Around this time last year we did a post entitled 'Yaya Toure Ate My Bonus Points' in which we pointed out how the Ivorian’s dominance of the Bonus Point System put him pole position for maximum bonus in FPL, even if he only scored an assist whilst other players scored goals. Later in the season we had another post on Toure, this time called 'Yaya Toure Ate My Fantasy Football'. By this point, YYT was dominating not just bonus points but everything else too. He was well on the way to his 20 goal season and becoming the second highest scoring player in FPL behind Luis Suarez. By the way, if anyone's wondering about for these "eating" post titles inspiration comes from the 80's computer game 'Rockstar Ate My Hamster' :)
After three goal plus assist performances in his first five games of the season for Manchester United, many are now asking is Angel Di Maria going to be this year’s Yaya Toure? If so, he’d be deemed near essential for fantasy teams, regardless of the price rises. If not, however, he could suck up £1m or so out of your budget as well as further "equalising" your team with everyone elses.
A Fine Start
If you have already snapped Di Maria up at £9.5M, or close, then you can be pretty pleased with yourself, especially if you have the majority of his 43 points in the bank. Those who didn’t buy though will now be asking if they should just go with the flow and bring him in. It’s an important decision. Using our own team as an example, we’d be faced with selling one of Fabregas or Sterling if we wanted to make a straight swap to sign Di Mara. Not decisions to make lightly. Or we’d have to sell Aguero and then upgrade from either Chadli or Sigurdsson. Again, not a straightforward decision. We’d only go ahead with one of these transfers if we saw a definite case that Di Maria was going to score significantly more points, say 30-40, than other elite midfield options, Yaya Touresque, and from this point on.
Pause & Rewind
Towards the end of the summer transfer window one of the England’s most respected and successful football clubs opened its purse-strings in an attempt to re-establish itself at the pinnacle of the Premier League’s elite. Breaking their record transfer fee, they signed one of the most coveted creative midfielders in the world from Real Madrid. The player was an instant hit. Scoring twice and picking up 3 assists in his first 5 games. Managers of fantasy football teams justifiably went mad for the player. Despite an initial starting price in FPL higher than most of his peers his ownership was up around 10% before he’d even kicked a ball He scored 39 points in those first 5 games and acquired a million owners in FPL along the way. The year was 2013 and the player was Mesut Ozil.
Fast forward to this season and the parallels between Ozil and Di Maria are quite striking. He is Manchester United’s record signing, a world class creative midfielder, and signed from Real Madrid. Like Ozil, he's arrived in the Premier League with a career history of assists rather than goals but, nonetheless, has scored 43 points from his first 5 games and has earned himself a similar level of interest in fantasy football with an ownership of over a million managers and rising fast in Fantasy Premier League.
Ozil 2013/14 vs Di Maria 2014/15
The underlying stats and shooing/key pass profile are very similar between Di Maria and Ozil's first 5 games last season . Using our expected goal data we’ve clocked Di Maria at an expected goals value (xG) of 0.94 from 5 games or 0.19 per game. Similarly his xA (expected assists) is 2.32, or 0.46 per game. In his first 5 games last season Ozil’s xG and xA were 0.16 and 0.39 respectively. Ozil enjoyed his early success against weak opposition, playing Swansea, Stoke, WBA, Norwich, Sunderland (the Di Canio version). Similarly, Manchester United have faced all three promoted teams QPR, Leicester, Burnley, as well as West Ham and an off-colour Everton (Di Maria vs Tony Hibbert – nice).
Ozil started life in an Arsenal shirt on fire, and in good enough form that he topped our 6 week point projections at the time. In that post, and based on Ozil’s early form, we projected the player to go on and score 215 points last season. Injury disrupted this, but based only on games where he played 60 minutes or more, his 5.4 PPG season form would have been good enough for a 189 point season. Our projection was not too far off, and the over-estimation was no doubt due to being based on above-average performances in those aforementioned first easy fixtures. As you can see from the graphic above Ozil's final points per game (PPG) and goal and assist threat (xG / xA) mellowed over the course of the season.
