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KD-Big Time and Bruno the Bully?

Fantasy performance doesn’t always reflect the real world game. We all remember matches when our star forward had a shocker but bundled in a goal mouth scramble and converted a penalty to come away with 20+ points. Or when our number one midfield played a blinder but because of the incompetence of his teammates, was left with nothing but a couple of key pass points.

Sunday’s Manchester derby was not one of those games.

Kevin De Bruyne – the preseason number 1 player in the game – scored 44 points in his two-goal, one assist outing. It was a fitting return for a display of absolute dominance that would have been a lot more had he not been substituted off with 11 minutes plus stoppage time still to play. His opposite number – the preseason number 2 player in the game – Bruno Fernandes, scored 1 point. It was also an appropriate outcome, but at the opposite end of the scale. Fernandes (like all his United teammates it should be noted) had been as inept as De Bruyne has been imperious.

Bruno’s return got us at The Draft Society talking about the big game players in fantasy. Fernandes, Drafterthoughts pointed out, has a points per start (PPS) of just 8.17 in matchups against Big-6 sides this season thanks to turgid performances against Chelsea (2 points), Liverpool (7), and now both games against Manchester City (2 & 1). Meanwhile, the now number 1 player in the game Mohamed Salah, has a PPS in Big-6 matchups of 23.50, after some monster showings against Chelsea home and away (21 & 20.5), Arsenal (17), Manchester City (31), and Manchester United (45).

Of course, all of this got me thinking. Which fantasy stars have the best fantasy numbers in the biggest of games? And which players are, to use a cricketing term, “flat-track bullies” who only show their superiority of the lesser sides? Well, I’m glad you asked.

The Analysis

All of the 100% rostered players (as of March 7th) were included in the analysis. This totaled 21 players and included six from Liverpool (Salah, Alexander-Arnold, Mane, van Dijk, Robertson, and Jota) four from Manchester City (De Bruyne, Cancelo, Foden, and Sterling), two from Chelsea (Mount and James), two from Tottenham (Kane and Son), two from West Ham (Bowen and Antonio), and one each from Arsenal (Saka), Manchester United (Fernandes), Leicester (Tielemans), Southampton (Ward-Prowse), and Leeds (Raphinha). Three measures were used to compare these players: PP90 (points per 90), PPS (points per start), and MPS (minutes per start). Differences between PP90, PPS, and MPS from Big-6 matches and Non-Big-6 matches were compared to identify who goes missing and who steps up when the Premier League’s showpiece events take place. In all the figures below, negative numbers reflect players performing better in Non-Big-6 matches, whilst positive numbers reflect players performing better in Big-6 matches. As always with one-season analyses of match-based data, caveats with regards to small samples applies. The average number of Big-6 matches played by the group was 6.4, though Robertson and James have only played 4 each, whilst Ward-Prowse has played 9.

PP90: Superb Salah and Second-Rate Sterling

Understandably, most players perform worse in the Big-6 matchups. In fact, only 4 players (19%) actually perform better on the biggest stage: Joao Cancelo (PP90 increase of 0.52), Kevin De Bruyne (1.10), Trent Alexander-Arnold (3.14), and Mohamed Salah (4.45). It lends credence to the idea that the best players perform when it matters most because the majority of football fans would probably have the latter three as the best three players in the Premier League, and even Cancelo has propelled himself into the conversation this season. What’s more, it just so happens that these four are also the top four players according to the oft-criticised WhoScored player ratings metric this season. So we have a rare but pleasing moment in which fantasy numbers, real-world data, and the eye test all align.

It’s hard to know what else to say about Mohamed Salah this season. He’s scored 19 goals (7 more than the next best Jota and Mane) and has 10 assists (1 behind the league-leading Alexander-Arnold). It’s not surprising, then, to see that he leads the way in most fantasy metrics, including PP90. The Liverpool forward has only failed to break double-digits in this measure five times all season: against Burnley (twice), Southampton, Tottenham, and West Ham - not exactly formidable opponents. Suddenly the GW29 matchup versus Arsenal and GW32 tie against Manchester City have become a little less daunting.

Raheem Sterling, by contrast, has struggled against the big guns this season. In fact, his PP90 numbers would be even worse had it not been for a 31-minute substitute appearance against Arsenal in which he racked up 7.5 points from a key pass and couple of shots on target. The equated 21.8 PP90 for the match dwarfs his returns in every other Big-6 game. Several names are battling it out for second place here, with Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk perhaps surprisingly edging out the competition for the silver medal. The 2-2 draws with Chelsea and Manchester City were obviously damaging for his usual clean-sheet-led points scoring, but even the crushing victories over Arsenal and Manchester United were so convincing that few ghost points were available and only 11 and 10 points were accrued, respectively.

