How to win at fantasy football

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Think you know best about the football?
"Football isn’t played on paper and though past performance can be a great indicator for future results, it’s about finding a balance between the stats and the players you like the look of" Mark Hazell, Opta
  • | by Martyn John

Fantasy football is more than just a game.

In fact, office fantasy leagues are more like rites of passage, the modern-day equivalent of a Spartan warrior killing a lion with their bare hands. Er, only with football stats.

Those who do well earn bragging rights and machismo points, while those who fail are cast as outsiders, forever to be picked last at five-a-side.

But things are going to be different this year, because this year you’re going to win.

To help us, we got in touch with top sports data company Opta. The company’s services are used by big professional teams, broadcasters, sports scientists and betting sites, among others. So, heeding its advice could mean the difference between your selection romping home to glory or propping up the table next May.

Do your research

Remember those days in school or university where you would spend hours revising for an exam or researching for a project while all your friends played outside in the sun?

Well, they’re back.

Research of past performances is vital for a successful fantasy football team. Look at how often a striker scored or a goalkeeper kept a clean sheet last season, as well as other factors. Is the player injury-prone? Are they unsettled at their current club? This sort of thing might well affect their performance.

Mark Hazell, northern corresponent for Opta Editorial, said: “The key to a successful fantasy league season is to do your research. Once the season starts, keep track of the players that are currently in your team and look to make adjustments if necessary.”

A good team needs consistency, not just one or two stellar performances. So be sure to do your research and fill your team with proven point-getters, not just the players of the moment.

Show commitment

Simply setting a team up and leaving it to its own devices won’t get you very far. Each game week, look to tweak your squad based on their current run of form or their upcoming fixtures.

“Keep an eye on your players’ upcoming fixtures and plan your squad accordingly. Manchester United, for instance, have pretty comfortable fixtures for the first few games so Wayne Rooney could be a solid choice at the start of the season," said Hazell.

"In the same vein, clubs who are playing European football this year may rotate their squads on a regular basis later on in the season to rest key players, which is something to bear in mind.”

Play with your head not your heart

Yes, every time you see your club’s kit, you get teary-eyed over childhood memories of eating questionable pies on the terraces with your dad. But memories don’t win matches.

The most important rule in fantasy football is to check any allegiances you may have at the door. You might despise that twinkle-toed striker who plays for your sworn rival with every fibre of your being, but if he’s a guaranteed goal-scorer, then sign him up.

Familiar faces

Players earn points for appearances as well as goals, tackles, assists and clean sheets, depending on their position.

Ideally, you’ll want your whole squad to play every week, as a player sat on the bench won’t earn you anything. That means you should be wary of players on the fringes of their club and teams with a huge amount of depth or inconsistent line-ups.

Smaller teams are less likely to rotate their players than some of the heavyweights in the league, so think about scouting some of their defenders, who have a higher chance of guaranteed starts this season.

Just be sure to balance that out with players who perform.

Fill from the front

Though strikers aren’t the only players capable of getting you points, goal-scoring players are typically responsible for netting you the most points each week.

Aim to fill your team with goal-scorers and look to spend the bulk of your cash on your strikers.

When it comes to defenders and midfielders, try to pick those with an eye for a goal or players who have penalty or free kick duties, as they're the ones most likely to grab extra points for you over the course of the year.

“Ultimately, football isn’t played on paper and though past performance can be a great indicator for future results, it’s about finding a balance between the stats and the players you like the look of," said Hazell.

“Occasionally I’ve picked players that have really good numbers behind them and they haven’t fared as well as I’d hoped. Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool attacking midfielder), for example, had more shots than any other midfielder last season but only scored five goals.

"On the other hand, I knew (Swansea striker) Michu had scored a lot of goals in La Liga before he joined Swansea so I had him from the start in his first season in the Premier League and he did much better!”

Top fantasy team picks for a winning side

If you’re still unsure which players to pick, Hazell has trawled through the data and has picked out a selection of top performers from last season to consider putting in your team.

Your budget almost certainly won't stretch to putting all of these in your side, but a few choice selections from the following (augmented with some cut-price gems from around the league) should stand you in good stead of glory come May...

Goalkepper

Vito Mannone (Sunderland)

Averaged more saves per game than any other keeper (4.5) last season, and also kept 11 clean sheets.

Defenders

Seamus Coleman (Everton)

Everton’s right-back bagged six goals last season – more than any other full-back in the league. He also helped the Toffees keep 15 clean sheets.

Gary Cahill (Chelsea)

The England centre-back was involved in 16 clean sheets, the joint-most of defenders, in only 30 games.

Leighton Baines (Everton)

The left-back created more chances than any other defender (49), as well as five goals.

Midfield

Yaya Toure (Manchester City)

With 20 league goals last season, only Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge scored more than the Ivorian powerhouse. Just remember to send him a birthday card, ok?

Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal)

The Welshman netted 10 goals and eight assists in 23 games last season.

Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

The veteran Liverpool skipper made more assists than any other player in the Premier League (13) as well as 13 goals. He takes a mean penalty, too.

Eden Hazard (Chelsea)

The mercurial Belgian playmaker created the joint-most chances league-wide (92) and scored 14 goals.

Dusan Tadic (Southampton)

The Serbian newcomer created 133 chances in the Dutch Eredivisie last season, 46 more than any other player in the division.

Forwards

Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool)

The Premier League’s second-top scorer last season, with 21 goals. He also got seven assists.

Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal)

The Gunners’ big money signing  grabbed 19 goals and 10 assists for Barcelona in the 2013/14 La Liga season. Can the Chilean recreate his scintillating form for club and country in North London?

Diego Costa (Chelsea)

The naturalised Spaniard from Brazil netted 27 goals in 35 league games for Atletico Madrid last term, helping them win the league ahead of Barcelona and their rivals, Real Madrid.