Seasons are made or broken before they even begin.

If a league is like a marathon, as cliches go, then this would be the time you decide on what running gear to buy, how much to carbo-load and choosing the right Vaseline to prevent chaffing. How well you run constitutes only 50% of the race, how you maximise this ability to run against external variables like terrain, weather, fatigue and lack of drinking booths make up the 50%.

This happens in football too. It is called the pre-season. As Jose Mourinho and Chelsea can attest, you can go from champions to 10th place within a season, with almost a similar squad, simply by taking pre-season lightly.

Pre-season preparations are highly essential then, make no mistakes about it. This is when foundations for the grueling campaign ahead are laid, long-term strategy put in place and potentially high-performing players identified. I’m talking about FPL, of course.

On the flip side, there are the over-enthusiastic managers, both in the real world and also the armchair managers of FPL, who tend to over-think and over-tinker. They are prone to second, third or fourth guessing themselves and drown themselves in as much information as possible simply because they don’t want to miss out on anything, without a filter to sort the relevance of such information. Most of the time, they end up like chefs overcooking a meal which was just fine to begin with.

Pre-season can be a dangerous time for managers of this ilk. Pre-season is when all sorts of unpredictable variables come up to affect our thinking when putting up squads. Potential moves in the transfer market, players coming back from long injuries, new players settling into teams, old players angling for a move away, new managers coming in, players building up fitness for new season, and many more. This is compounded by the fact that last season’s form and records are essentially wiped out and are unreliable as we move towards a fresh campaign.

Also, be wary of the hype generated by pre-season friendly matches. Many veterans of the game would be able to personally attest to star players during the friendly games who turn into the biggest pieces of lemon the minute the competitive matches roll in. Pre-season games can be as misleading as that Thai cutie with long legs and C-cups winking at you in Soi Bangla, Phuket.

So where to begin? What would be the middle ground then, to prepare adequately yet to stay sensible amidst the noise and chaos of pre-season?

Well, this is by no means expert advice, but here’s my attempt at putting together what I believe to be my very own pre-season guide to starting strong. Without further ado, I bring to you, my 5 Tips To Starting Up when building up your team at this stage:

1. Growing a Spine

This is both literal and metaphorical.

Literally, you need to fill up the heavy-hitters to form the base, or “spine” of your team. Maybe 1 or 2 premium defenders, 2 premium midfielders and 1 or 2 premium strikers. Once that is done, you would be in a better position to gauge the value of your team and remaining mid-range or cheap players to fill in.

Metaphorically, this means that you have to be brave. In an ideal world, we would all love to cram in Kun, Ibra, Kane, Vardy and Sturridge into 1 team. But, budget and squad structure does not allow. So we would need to be brave to make the tough decisions. To cut out certain big names even if it means having to watch games involving them from behind the sofa. Grow a spine, son.

If you were to check out the awesome Fantasy Football Geek site which I usually rely on for good analysis and spot-on predictions, Geek (the author) advocates splitting your team into 3 categories: the core, the fixture-based players and the rotation defence. (See: http://www.fantasyfootballgeek.co.uk/fantasy-premier-league-team-selection-another-draft-team-thoughts-far/). This ‘spine’ I am talking about is akin to the ‘core’ he mentions.

All teams need a core, a spine. Like a body, a team without a spine cannot function or move. You may end up too heavy up-top, or get too bloated in midfield or invest too much in the backline. Always have a spine where your team should grow from there. Don’t be too daunted at the prospect of filling up 15 player slots all at once. Fill it up with your spine first, then the rest will follow.

2. Don’t Bet On Any Horses Yet (Team Coverage)

One may be tempted to load up on good players from a particularly strong team, e.g. Manchester United or Man City of this season (no thanks to the raft of star players combined with Jose and Pep). Don’t.

As mentioned earlier, things can go pear-shaped from mangosteen in a blink of an eye when seasons begin. Anyone who loaded up on Hazard, Ivanovic and Costa at the beginning of last season can attest.

Instead, try to spread your heavy-hitters into as many big teams as possible, bearing in mind fixtures and European commitments. This way, your exposure to failing attacks or leaky defences may not have such a big impact on your team.

It is also relevant for people loading up on value players from the smaller teams. Many, this season, are going for double West Brom defensive coverage, opting for Ben Foster and either Evans or McAuley in defence. This is tempting, given that it’s a stingy Tony Pulis team with relatively good opening fixtures. I would still caution against it. At least in the opening stages. If it seems that West Brom has indeed become the strong defensive team that many predict it to be, then you can always jump on that bandwagon later. 1 or 2 missed defensive points haul is a reasonable price to pay for having more information.

Always remember, 3 players out of 15 is already 1/5th of your squad. Spread your teams evenly.

3. Don’t Spread (Team Value)

This advice may sound like something you’d tell someone about to go to prison, but it is very crucial during the opening stages of an FPL season not to spread too much.

