Reimagining Fantasy Football

I love fantasy football because it provides the perfect platform for me to test (prove) my knowledge and understanding of football. I get to be the scout, data analyst and manager, make transfers, select the formation and choose the starting eleven. The complexity of football means that using a limited budget and limited number of transfers on the right players in the right mix requires a considerable degree of knowledge and skill.

Football is less structured and one-directional than American football where the main fantasy currency is yardage, less end-to-end than basketball with goals being a much rarer commodity, and there is more to the build-up play than in ice hockey. The rarity of goals and the fluidity in the constructing and breaking down of build-up play means that there are a lot more non-goal actions of significance to consider when scouting players for their fantasy potential.

This is great, and what makes it so interesting and challenging being a fantasy scout, manager and data analyst. The only thing is, the role of data analyst at present is rather constrained by the scoring system that sits behind fantasy — more Sunday League than Marcelo Bielsa. Knowing for example that Ricardo Pereira makes the most tackles per game in the Premier League (at 4.2 per game), that Etienne Capoue makes the most interceptions in the league at an average of 3.0 per game, or that James Maddison is second only to Eden Hazard in the number of chances created per game at an average of 2.7 is of fairly limited application as these metrics don’t factor into the main points scoring system in fantasy football.

As such, I want to see fantasy become much more encompassing, focusing on all of the actions that combine to create the game rather than just a focus on goals. This is particularly important given how rare goals are in football, and particularly interesting given everything else that happens on the pitch. The actions that go into constructing and breaking down build-up play are fundamental parts of the game and should be captured in the fantasy scoring system. It’s worth noting that the current Bonus Points System incorporates this to some extent, but in a very limited fashion — I believe this should be central to the scoring rather than just a sidenote, therefore I am proposing an enhanced scoring system for fantasy football as below.

Proposed enhanced scoring system

Dispense with appearance points

The current scoring system awards 2 points for playing 60+ minutes, and a single point for making an appearance for less than 60 minutes. Appearance points are currently a central part of the fantasy scoring system — you’ll know this if you’ve ever played before because you’ll inevitably have suffered multiple gameweeks where at least half of your team scored points solely for making an appearance.

To illustrate the point, a regular first-team player after 20 games will have accrued somewhere in the region of 40 points for their efforts (20 matches x 2 points). At the conclusion of Gameweek 20 there were only 36 players that had accumulated more than 80 points over the season so far i.e. there were only 36* players in the league that had scored the majority of their points based upon their performance on the pitch rather than simply for making appearances. Exactly half of the 222 players in the data set from the 8 matches I sampled scored either 1 or 2 points. When this is the case the differentiation factors between the millions of fantasy players worldwide become minimised, as the pool of 500+ Premier League players is quickly reduced to a very select group of viable fantasy scorers.

Among the 8 sample matches in this analysis there were 22 different fantasy scores for players (19 if you exclude bonus points) ranging from -3 to +18. That is 22 unique scores among the 222 players that played in those 8 matches — not a great deal of differentiation there. In contrast, the data set that I’ve produced (based on the same sample of 8 games, 222 players) contains 219 unique scores, ranging from -6.51 to +30.70. Not only is there a much wider degree of differentiation between scores, but in all but 5 instances every player recorded a unique score. Choosing a squad of 15 fantasy players from a group of 222 players (let alone 500+ players) where almost every player has a unique score requires much more skill and is more challenging and rewarding than selecting from a crop of 222 relatively homogeneous players in terms of their fantasy scoring.

My proposition therefore is to shift the focus to offensive and defensive contribution on the pitch to provide a larger differentiation between the scores awarded to each player in fantasy football, therefore enhancing the skill involved in being a fantasy manager.

*there will inevitably be more players that have scored more than half of their points through their on-pitch performance that are not included in this 36 due to missing games through injury, substitutions, suspensions etc, but the 36 is intended to be illustrative of just how significant appearance points are in the current fantasy scoring system.

Broader scope for offensive points scoring

Whilst goals and assists will clearly remain central to the scoring system, there are further on-field actions that should be valued for their contribution to offensive output. Beyond goals and assists, I’d like to see points scored for shots on target, chances created (i.e. passes that lead to a direct shot on goal) and secondary assists. In a world where assists are rewarded with fantasy points it seems odd that chances created are overlooked as a fantasy output, after all the difference between the two is purely dependent on the chance being converted into a goal by the recipient. Clearly the quality of the shot and the quality of the pass creating the chance both factor into the likelihood of a chance being converted into an assist, but creating chances regardless of whether or not they are converted should be recognised as a valuable offensive contribution in the fantasy scoring system. And where secondary assists are concerned, how can you not feel that Jesse Lingard deserves some sort of recognition for his contribution to United’s third against Fulham?

