Greetings, and welcome back for another round of FPL captaincy debate, the most important decision of your gameweek.
Let me begin by apologizing for not being around to present a Gameweek 12 version of Captain Obvious. Your humble writer was slapped with a red injury flag and just missed the cut. Somewhat thankfully, I managed to miss only one column, instead of two, due to the recent international break. Silver linings and all...
It was not a very enjoyable hiatus, but I did manage to learn something vitally important during my absence. You see, I was in a position where I could not use my laptop for internet access, which has always been my preferred setup. Instead, I had to rely on my phone, and this was the first time I used it at length to read various news articles. Yes,in 2021...the first time.
I noticed something very quickly...online print media is heavily geared for phone use and the biggest example of how that factors into writing columns is that I really need to shorten my paragraphs. I was used to standard formatting of paragraphs, thanks to my 20th century education, and I feel it is optically appropriate for those old souls like myself who tend to rely on their laptops. However, phones are a different story. There seems to be a two-sentence maximum per paragraph and the idea is simple enough...you do not want to have to scroll your way through a “long” paragraph with no breaks in the spacing. Even though this paragraph I am completing now is acceptable by any measure of English composition standards that I have been taught, I now realize it is entirely too long for phone use. So, going forward, an effort will be made to offer a more pleasing-to-the-eye presentation.
I just wanted to prove that, in my absence, I still found something important to learn and apply. Let us start this new journey together of writing shorter paragraphs. Those who have read and enjoyed my columns on their phones up until now - you are the real heroes.
Right, so if you can recall where the captaincy debate left off in Week 11, not much has changed. I said it well over a month ago, and the feeling in my view still applies - Mo Salah is the best armband choice, week in and week out, until further notice. Update: we have yet to reach further notice.
Now, there are some challengers to the armband throne that need to be talked about this week. And thankfully so, because there is only so much you can say about Salah without getting repetitious. But, before we get into the players that COULD make a case, let us address the ones who seemingly cannot.
The FPL game is in a state of change this past season. For years, the traditional setup of one’s squad would feature one or two premium defensive options, with the bulk of money concentrated in attack. It was also pretty much standard to only start three defenders, again, to optimize the potential explosion of points that come from midfielders and forwards. Those days, for now anyway, are not only over...the complete opposite has occurred. If this were Stranger Things, we are living in the “Upside Down”.
What in tarnation has happened to the FPL forward? It is mind boggling. For years, I recall the constant struggle to settle on the three forwards you would carry at any given time. With only three spots to fill, it seemed impossible to have every one you wanted. And, given the premium options at that position would tend to be priced well north of 10m, finding budget defenders was vital in helping raise the funds needed to carry, for example, Luis Suárez and Robin Van Persie at the same time.
Now, the forward position is a veritable wasteland. I swear, when you scroll through the options on the FPL transfer page, if you squint hard enough, you can actually see drifting tumbleweeds rolling by the names on offer.
It has been a true head-scratcher, really. Take the league’s top two forwards to date: Michail Antonio has blanked in five of his last six games while Jamie Vardy has returned zilch for four weeks straight. I mean, folks, when two of your top eight forwards are playing for Watford, one of whom took time to even nail down a starting role, and both Hornets are on more points than Cristiano Ronaldo or Harry Kane, and even on a points per game basis, the likes of Romelu Lukaku...not only is it difficult to depend on a captaincy choice from this position right now, it is difficult to justify putting any money into the position. I am seeing folks now looking at 5-4-1 and 4-5-1 formations and honestly, I cannot fault the logic.
So where have all the points gone? Surely they must be going somewhere. Personally, I am on pace to eclipse 2500 points for the season, which would be a milestone I have never reached. And it comes in a season where I am lucky to find a single goal when starting three forwards in a given week.
Well, perhaps its has taken time, less for some and more for others, to come to grips with the fact that the fullbacks and wingbacks of the Premier League have taken the FPL game over. Sure, centerbacks on strong defensive clubs are returning decent value, such as the likes of Antonio Rüdiger and Rúben Dias, but the wide defenders, who are bombing forward at an historic rate, are the ones doing the significant damage and are therefore the only true challengers for the armband right now not named Salah.
Unfortunately, one of the faces of the “Mount Rushmore of Defenders” was injured in Champions League play this week - Ben Chilwell. So, for now, there is an argument-free “holy trinity” of defenders that really need to be in every manager’s squad at this stage of the season: Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool, Joao Cancelo of Manchester City and Reece James of Chelsea. These lads are scooping up points at a ridiculous rate, and I will talk about the three as armband options, not just for this week in particular, but in going forward.
First, just to reiterate, I still feel Mo Salah is the safe play for this coming week and I promise I will ring the alarm when that changes. Keep in mind, in Week 12, he was captained by 89% of managers in the top 10k, an actual drop from the 94% rate he had the week prior. The only three other players to fetch as much as 1% of the top 10k for the armband were Harry Kane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Heung-Min Son. They all blanked. Conversely, .7% of managers in the top 10k backed Cancelo with the armband, while Reece James and Trent Alexander-Arnold were nowhere to be found at all...perhaps a few vice captains out there, that is it.
With the trio of Alexander-Arnold, James and Cancelo all scoring between 12 to 15 points last week, I get the feeling we are going to start seeing managers take the plunge, throw out the myth of “beware captaining a defender” and try to pounce on these seemingly bankable returns. Let’s take a look at how they have fared over the last four rounds...
