Monday, June 14, 2010

Do you need to win your first game?

Over half the teams have now played and to be honest - with the exception of the impressive Germans - I am pretty underwhelmed. Too many team have been overly cautious and are scared of losing rather than trying to win. As a keen amateur economist I must once again point to risk aversion - the fear of losing something weighs greater on the mind than the joy in gaining. So, the fear of losing a point prevents teams risking it all to win three (a two point gain).

How true then is the notion that you simply can't lose your first game? Let's look at the data from the last 3 World Cups to see the trends:

2006 - of the 16 teams that qualified there were 11 wins, 3 draws and 2 losses in the first game
2002 - of the 16 teams that qualified there were 9 wins, 6 draws and 1 losses in the first game
1998 - of the 16 teams that qualified there were 11 wins, 5 draws and 0 losses in the first game

The above data shows that if you lose your first game, the chance of making the last 16 based on historical (if crude) results is just 6.25%. Furthermore, in the last 3 tournaments no team has ever made the last 16 after losing to a team in round 1 that did not top the group having come into the competition as a top seed (the three advancing teams were Ghana who lost to Italy and Ukraine who lost to Spain in 2006 and Turkey who lost to Brazil in 2002).

This would suggest that Greece (lost to S Korea), Algeria (lost to Slovenia), Serbia (lost to Ghana) and Cameroon (lost to Japan) are already done.

Exclude the first seeds
If you look purely at the non-first seed results (who we would expect to win a majority of the time anyway - 88% have qualified for the last 16 in the last 3 tournaments) the results show the teams who ultimately qualified started with:

2006 - 4 wins, 2 draws, 2 losses
2002 - 4 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss
1998 - 6 wins, 3 draws, 0 losses

This backs up what we noted above that losing to a top seed is not a disaster and you can still bounce back. The chance of qualifying is now up to 12%, hardly a wild encouragement for the likes of Nigeria, Australia and Denmark.

Conventional Wisdom
It would be appear on the face of it that conventional wisdom is actually correct for once and losing your first game is indeed close to disaster. I would note however that of the progressing teams, only 30% of them drew their first game so risking a draw (30% chance) for a win (65% chance) is still a worth while best, even if you do risk losing (6% chance).

Friday, June 11, 2010

Predictions

With only hours to go until the greatest show on earth kicks off, it's time to lock in my predictions. I'm finding it hard to find too many great underdogs this year - though I'm sure they'll be some - some there's the potential for these predictions to go horribly wrong early on:

Last 16
France
Greece
England
Serbia
Netherlands
Paraguay
Brazil
Chile
Argentina
Uruguay
Germany
USA
Italy
Denmark
Spain
Cote D'Ivoire

Quarter Finals
France
Serbia
Netherlands
Brazil
Argentina
USA
Italy
Spain

Semi Final
France
Netherlands
Spain
Argentina

Final
Netherlands
Spain

Champions
Netherlands

Golden Boot
Leo Messi (dark horse Van Persie)

Biggest Surprise Team
Serbia / USA

Player that earns a big money move
Marek Hamsik / Alexis Sanchez

Monday, June 7, 2010

Strategy Proposals

I am assuming here that most of us are playing the official FIFA fantasy game and so I will focus all strategy ideas and player picks on that game.

Before we start, here's a quick run down of the key rules regarding lineups and transfers:

Transfers
  • Once the tournament kicks off, its only 1 transfer before round 2 and 1 before round 3 (without incurring a 3 point penalty) and so your squad really needs to carry you through the group stages (save for an injury or an unexpected benching).
  • After the group stages you can reload your entire team so there isn't an absolute need for your squad to be made up players challenging for the trophy. However, with the price rises, it will pay somewhat to get on board a player early who you think might make an unexpected run to the last 8 and beyond.
Substitutions
  • At the start of each day, you can replace any player in your starting eleven with a player from the bench who is yet to play (provided he wasn't sent off).
  • You do not have to replace a defender with a defender but you must always play a legal formation, so if you have only 3 defenders in your side you could not then sub out a defender for another position.
Strategy 1: Stars and Scrubs
A well documented strategy in fantasy auctions, stars and scrubs basically entails plowing all your money into a smaller number of premium players then trying to plug in some very cheap players to either simply make up the numbers, or to contribute some unexpected points.