PPS: Tremendous Trent and Frustrating Fernandes

The overall picture of the PP90 and PPS data is going to be very similar, particularly with the 100% rostered players given that they are often guaranteed starters and ones who more often than not go the full distance in a game. Nevertheless, the two metrics are distinct, so whilst Sterling and Salah still bookend the PPS graph, we have a bit of a reshuffle around them; one of which is that man Bruno.

Yes, Bruno has had an up-and-down relationship with the Big-6 matchups this season, mirroring United as a whole. He performed well in the high-scoring wins against Tottenham (15.5 points) and Arsenal (21.5) but struggled when his side were decimated by Liverpool (7) and Manchester City twice (2 & 1). With Rangnick’s side taking on Tottenham, Arsenal, and Chelsea between now and the end of the season, fantasy managers will be hoping that they get the good United that turns up…if there still is one that is.

At the other end of the scale, we see Sadio Mane make it a Liverpool 1, 2, 3 as his increased PPS in Big-6 games of 1.24 takes him above the Man City duo of Cancelo and De Bruyne. The Merseyside club’s unbeaten record in such matches this season are helpful to fantasy performance, of course, but in Mane’s case, it would be remiss not to note that he’s been perhaps a little disappointing in easier fixtures. A PPS of “just” 13.06 in Non-Big-6 games is 16th best out of the 21 players analysed and for a side that has won 15 out of 19 such matches whilst scoring 48 goals, fantasy managers would be forgiven for thinking that this production isn’t good enough.

MPS: Injury-riddled James and Reliable Raphinha

Finally we come to game-time. As mentioned previously, these guys are the cream of the crop, so we should expect them to be playing 90 minutes in most instances. And that is indeed what we do find. But – and this is discounting Reece James, whose Big-6 record this season has been a rollercoaster of events (a goal and an assist against Arsenal, sent off against Liverpool, and injured against Manchester City) – the data still paints an interesting narrative of the season.

The players with positive numbers on the right-hand side of the figure all play more in Big-6 matches than usual. This makes sense when you look at the likes of Son and Kane – the two of them essentially are Tottenham and they won’t be brought off when they are arguably needed the most. The same is true of Raphinha for Leeds. Klopp and Guardiola would probably be reluctant to substitute the defenders (though that term should be used loosely with these two) Cancelo and Alexander-Arnold, especially given how exceptionally fit they both are. Mohamed Salah seems to have negotiated a similar contract to the Barca and Real-era Messi and Ronaldo, in that only extraordinary circumstances will see him taken off the pitch. And then you have Antonio, De Bruyne, and Foden. These three probably fall under a separate category: that of being substituted off in the less meaningful, Non-Big-6 games to protect them for future endeavours. It’s a catch-22 for fantasy managers. Their importance to the real-life team means they miss out on cashing in when Pep realises a game is done and dusted.

On the left-hand side we see, most of all, the impact of small sample sizes. One early substitution (Mount, Saka) can completely change the picture when we focus on mean values. That said…the names here are still distinctly different to the ones just discussed. They are not considered absolutely essential to their side. All are great players, but none have reached Kane/Son for Tottenham, or TAA/Salah for Liverpool levels. Or in Bruno’s case, they have fallen from that level – a worrying sign for fantasy managers.

*van Dijk has a change of 0 because he has played 90 minutes of every game he has started – he is, of course, extremely important to Liverpool. In addition, it could be argued that no team is more reliant on one player than Southampton are on James Ward-Prowse. His negative number here is influenced by his sending off against Chelsea with 14 minutes to go of that game. Had he played the full 90, which it is almost certain he would have done, his MPS change would have been +0.69.

Fantasy Implications

Whether you use this information to bench a big-name fantasy asset is down to the boldness of the individual manager. Our very own DraftLad correctly put Bruno in his 'Sits' column last week based on data, so clearly he wouldn't be afraid to make what are still big calls, irrespective of whether the numbers back it up. As a data-driven manager myself, I should agree, but it's not always that easy. These players are 100% rostered for a reason. They are your set and forgets - even if that is purely to provide some stress-free decision making!

Regardless, this knowledge can help with expectations, and expectations allow you to assess the risks that you may need to take elsewhere in your line-up during a gameweek. Facing a title challenger in GW34 when Manchester United head to the Emirates to take on Arsenal? It may be worth taking a couple of extra risks because banking on your main man Bruno probably won’t do the trick. Up against one of the basement dwellers in the league in GW36 when Liverpool face Tottenham Hotspur? Now would warrant a safety first approach because Salah is probably going to go big for you. With 10 fantasy gameweeks to go, and each of the Big-6 facing at least one more fellow member this season, any advantages we can glean from the numbers should be grabbed with both hands.

Oh, and also this data is just kinda cool. Or is that just me?

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