Eden Hazard for example, leads the league in creating chances at an average of 2.9 per game, or 57 through the 20 games he’s played so far this season. This contribution should be recognised, not just on the 9 occasions (9 assists) when a teammate has converted those chances into a goal, but every time he creates a chance for a teammate, regardless of the final outcome. Where Hazard has scored 27 points so far this season for his 9 assists, I propose that he should receive 2 points for each of the 57 chances he’s created thus far, as well as an extra 3 points for each chance that is converted into a goal — which would see his contribution in this area jump up to being worth 141 points as opposed to the 27 he’s been credited with.

On a single game basis, Paul Pogba’s performance against Bournemouth provides a great example of how an all-round attacking performance would be rewarded with a sizeable points tally under an enhanced scoring system. Pogba scored 2 goals against Bournemouth as well as laying on 1 assist, having a further 2 shots on target and creating a further 2 chances for good measure, thus earning him 30.44 points (compared to the 18 points he scored in fantasy).

Whereas currently players score a different number of points for a goal based on the position they play, I would reset that as I believe a goal should be worth the same number of points regardless of who scores it. The incorporation of points scoring for a much wider range of both defensive and offensive actions helps to remove the need to provide any kind of artificial boost to the number of points scored by defenders.

Recognition of defensive contribution

The current fantasy scoring system is highly geared towards offensive contribution and thus does little to recognise defensive performance beyond clean sheet bonuses. I’d like to see tackles, interceptions and blocks integrated into the scoring system as they provide stronger evidence of an individual player’s defensive contribution.

Take West Ham vs Watford as an example, in a match that Watford came out 2–0 winners. Watford’s back four of Femenia, Kabasele, Cathcart and Holebas scored 6s and 5s in fantasy football — primarily for their clean sheet (and appearance points). However, that disguises the fact that Catchcart didn’t make a single defensive contribution (tackle/block/interception) during the entire game (except to give away a foul), whereas the other three made 6 (Femenia, Kabasele) or 7 (Holebas) defensive actions each. Taking this into account would see the scoring re-calibrated to; Femenia — 11.65, Kabasele — 10.88, Cathcart — 6.27, Holebas — 11.27, much more reflective of their individual contributions to achieving that clean sheet.

In a similar vein, Ander Herrera put in a monster defensive display at the beginning of December in a 4–1 victory over Fulham, recording 10 interceptions and 5 tackles to earn himself… 2 points. To put that performance into context, Etienne Capoue leads the league in interceptions at a rate of 3.0 per game, 52 in total across 17 games, and Ricardo Pereira leads the league in tackles at 4.2 per game (79 in total). I think a score of 17.08 is much more befitting of such a huge defensive performance than the miserly 2 points he actually scored for playing the full 90 minutes.

Higher value placed on saves

At present the current scoring system sees goalkeepers score 1 point for every 3 saves they make and 4 points for keeping a clean sheet. This sees Alisson Becker (98 points) as the leading points scorer among Premier League goalkeepers at the conclusion of Gameweek 19, followed by Ederson (79) and Lukasz Fabianski (77).

The scoring system I’m proposing would see the value of a clean sheet increased to 6 points, but more importantly 1 point awarded per save, ensuring that every single save made by a goalkeeper is properly recognised. And it turns out a small change like this would actually make a significant difference, as you can see below.

Goalkeeper points comparison

Alisson remains top dog under both scoring systems, largely by virtue of conceding only 7 goals and keeping 12 clean sheets through the first 19 games of the season, but Ederson has been a huge beneficiary of the quirks of the current scoring system where he places second. In contrast, an enhanced scoring system would see him rank 16th among Premier League goalkeepers for fantasy points this season, having made the fewest number of saves among the league’s top 20 goalkeepers. On the opposite side of things, Joe hart, who leads the league in saves at 77 (45 more than Ederson) appears to be undervalued by the current system and would come in at 2nd under a re-calibrated system. The reason being, that Joe hart has only scored 19 fantasy points for his 77 saves so far this season by virtue of the scoring system awarding 1 point for every 3 saves made. Joe hart has already made 20 saves this season that completely missed out on any fantasy points due to his game totals not tallying to a multiple of 3. It’s a similar story for Rui Patricio, another player significantly undervalued in the current system. He’s missed out on scoring points for 18 of his saves so far this season — 32% of his total — which sees him placed 10th rather than 5th for points scored by goalkeepers this season.

