How significant are set pieces are in fantasy football?
Stacking your Official Fantasy Premier League squad or daily fantasy football line-up with dead ball specialists may seem like a viable tactic and it is likely to reap you a good few points but our intention here is to prove to you that not all set piece takers are equal.
When we look at set-pieces there are 3 key areas we need to investigate: the potential for an assist from a corner kick, the frequency of penalty goals and the probability of a goal being scored from a direct free-kick in a dangerous area.
Shots on target and crosses from corners/free-kicks may also contribute to an individual player’s fantasy scoreboard, particularly in some of the more complex game formats that are on the market so they should be factored in as well.
Think about if for a minute. If you select a player that is guaranteed to be on a number of set pieces, he’s almost certain to have a higher floor than a similar player that never takes any. This is quite important, especially in cash games where you are looking for steady returns from each player.
So, in order to find all of this information where do we start?
There are numerous sites that list players that are most likely to be given these jobs for a specific team, an example of which can be found here but some may not be kept up-to-date, while others may not paint the full picture, so you will need to weed out the wheat from the chaff.
Free-kicks and corners
If you frequent fantasy football message boards where players are discussed, you may hear the words ‘he’s on corners’, so exactly how significant is it? Think about the following questions for a minute.
- Is he taking all corners and free kicks from both sides of the pitch?
- Does he play a number of short corners?
- How many corners is his side likely to win in the match in question?
- What’s the likelihood of him registering an assist from one of his corners?
- How often do teams score from corner kicks?
During the course of the 2016/17 English Premier League season, Wayne Rooney took more corners than any other Manchester United player (50) but that only accounted for 23% of the corner kicks his team won. By comparison Swansea City’s Gylfi Sigurdsson was responsible for 182 of the 196 corners that the Welsh club won, over 92% of his team’s total. Sigurdsson was also monopolising final third free-kicks for the Swans and was their first choice penalty taker.
Both players have now moved on, to Everton, so it’s easy to see that the designated set piece takers at each of these 3 cubs will change significantly going forward.
Top clubs tend to utilise this method much more than clubs you normally expect to find further down the table. Teams who struggle to win possession of the ball know full well that they may have limited opportunities in any given game so they are far more likely to be less inclined to waste them whereas those that monopolise the ball may well see maintaining possession from corners as part and parcel of their game plan.
Historical data can be used to predict exactly how many corners teams are expected to win in any given match. Bookmakers will set lines on a wide range of corner markets, making them a useful yardstick for gauging how many a team can be expected to win in any encounter.
So, for example, if you expect the home side to win 6 in a particular match, you could estimate how many an individual player could be expected to take based on his regular percentage of takes.
Goals from corner kicks
A goal can be expected to be scored approximately 3-4% of the time a corner is taken. However, this can vary markedly from team to team.
Some teams are much more adept at converting chances from set pieces than others though and this is not by chance. Managers like Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce understand full well the value of set-pieces and that the amount of time they spend fine-tuning them on the training ground can pay off in spades.
Yet despite all of this, it is area that continues to be neglected and Ted Knutson makes some compelling arguments about why that needs to change in a must-read article on StatsBomb.
Pulis was in charge of West Bromwich Albion for the whole of the 2016/17 English Premier League season and they enjoyed the most success in terms of goals from corner kicks.
The out of position Chris Brunt was one of the chief contributors, putting in some telling deliveries and when you take into account the fact that the Baggies also had a reputation for being the tallest team in the Premier League, it is easy to see why their central defenders appealed so much to many fantasy football managers.
Sunderland were relegated, scoring just the 3 goals from corner kicks and 2 from free kicks, no wonder that trap-door was beckoning them!
It stands to reason that the top players are likely to have the best technique, making them the ideal candidate to execute any free kick opportunity and Kevin de Bruyne is arguably the pick of the current bunch.
Even though Manchester City are physically one of the smallest sides in the league, de Bruyne’s ability to put the ball on the proverbial six-pence often more than compensates.
However, inferior players can fare just as well by having set piece plays well drilled. In another excellent piece, Knutson dwells on just how effective dead balls can be, if the goalkeeper is screened, so that his view is obscured.
Incredibly, it’s a tactic that not all sides use!
There certainly seems to be plenty of the variance involved in the award of a spot-kick. Champions’ Chelsea and Manchester United only earned 4 each in that 2016/17 campaign, while mid-table outfit Bournemouth were awarded 10.
This is not a trend that you would expect to see in La Liga for instance. Sides like Barcelona and Real Madrid tend to win a huge amount of penalties, partly due to some questionable refereeing and some penalty box shenanigans, something that was very much in evidence when Barcelona pulled off that epic Champions League comeback against Paris Saint-Germain.
Premier League referees on the whole are not so easily influenced but fantasy football managers should be aware that some of the men in the middle are far more likely to award a penalty kick than others. This is perhaps more significant for daily fantasy slates, when the appointed match officials can be factored into your reckoning.
A couple of referees stood out in a sample we looked at. A total of 146 penalties were awarded in 663 Premier League games played over a period of time but Mike Dean and Robert Madley were responsible for 37 of those combined from the 102 games they had presided over.
Again, reference those lists to determine who is likely to be on spot-kick duty. The designated penalty kick taker may lose the responsibility if he misses one and it’s also worth watching out for teams who tend to rotate their ‘takers’. Some clubs have had strange rules in the past whereby the ‘fouled’ player would not take the resulting kick.
To summarise – we’re privileged to have ready access to some terrific Big Data, statistics and infographics nowadays but nothing can beat what you see with your own eyes. Watch what teams do at corners and free kicks. Do they attempt to screen the opposition keeper, make decoy runs to create space, block the keepers path and so on?
Identify which teams you feel are strongest. These can be a goldmine for fantasy football players, so make full use of them, especially when assessing the merits of their dead ball specialists – after all, as we’ve clearly shown you, not all set-piece takers are equal!