester City: wave after wave of attack crashed down upon the defence, which again caved early on. Alexander-Arnold missed his interception, which left the path to Karius free – the German parried the resulting shot into an awful area, and Dzeko made no mistake on the rebound. After this, the back line clung on for dear life as more attacks rained down, just barely managing to repel what was thrown its way. It would be petty not to note the part which the referee played in keeping Roma at bay. Dzeko was wrongly called offside just before getting hauled down in the box by Karius for what would have been a certain penalty, and then Trent Alexander-Arnold got away with a goal-line block which was shown by replays to be a handball. That said, the defence dug deep and deserved their slices of luck, particularly given that Mane had been denied a spot kick for a clear shove in the opening stages of the game.

The clock kept ticking over, and Roma seemed to have expended everything they had. Liverpool looked the more likely to get the next goal with fifteen minutes to play – the physical and psychological effects of constantly attacking without reward appeared to be taking their toll on the hosts. However, there was still time to make things nervy. In the 86th minute, Radja Nainggolan restored a semblance of hope with a sweetly-struck strike from outside the box. He did not look as though he genuinely believed that there was time for the comeback, but he conjured up a second wind for the players and fans around him. The noise, which had become somewhat muted, returned in abundance, and Roma responded. Klopp’s men stood firm once more, but as in the first leg fell victim to a highly questionable penalty decision. Ragnar Klavan, brought on to shore up the defence, had the ball pelted in his direction from close range – the official, taking it upon himself to stir up some late drama, pointed to the spot. Nainggolan was on hand once again to blast the ball into the net, and suddenly one more goal would produce extra time. In the end, though, it was not enough: the final whistle came just moments after the restart, and was greeted with unbridled joy by Liverpool fans across the world. That blast on the whistle signified the realisation of a dream: Liverpool are in the final.

There is now an excruciating wait until the 26th May, a date undoubtedly etched into the minds of all supporters. Still, the last time that Liverpool fans had a Champions League final to look forward to it was 2007 – they have waited patiently through the era of Hodgson, of Paul Konchesky and Andriy Voronin, and in that context three weeks is nothing. The context also provides some reassurance: regardless of what happens when Liverpool come face to face with the reigning European champions, it is clear that the club has truly embarked upon a new era. It is an era in which trophies will undoubtedly come, even if the upcoming final proves a stretch too far; Klopp is moulding a team that can compete at the highest level for years to come. All that said, the team will certainly believe that they might just be able to get their hands on the Champions League later this month: Kyiv awaits.  
- James Martin (@JamesMartin013)