Under an enhanced system goalkeepers would inevitably, and justifiably, score more points, with the average jumping up from 65 points through the first 19 games to 110 points, and the difference between the highest and lowest scoring keepers increasing from 71 points to 91 points.

I want to illustrate the difference an enhanced system would make to the scoring using some real game examples below.

Enhanced scoring system output

Tottenham 3:1 Chelsea — 24.11.18

In a 3–1 victory for Spurs over London rivals Chelsea Christian Eriksen was a creative machine, scoring 22.37 points for laying on 7 chances for teammates, 2 of which were converted into assists. Dele Alli (17.73 points) was the other standout Spurs player scoring 1 and bagging 1 assist from 2 shots on target and 2 chances created.

Given Spurs’ threat in attack it comes as little surprise that the three Chelsea players that scored relatively well all picked-up points for their defensive contribution. Kepa in goal may have conceded 3 goals, but he was on hand to make 6 saves in the match, scoring a healthy 9.57 points, whilst N’Golo Kante registered 10 defensive actions, and created 1 chance to score 11.26 points. Cesar Azpilicueta was the highest scoring Chelsea player with 12.11 points courtesy of his 5 defensive actions, 3 chances created and an assist.

In what was a fairly one-sided match Chelsea registered only 2 shots on target, crucially however, one of which was a goal scored by Giroud, denying the Spurs players a clean sheet bonus. Consequently Hugo Lloris, the back four, Sissoko and Dier all scored only 2 points in fantasy — hardly a fair reflection of their relative influence on the game. Dier lead the way creating 2 chances and making 5 defensive actions, which should have earned him 7.97 points, whilst at the other end of the scale Toby Alderweireld didn’t make a single defensive action and ended up scoring -0.02 points for his troubles (or lack thereof).

Arsenal 4:2 Tottenham — 02.12.18

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang lead the charge in Arsenal’s derby day victory over Spurs, scoring 27.95 points for his 2 goals and an assist, as well as creating an extra chance and making 5 tackles. Second, but not a particularly close second, was Aaron Ramsey, coming on as a substitute at half time and helping turn the tide in Arsenal’s favour with 2 assists and 2 tackles, to earn himself 12.21 points.

The interesting quirk of this fixture was how Arsenal’s defence scored fantasy points. Arsenal’s back five each scored 1 point, except for Shkodran Mustafi who was deemed to deserve no points at all having been substituted off in the 71st minute and receiving a yellow card. What that zero score doesn’t take into account is the 2 shots on target Mustafi had, along with the chance he created and the 6 defensive actions he made, which should have earned him 6.21 points. That would, and should, have seen him score more points than Sokratis (1.15), Holding (4.15) and Bellerin (2.86). It wouldn’t have been enough to eclipse Sead Kolasinac however, who would have scored 10.90 points, having created 5 chances and made 3 tackles in the game.

In defence at the other end it was a bit of a horror show for Jan Vertonghen who contrived to give away a penalty, commit 2 further fouls, concede 4 goals and get shown a red card, earning himself a score of -6.51 points in the process, the lowest score in the sample.

Bournemouth 0:4 Liverpool — 08.12.18

Liverpool had four shots on target in this match and wound up 4–0 winners, courtesy of a Mohammed Salah hat-trick and a Steve Cook own goal. Salah created 2 chances to compliment his hat-trick of goals, earning himself 30.70 points and top spot in the sample.

Steve Cook and the rest of Bournemouth’s defence left empty-handed under the current scoring system, whilst the remaining Bournemouth players scored 1 or 2 points. Jefferson Lerma should feel a bit short-changed being lumped in with the rest though as his numbers for the game put him head and shoulders above everyone else with 1 chance created and 7 defensive actions. 5 Bournemouth players would have scored negative points under an enhanced scoring system.

Manchester United 4:1 Fulham — 08.12.18

Marcus Rashford (21.40) was the points leader here off the back of his 4 shots on target, 1 goal, 2 assists and an additional chance created. Ashley Young (18.94), Juan Mata (17.33) and Ander Herrera (17.08) followed. There was a goal and assist each for Juan Mata and Ashley Young, additional chances created by both players, and 4 interceptions made by Young. Ander Herrera would have scored 17.08 for his aforementioned dominant defensive display of 10 interceptions and 5 tackles.