Yaya Toure's performance last season has to the benchmark for any elite midfielder for your fantasy team, and before him Gareth Bale. These guys scored close to 250 points in FPL and were head and shoulders above their peers in FPL. The next best after Toure last year were Eden Hazard (202 pts) and Steven Gerrard (205 pts). You then have to go quite some way to Adam Lallana (178). Further away still were David Silva and Nasri on 151 and 155 points respectively. Silva, however, missed large parts of the season with injury, and would have scored over 200 points if he'd played the full season. And this brings us to another important factor; gametime. Whether players miss games through injury or through rotation, being on the pitch is almost as important as anything else. FPL rarely get their pricing wrong. If a player is priced around the £9M mark you know he's at a big club and has an attacking role and/or a good track-record in fantasy football. The chart below shows points scored versus minutes played for all midfielders over £8M last season (the blue dots). The green dots are players priced between £6M and £8M.
You can see the relationship between playing time and total points scored for Elite midfielders is very linear. These guys all score at a remarkably consistent rate with one another. In fact, they'd all score close to 200 points if they played a full season. It's is only YYT who breaks the trend and pushes on to the next level. So what made him so special? Well, mostly it was penalties. This, plus a decent goal threat from open play, and in a team that would go on to score 100 goals and win the league. Sill, take away the 6 penalty goals and he'd end up closer to the 200 point mark with the others. His overall point scoring potential can be seen in his average expected goal and assist numbers for the season; his xG per game was 0.35, whereas his xA was 0.12. His goal threat was triple that of Ozil's eventual season average of 0.10 xG per game. Yaya's threat profile as seen below is a totally different "shape" to that of Ozil and Di Maria, and this kinds of profile is what we are looking for from top-scoring fantasy midfielders.
Back to the Future
So, what does all this mean for Di Maria and his prospects going forward? There can be little argument that he’s benefited from a bounty of points and strong xG & xA performance from United’s easy fixture list so far this season. We've obviously compared between Di Maria and Mesut Ozil's fine start last season for a reason. Ozil's form eventually leveled out to match that of your stereotypical elite midfielder by season end. We think Di Maria's underlying stats, points scored and ease of schedule so far are eerily similar to Ozil's last year, and that drawing a parallel between Di Maria and the German is much more appropriate than comparing the Argentine with a 2013/14 vintage Yaya Toure. Like Bale, and in previous years Lampard, Ronaldo, etc.Toure's display was a bit special. It probably won't happen again this year.
Indeed, of the current crop of elite midfielders, we'd expect those who stay fit to play 33+ games this season to all to finish somewhere between 175 and 200 points. Raheem Sterling and Aaron Ramsey are the only two we can see really blitzing the 200 point barrier based on current evidence. A big plus in Di Maria's favor over other elite mids however is he will be completely free from rotation with Manchester United out of European competition this season. This will also mean less fixture congestion and less chance to pick up injuries and thus every chance he'll play every remaining fixture this season. Performances from the opening games have been very promising too, and better than Ozil's own fine start last season.
If you follow are weekly newsletter you'll recall we have Di Maria ranked 4th amongst elite midfielders, currently behind Sterling, Ramsey and Fabregas. We're thinking about bumping him up ahead of Fabregas in the GW8 issue but aren't quite sure yet (we probably will). We don't think he's must-have though. We think he's benefited from a good run of games and that his underlying stats (xG/xA) do not suggest he'll continue scoring goals at the rate he has done so far. The next 3 fixtures for Manchester United will go some way to proving if we were right or wrong about this. West Brom away will not be easy for United but the real challenge will be against Chelsea and then Man City in gameweek's 9 and 10. If Di Maria can maintain a similar level of threat through these next 3 games we can certainly see him being a real contender to be the very top scoring midfielder this season.
The worst case for any potential buyer of Di Maria at this point though is that we've seen the best of him. Like Özil after 5 games last season; he's peaked.This is actually one of the biggest pitfalls of any fantasy football team, especially with the big budget players. Consider Ozil's form after GW8 last season dropped from 7.8 PPG to 4.8 PPG, and by this time his price was up to £10.7M. This is frankly a huge reducer for you team, and, having concluded Di Maria is not this year's Yaya Toure, we're happy to take a 'wait and see' apporach over Di Maria in FPL this season.