The strategy has an element of boom or bust as a bad game or injury will really hurt you each round, whereas strategy 2 below will allow you to shift your team around after a top player lays an egg.

The upside is that with such a small number of games, longevity is not really a major issue and the 3 point transfer at least gives you an out, even if it is a bit costly.

Example team
Picking my favourite players irrespective of price and then filling in the squad with scrubs I ended up with the below, as a first effort:

GK Casillas
DF Lahm
DF A Cole
DF Cannavaro
MD Di Maria
MD Xavi
MD Sneijder
MD Ribery
FD Messi
FD Rooney
FD Van Persie
BE Maicon
BE Kaka
BE Ronaldo

I have chosen to bench those three given that they play later in the round and so I have one player at each position to bring in for whichever of my starters have a bad game.

The rest of the squad is made up of players who should get a game (D Suazo, Subotic, Kroldrup) and represent good value in case of injury or players who are the cheapest at their position.

I like this strategy and I feel that most players will use it given the outstanding names you can get in your lineup. However, the problem is that having the 'best' players will not necessarily win given the small sample size of games they play. It may therefore be beneficial to effectively have two or even three backups for each position who you can keep rotating in as your starters fail to make an impact. The idea behind this is strategy 2.

Strategy 2: Hit or Stick
The basic premise here is to build a good squad of players that are almost guaranteed to play for their respective teams and hence maximise your chances to hit home runs, in what is a comparatively small number of games for fantasy leagues.

Example Team
The key is to have players staggered across the round so the below situation can be taken advantage of:

Day 1
DF - Evra - 2 points
MD - Pienaar - 6 points

Day 2
DF - A Cole - 7 points
MD - Di Maria - 5 points
MD - Dempsey - 2 points
FW - Messi (c) - 3 points (doubled to make 6)

In this example you decide to 'hit' on Evra figuring that your deep bench will surely be able to generate better than a 2 point return. You could replace him with, say, Lahm on day 3 or Chiellini on day 4. You would stick with Pienaar after a solid game and move onto day 2.

After day 2 you are happy with Cole and Di Maria but Dempsey and particularly captain Messi flattered to deceive so you ditch them both in favour of say Van Persie (day 4) and Fernandes (day 6).

Now, there is an element of risk in this as you are actively gambling with points and so will feel worse when you lose points than when you make a correct decision and gain them. This concept is known as risk aversion and plays a key part in fantasy sports as people fear looking foolish by benching a 3 point Messi for Van Persie who ends up not playing, even though the percentages say that the move was logical.

In a 38 week season this strategy may not pay off as you might find yourself chasing points and ultimately not benefit from playing the long game on star players. However in a short competition like the world cup I think this is a great opportunity as you effectively get anywhere from 15-20 bites at the cherry to try and hit a home run. To continue the analogy you only need to hit .300 (6 for 20) at those rates to have 6 successes where as in strategy 1 you will need to hit a Ted Williams like .428 (6 for 14) to enjoy the same rate of success.

If you have absolute convictions over the star players you like in the tournament then perhaps strategy 1 is for you, but if, like me, you like around 14-18 players but struggle to pin down your golden boot or tournament favourites then strategy 2 allows for more wiggle room and flexibility.

Right now I am going to try and assemble a squad using strategy 2 and see if I can get enough good players/matchups to make it work. I will post my efforts here shortly to see how this compares with other peoples' teams, who I suspect will largely use strategy 1.

Thanks for reading and please post your comments/ideas below or tweet me @plfantasy.