At the other end Sergio Rico may have conceded 4 goals but he also made 7 saves, helping Fulham avoid a true trouncing. For this he would have earned 10.03 points and been the highest scoring Fulham player. Under the current scoring system that accolade instead went to Aboubakar Kamara who came on as a half-time substitute to score a consolation penalty and net 5 fantasy points (or 7.72 points).

West Ham United 0:2 Watford — 22.12.18

Gerard Deulofeu was the leading points scorer in this match-up with 20.05 points, just edging Ben Foster (19.88). These two scoring broadly the same amount of points matches the output of the current scoring system, in which they both scored 8 points. However the scoring systems differ significantly in their evaluation of Roberto Pereyra’s performance, with the current system awarding him 9 points (making him the highest scoring Watford player) compared to 9.59 points under an enhanced scoring system, which would see him rank 7th among Watford players for fantasy points.

Deulofeu scored a goal, created 3 chances and contributed 4 defensive actions for 20.05 points, whilst a clean sheet and 7 saves earned Ben Foster his 19.88 points. Etienne Capoue should have come in third, with 9 defensive actions and a chance created for 13.72 points.

As discussed above, clean sheets and high defensive output saw the Watford defence score well. Arthur Masuaku (8.59 points) put in a big defensive shift for West Ham (8 defensive actions) and Snodgrass (8.36) and Anderson (8.87) created a number of chances each to ensure they all scored respectably despite drawing a blank and conceding two.

Newcastle United 0:0 Fulham — 22.12.18

Clean sheets all round meant that both goalkeepers and both defences scored 6 points (excluding bonus points) under the current system — 4 points for keeping a clean sheet and 2 for playing 90 minutes. Again, this masks the difference in impact each player had on the game. Martin Dubravka for example was forced into making 2 saves to earn his clean sheet whilst Sergio Rico left with clean gloves, therefore only scoring 5.91 points to Dubravka’s 10.39. Similarly, the Newcastle defence did much more to earn its clean sheet than the opposition, making 35 defensive actions to Fulham’s 21. This was reflected in the lowest Newcastle defender scoring 11.02 points compared to 7.90 for Fulham.

Burnley 1:5 Everton 26.12.18

Unsurprisingly Lucas Digne with his 2 goals from defence, as well as 1 chance created and 3 interceptions, tops the point scoring in this game with 20.10 points. Bernard followed up with 2 assists, a further chance created and 4 tackles to earn a handsome 15.68 points, and Gylfi Sigurdsson and Yerry Mina also scored double figures for their contributions in attack. Sigurdsson grabbed a goal, an assist and created 1 further chance (whilst giving away 3 fouls and picking up a yellow card) whilst Mina bagged a goal and a secondary assist to score 13.14 and 10.30 respectively.

This game also saw 4 of the 9 lowest fantasy scores from the sample with Pickford scoring -1.00 points for an almost complete lack of involvement (except to concede a goal), Andre Gomes (-1.45) had a bit of a torrid time being dispossessed 5 times, making 2 fouls and getting a yellow card, Joe hart (-3.21) conceded 5 goals and made only 1 save, and Ben Mee (-3.88) gave away a penalty and conceded 5 goals.

Leicester City 0:1 Cardiff City — 29.12.18

Neil Etheridge put up an huge display in goal for Cardiff, registering 7 saves — one of which was a penalty — and a clean sheet to score 21.88 points. Cardiff’s clean sheet was built on a strong defensive performance from the team, in which they registered 38 defensive actions, but also committed 16 fouls. Aron Gunnarsson lead the defensive charge with 12 defensive actions, and coupled with a clean sheet and the creation of a chance, he scored 15.94 points — compared to just 3 points under the current system.

On Leicester’s side every player scored either 1 or 2 points under the current system, with the exception of Demarai Gray who scored 3 points by virtue of being substituted before Cardiff scored, thus maintaining a clean sheet. However, under an enhanced system the spread would be more like -0.76 (Rachid Ghezzal) to 12.74 (Ricardo Pereira). Pereira made 9 defensive actions himself compared to 11 made in total between the 3 other Leicester defenders. On top of that he also had 2 shots on target and created 2 chances to come out head and shoulders above the rest of the team — and above his 2 points awarded under the current system. Despite missing a penalty James Maddison still would have scored fairly well, contributing 3 shots on target, 3 chances created and 3 defensive actions for 8.86 points — but a score that could have been 18.36 if he’d converted his penalty.

Global sport. The stories and the stats. @cj_freestone