The Spirit of Ranieri's Ghost

Three months ago I wrote about a remarkable Fantasy Football Team, Ranieri’s Ghost. At that time, the manager, Julian Zipparo, was at the top of the League.
The season is over now and Julian finished with a global ranking of 6th. I am fascinated by Julian’s success and so have asked him to write a guest post for Clyde Street.
I think there are some great lessons here for all performance directors.
Here is Julian’s post.

How to be good at EPL Fantasy Football… in just 23 years

I remember developing a love of football during the Italia 90 World Cup. There were several things that appealed to me about it, but in particular the history, culture and stories that went along with each of the teams and players seemed to resonate for some reason. At that time, Maradona was both a mythical figure and a ridiculous soap opera…and a team like Italy, who had the weight of expectations that come from hosting the tournament, somehow managed to not concede a goal until the final 20 minutes of the semi-final, and yet still not win! You couldn’t make it up (but if you follow Italy, you know full well how they are capable of the most improbable result at any given time).
The reason I never seemed to tire of football over time is the same…though the faces change (apart from Sir Alex Ferguson’s I suppose, until now) the culture, history and associated stories continue to develop year on year. Some clubs are good at playing against the best teams, but are seemingly a different team when facing weak opposition…some, like Wigan Athletic until this year seem to manage to scrape life out of the jaws of relegation death year upon year…some of the rivalry games produce unimaginable drama and have all sorts of underlying cultural and socio-political contexts…and so on…
So fast forward to 2013, and all of a sudden (!) I developed a bit of a knack for fantasy football. The game involves picking and managing a team of individual players from actual clubs (who have assigned values, like a real life salary cap) who are given a weekly amount of points based on how they perform (i.e. if they score or set up a goal, don’t concede goals, play for a certain amount of time etc.). It’s essentially a prediction game and your score depends on how well you can predict some of the outcomes of actual matches (in this case in the English Premier League).
What I love about it is the infinite complexity (if you want such complexity, that is). If you enjoy looking at performance analysis and statistics, such as those you can find through Opta or my favourite, and if you have an interest in probability (which for sports you can gather just by looking at any bookmaker’s website), then you’ll likely be good at fantasy games. But, as you’d see if you visit the aforementioned Scout website during the English football season, there are plenty of people who fit that bill and who seem to spend a good amount of time each week (just like I do) thinking about what might happen during the games of the upcoming weekend. So how can one possibly stand a chance of winning in a competition like this when there are 2.6 million players?
Somehow I was fortunate enough to be ranked #1 for 8 weeks of this season, and to be in the top 3 for 18 weeks of the 38 that make it up. Obviously luck plays a part in that, after all how many times during a season did my opponents players hit the post instead of score for example, but in addition, looking back, I think what I did well (and maybe a little differently to most others) was to take some calculated risks based on being familiar with both the underlying performance analysis info and the broader context of football.
200px-Luis_Suarez_slide_Liverpool_vs_Bolton_2011Here’s what I mean… If you do spend a good amount of time combing through statistics or match reports and thinking about forthcoming games, you will inevitably come to certain logical conclusions about what to do…for example, Luis Suarez of Liverpool is playing at his home ground this weekend, against a side who concede a lot of goals…he takes more shots at goal per game than anybody in the league by a long margin, and he is ‘in form’ having scored in 3 of his last 4 games. Compared to the other options such calculations make him the most probable person to score or be involved in goals this weekend, and the bookies will more than likely agree with you. BUT, what that sort of logic doesn’t factor in is the myriad of non-quantifiables… for example, Liverpool are a hit and miss team, at times during a season they seem just as likely to win 5-0 as they are to have a nil-all draw or an unlikely upset loss (with Suarez at times appearing as likely to score a hat trick in a game as he is to get sent off for losing his composure and doing something insane).
What’s more, there is obviously a psychological component to every individual’s performance…one simple example of that is Dimitar Berbatov, the Fulham striker. He is an incredibly gifted player, but he plays in a team who by a certain point in the season are lying mid-table with essentially nothing to play for (their title aspirations are non-existent and the threat of relegation is gone). He also arguably has no competition/insecurity for his place as striker in the team – the coach would be considered a nut to leave him out – and he has a long term contract… how motivated and likely is he really to perform, despite any underlying statistics that make it seem likely?
But wait there’s more…going back to the idea of the stories and culture of football over time… there seems to be a higher likelihood of players scoring goals when they are playing against their former clubs (and now there’s an associated ‘thing’ about them showing their respect by not celebrating their goal), for example Gareth Bale against Southampton or Van Persie against Arsenal this year (Rooney against Everton is an exception to this I think).
Baggies 2 - Wolves 0
However, most hardcore football fans will know these things over time too …
What I think I managed to do to differentiate myself from others this year, was to gamble at times on when the most likely and obvious outcome was actually NOT going to happen. For example, there were several weeks when Robin Van Persie, the leading goalscorer of the league playing in the best team was a ‘no-brainer’ choice to score highly (and so was the ‘correct’ person to choose as your teams weekly captain – meaning he will receive double the points), and so the many people who knew that behaved accordingly and captained him on any number of occasions. Fortunately for me, I managed to pick a few occasions when that highly probable outcome didn’t actually eventuate. Coupled with that, I was lucky enough to guess when something that appeared less probable – in particular when coupled with the aforementioned obvious choice – did happen…like Marouane Fellaini of Everton scoring two goals against Aston Villa in February though he hadn’t scored for 6 games before that. My rationale was, if the obvious does happen, then I will be one of many who scores well, but if the less likely scenario eventuates even a few times, then I’ll move up the rankings. What’s more, if you look through the weekly highest scorers of the game, it inevitably throws up some unlikely names every week.
That said, I managed (ironically a bit like Italy) to do so many things right throughout the season, and yet make a couple of decisions when it came to the finish line which meant I did not win. One thing I learnt looking back at it, is that it’s far easier to take ‘calculated risks’ when there is nothing on the line! When faced with the prospect of a fairly valuable and exciting prize and the hopes of your very patient and supportive partner, and nice friends and family, it becomes much harder not to just take the more logical ‘low-risk’ choice. In addition, as I learned the hard way in week 33 when my second attempt at the risky Fellaini captaincy showed, the calculated risk does often get beaten by the logical choice, so the odds of picking the unlikely outcome appear to decline the more you take it (…why the bookies always win in the end).
It also became difficult not to look over the shoulder and make my decisions without trying to second guess what my advancing opponents were doing. Even thinking the way I did about Berbatov for example, I transferred him into my team because the person I considered my main rival Kelvin had him during a ‘double gameweek’ (where some teams play midweek and therefore on two occasions in any one week)…he invariably went on to look unmotivated and not score – for six games in a row! On a second such occasion toward the final weeks, I made additional moves with my team by making extra transfers at the cost of points, when the right move would have been to make no move at all (an interesting related article from the NY Times on that principle here).
Perhaps the most fundamental mistake I made was to start watching the games (here’s the cruel irony). Being timed at around 2am on Sunday mornings in Australia, things seemed to work when I had some emotional distance from it all which came with looking purely at highlights and stats for most of the season… but when it came to the final few weeks, I just couldn’t look away!

Photo Credits

Gilberto takes the penalty (Timothy Boyd, CC BY 2.0)
Suarez getting stuck in (Danny Molyneux, CC  BY 2.0)
Baggies 2 – Wolves 0 (Beacon Radio, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Wolves 1 West Brom 5 (Beacon Radio, CC BY-NC 2.0)



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