You can find my ideas for top players for the tournament here

Friday, June 4, 2010

Official FIFA game is open

The official game price list is out and it makes for some interesting reading. Before delving too much into strategy I thought I'd throw out a few names of players who jump off the page as being potential bargains or players I like better than those for the same value:

Casillas 8m
lloris 6.5m
Stekelenburg 6.5m

Cole 7.5m
Chiellini 7m
Evra 7m
Van der Wiel 6.5m
Albiol 6m
Subotic 4m

Kaka 10m
Xavi 9.5m
Di Maria 8m
Lennon 7m
Fernandez 6.5m
Gourcuff 6.5m
Hamsik 6m
Dempsey 5.5m

Messi 10m
Villa 10m
Van Persie 8m
Suarez 7m
Sanchez 6m
Frei 5.5m

Keepers are valuable in the game given their extra two points for clean sheets and so I think it's worth paying extra for a premium guy. Strikers probably have slightly more value that midfielders as all players score 5 points for a goal regardless of position. However, I think that the position falls off quickly and so I will load up on two or even three top guys and go for the mid range midfield option (not unlike my favourite EPL tactic for the past season).

As for the somewhat unique transfer system, my idea right now is to play high risk-high reward guys from the start (say, Lennon, Suarez, or Pienaar) and hold a stud on the bench to bring in for whichever of those guys turns out to be a bust (Spain, Brazil and Chile work well for this). Of course to do that you will need a deep squad which will mean that you not be able to get 4 or 5 top line guys. It will be tough to balance your squad but I do think you should have at least two 1.0m players as the chance of needing your entire squad is small and the money saved can be better used elsewhere.

I'm guessing my squad will change something like 3,451,763 times before Friday so why not post your ideas below or @plfantasy and we'll see if we can get some consensus sleepers/studs for our squads.

Sleeper Team

There aren't many things I like better than prospect lists and I'm a huge sucker for 'the next big thing', spending countless hours watching high school football prospects, soccer phenoms from Brazil and college baseball. When I can combine some crystal ball gazing with the World Cup, well, it just doesn't get any better. Here then is my list of prospects to look our for this World Cup. The only rule is that you can't have been in your country's squad in the World Cup before, so a couple of these guys are household names while a couple will hopefully give you someone new to look for (depending on how much you play Football Manager or scour the internet and YouTube)

GK Hugo Lloris
Lloris has been on the world scene for several years, often tipped as the long term replacement for Edwin van der Sar or the answer to Arsene Wenger's goalkeeper woes. It's incredible to think that Fabian Barthez (yeh, remember him?!) was Les Bleus number one in 2006, preferred to the in form Gregory Coupet and young gun Mickael Landreau. Both of these have been surpassed by Lloris who has shone for Lyon and once again earned goalkeeper of the year this past season. Fantasy wise, Lloris should also be a decent pickup as a younger French back line faces good but not great opposition in Group A.

DF Raul Albiol
Not a true sleeper in that I'm sure everyone is familiar with Albiol's work but I felt he warranted inclusion here to reflect his meteoric rise to prominence. Albiol was named in ESPN's La Liga team of the year, and they sum him up well as "low profile, competitive and continuously improving". Spain have one of the better defenses around and Albiol would make a sound and cheaper option than the higher profile Carlos Puyol.

DF Giorgio Chiellini
Cannavaro might have the glory and the newly signed megadeal to play in UAE but it is Chiellini who is Italy's best defender these days. The Juventus - at least for now - defender is back in training and should be good to go for Italy's first game against Paraguay to play alongside the aforementioned Cannavaro. Over the past 6 seasons at Juventus, Chiellini has grown into one of the most consistent defenders in world football, averaging over 30 games a season and looks ready to take his place as the next great Italian defender.

DF Neven Subotic
Already heralded as the next Nemanja Vidic - even to the point where rumours suggest he will replace his fellow countryman at Old Trafford - Subotic could launch himself onto the world stage playing for an underrated Serbian team. Subotic may be familiar to any America readers given that he played at USF as well as the US U-17 National team back in 2005. He instead chose to represent his native Serbia and will partner Vidic in one of the best CB pairings in the competition.

MD Marek Hamsik
To be honest I thought I had a gem to announce here but it turns out that every one is already on the Hamsik bandwagon with multiple sources citing him as a future star and the inevitable transfers rumours already having begun. The hype is genuine from what I've seen, and this video shows the incredible versatility he brings to both his game and his goal scoring. I have not seen such goalscoring instincts in such a young player for a while and I can see him being perhaps the rising star of the tournament. Unless he is surprisingly priced I would put him as one the biggest bargains available when FIFA announce their fantasy prices tomorrow.