Trent Alexander Arnold - 4 games, 38 points (9.5 pts per game), 1 goal, 4 assists, 2 clean sheets, 7 bonus points
Reece James - 4 games, 53 points (13.25 pts per game), 3 goals, 2 assists, 3 clean sheets, 10 bonus points
Joao Cancelo - 4 games 29 points (7.25 pts per game), 0 goals, 3 assists, 2 clean sheets, 6 bonus points
Thoughts on Trent: Even though it could be argued that Alexander-Arnold is the most talented fullback on planet Earth right now, what makes it difficult for me is that Salah is on the same team. Any fixture that might give me any pause with backing Salah is likely going to do the same about Trent. With 125 points in 12 games, quick math would show that Salah is ahead of the fullback on a points per game basis. We also know that, in the majority of games, Alexander-Arnold will be assisting, and the odds are it will be at the benefit of Salah.
Now, when there were question marks around Sadio Mané’s availability for Week 12, the thought of Liverpool being without him and Roberto Firmino gave me some pause about how much scoring the Reds could accomplish and therefore had me thinking Trent could do better with a clean sheet and bonus possibly eclipsing a lone Salah goal. Now, Trent did wind up outscoring Salah (with Mane present), 15 to 8, and has been the higher scorer the last two games. It comes down to me whether I think the Reds can keep a clean sheet. If so, I think it is a coin flip between the two. At home to the Saints this weekend, I think the clean sheet odds are above 50%.
The question then is do you want to take the risk of betting against the much-more captained Salah or do you want to roll your dice on Trent. I tend to go conservative with decisions like this at this stage of the season. However, if you have gotten off to a slow start, betting against Salah with a dependable option like Trent in the right weeks can get you back in the game quicker than just about any other way.
Thoughts on James: I love him. Perhaps the sample size is not enough to anoint him the most dangerous of the bunch but, ever since he has gained full fitness and playing 90 minutes, the man is operating in his own “cheat mode” right now. I think the biggest appeal about him versus the other two, is how Chelsea are built as an attacking side in general. It is abundantly clear that the wingbacks in Thomas Tuchel’s system are effectively as much as an attacking winger as say a Wilfried Zaha or a Riyad Mahrez. They are involved in every stage of buildup. Whether they get things started by streaking down the flanks, set up chances with dangerous crosses, or find themselves providing an end product by being as far forward as anyone to complete a counter-attack...James and one of Ben Chilwell or Marcos Alonso have truly redefined the position.
Chelsea have a better defensive record than Liverpool as well and James’ roster percentage is about 5% lower than that of Alexander-Arnold, so his effective ownership is lower, meaning the points he accrues carry more weight. To captain him adds even more fuel for your rank-climbing should he continue to produce anywhere near like this.
That said, I do not see how he can maintain his current pace. It is not sustainable, much like Michail Antonio’s production in the first month of the season. However, even if we were to cut a third of his production out, he would still be right alongside Trent on a points per game basis.
Things that are worrisome but one can only shrug until it happens - 1) Tuchel does seem to be more rotation prone than even Pep Guardiola. James is clearly the top player at the right wingback position, but I can see Tuchel cherry-picking an easy fixture or two during the festive period to hand James a rest. It is just difficult to imagine it happening anytime soon based on his recent ridiculous production. 2) James does have an injury reputation. Again, something you cannot be too worried about as things stand, but if I had to guess which of the “trinity” would spoil my gameweek with an early substitution, it would be James.
Thoughts on Cancelo: Compared to the other two, Cancelo seems to be the least productive of the bunch right now, but let me squash that myth by pointing out how productive he has been in Champions League play. When you add up all the competitions, Cancelo is right there, and his underlying stats show that he might actually be a tad unlucky. While we expect to get most of his points through clean sheets and assists, he actually leads the league in most shots on target without having scored a goal, so he is quite due in that department.
Another factor that may have given managers pause in the past but we have seen enough this season to feel more confident, is that Pep Guardiola is not taking Cancelo in and out of the lineup like in previous campaigns. He has started every match this season, going the full 90 minutes all but once. These are famous last words, one has to understand. Rúben Dias was considered by the majority of FPL enthusiasts as Manchester City’s most-nailed on player, and even he got a rest this past weekend. So, I do feel like Cancelo, if I had to bet, is the first of the holy trinity to see a rest in the near future and therefore gives me a bit of pause in captaining him.
Typically, you would think a defender not starting is a defender that will stay benched, so your vice-captain could come into play, but with Cancelo being City’s most valuable player thus far, I can totally see him getting subbed in in the second half of a game he does not start if City are not comfortably ahead.
All three options have a home game this weekend. Chelsea face a Manchester United side in transition, Manchester City take on a pesky West Ham attack, though they are coming off a blank against Wolves, and Liverpool have the most attractive matchup on paper, hosting Southampton.
Will this be the week you turn from Salah and back a defender? Will I? Honestly, Salah at home to the Saints...I feel my loyalty will not be tested this week. However, if I am to go against “Mo Money”, my backup candidates are quite clear. I mean, I have Harry Kane playing Burnley and, at best, he’s my fifth-best armband candidate. Yes, my friends, the FPL game has certainly changed the past two seasons.
And there you have it. Another look at the captaincy debate for the round ahead. Good luck with your selection this week, and may your arrows be green.