MD Angel Di Maria
Possibly the most exciting prospect in world football, I already rate Di Maria alongside the likes of Ribery or Robben and would consider picking him over that pair and many others, regardless of their respective value in the fantasy game. Consider therefore that Di Maria will likely be cheaper than his more famous counterparts and you have yourself bargain and probably a differentiator (at least over Joe Sixpack anyway).

MD Matias Fernandez
I've been hearing about Fernandez for some time, and I was thrilled when he got his move to Villarreal. Things didn't really pan out though and he moved to Sporting before this season. He is supremely talented though and is playing for a good Chile side who should enjoy success against Honduras and Switzerland and are my pick to progress through Group H.

MD Yoann Gourcuff
I absolutely love Gourcuff and I hope beyond pretty much all players in the world that he makes his way to England this summer, ideally to play for Arsenal (even if that does mean losing my beloved Cesc to Barcelona). Touted as another "next Zidane" I think that Gourcuff might actually live up to some of the hype this summer and could lead a fantasy team to glory as I think France as a whole are better than some are giving them credit for.

MD Mesut Ozil
Losing Ballack is a blow for the World Cup but he isn't the talent he once was and his absence might pave the way for Ozil to shine. Ozil is as talented as any other young player in the world and enjoyed a great season for Werder notching 9 goals in 31 league appearances to help guide them to a 3rd place finish. His sole international goal came against South Africa and I think he will enjoy further success playing there this summer.

FW Alexis Sanchez
El Nino Maravilla (the Wonder Boy) still reminds me a bit of a 2005 rather 2008 Cristiano Ronaldo in that his tricks seem to outweigh his end product, but nevertheless his natural talent is unquestionable. Already one of the best dribblers in the world, he will cause any defense problems and should form an exciting trio with the aforementioned Matias Fernandez and Humberto Suazo, who enjoyed some success in the second half of the season with Zaragoza. Sanchez will probably be a bit frustrating to watch and the end might not always equals the means, but boy will you have fun rooting for him along the way.

FW Luis Suarez
Granted there have been a few players from the Eredivisie who have brought great goalscoring records to one of the bigger clubs in Europe and failed to hit the big time (Kuyt, Kezman, Alves) but nor did those players have the kind of natural ability and flare that Suarez enjoys. He can score from anywhere while showing a gift for scoring the easy ones too on the way to his insane 74 in 97 record for Ajax. Uruguay have a tough group and if history is anything to go by will likely fall at the first hurdle (no home nation has ever failed to escape their group) but Suarez is still a good pick for the first three games as none of his opponents have an elite defensive unit. He should be a level below the cost of Europe's top strikers allowing you to bring in a couple of premium players by saving some cash here if FIFA haven't caught onto the hype yet.

Honourable Mention/Bench

Simon Kjaer - almost made the starting XI but injury brings into question his place at the tournament.
Ramires - a better player in real life than fantasy, he would have cracked the XI had this been a real team. His endurance and tackling are a microcosm as what is good about the new look Brazil.
Juan Mata - I love this guy's talent but I fear he won't play enough to generate fantasy consideration. I felt he warranted mention though.
Thomas Muller - Muller exploded this year playing in all 34 Bundesliga matches to help Bayern secure their domestic double. Like Mata I feel he won't generate enough minutes to be a superstar but worth looking out for nonetheless.
Pedro - enjoyed an astonishing season for star studded Barcelona becoming the first player to score in six competitions in a single season. Again, likely won't get enough minutes to be a star but might have an impact off the bench for tournament favorites Spain.

Do you think I've missed anyone? Are there any stars you think are ready to explode? Please post your thoughts below or @plfantasy and we'll discuss.

A visit from the future


Get your bets in now guys, Doc Brown has fired up the old Delorian and left us a treat on the Sky Sports website. The highly anticipated England-US game is going to finish 2-2.
For reference, Bet365 are quoting 22-1 (+2200) on that result.