But in Rule 2 you just asked us to spread team coverage, didn’t you, I hear you say? Yes, spread team coverage, not value. Allow me to explain.

Many are tempted to go for a very balanced team approach when it comes to spending their initial 100.0 budget. They spread their cash as nicely as possible into different areas, making sure they don’t over-splurge on any one player. As a result, they have a great team of all average to above average players, thinking it is very safe. This is a wrong approach, at least in the beginning stages.

Contrary to popular belief, a too-balanced team is bad because you need multiple moves in order to free up cash for an immediate upgrade. E.g. if all your mids are 7.5, the minute 1 of them gets injured or is dropped, you are limited to replacing him with another 7.5 player only. If you have your eye on a 9.0 or 10.0 player who you feel is going run in price due to a large bandwagon,  you may potentially need to sell 3 of your 7.5 players in order to readjust your finances to afford a 10.0 plus maybe a 6.5 and a 8.0?

Another way to look at it would be to have one or two “fixed deposits” or FDs, as how I’d call it. What’s an FD? Well, in real-life they refer to a long term savings which collects interest but is essentially there for you to break and use, if needs be. In FPL terms, these would be expensive premium players where you can immediately sell and be awashed with cash to make any emergency upgrades. It saves you multiple moves. Imagine having to sell 1 Aguero (at 13.0) due to, say, his wonky hamstrings. You immediately can buy ANY striker in the game with cash to spare for the next transfer.

Thus, always create FD’s. Especially in attack.

4. Absorb, But Don’t Drown Yourself

As mentioned earlier, pre-season chatter and noise can drown those who are not careful to filter information. This is the time when optimism is high (in all teams), the press are buzzing and all manner of experts are out of the woodwork giving their 2, 3 cents worth of punts and predictions.

On one hand, staying inside your home and shutting yourself off from all pre-season chatter and noise is stupid because you are going into the season blind. On the other hand, too much information can sometimes be worse than having none at all. One must be clever to walk the line delicately. To do that, one must bear a few things in mind.

Firstly, have a few good reliable sources from which you draw your information on. There are thousands, if not millions, of websites offering news, info, advice, tips, predictions, and more. Be very discerning which site you read.

I only have a few sources of FPL news, and I find them to be very great reads within an express time. They are the aforementioned Fantasy Football Geek site, the very popular Fantasy Football Scout (http://www.fantasyfootballscout.co.uk/), the very engrossing Transfer Hub by Triggerlips (https://www.triggerlips.com/) and I listen to the Hail Cheaters podcast by the entertaining Brandon and Josh (http://www.alwayscheating.com/). Those are good sites to chunk thoughts and FPL options available.

Over the season, I also rely on what I’d call statistics sites such as  Total FPL (http://totalfpl.com/) and FPL Statistics (http://www.fplstatistics.co.uk/) for price rise/fall predictors and (http://anewpla.net/fpl/live/) for live BPS scores.

Those are ALL that I read / listen to.

Secondly, you need to know EXACTLY what you want when you visit those sites. Don’t get too caught up in the comments section where many a time you will find contradictory views and info that will leave you tied up in knots. Know what is it you need info on, get it, and then let the other news and comments be harmless chatter at the side.

Relying on such sites are good aggregators of info. It is almost impossible for you to personally scour team news and lineups from every team’s websites. It is also impossible for you to personally crunch the math from OPTA stats and the million and one other stats that are available on every game. Not unless you don’t have a job. Or life. If you are, like me, someone who takes FPL seriously but only as a hobby or interest, and you don’t FPL for a living, then you don’t have time to crunch the numbers and do all that work yourself.

Rely on the aggregate knowledge of the masses for it. There are dedicated and highly intelligent people out there who have crunched the numbers and so kindly shared it with the FPL world out there. Your job is to find it. Benefit from the great work already put in by our FPL friends.

Speaking of aggregate knowledge, there is a value in crowd wisdom. Whilst we may try to have one or 2 punts or gambles, by and large the game is won or lost through steady strategy and the firm, predictable performances of the strong players. Use crowd wisdom to select 50-50 captaincy calls. Use crowd wisdom to dump or pick up a popular player. Rely on polls such as the Transfer Hub or Fantasy Football Scout one. They can be very reliable.

5. Be Prepared for the Unpredictable

This advice may sound counter-intuitive, because how can you prepare for something that you cannot predict, right? Wrong.

You don’t, and you can’t, prepare for something you don’t know. However, you can prepare for the fact that something you don’t know may occur. Which it will. So that when it does occur, you are not caught flat-footed or like a deer in headlights or, as Sonny Corleone would say, “standing there holding your dick in your hands”.

So how does it apply to fantasy in pre-season?

You have a gameplan, but you must always be flexible enough to change or modify it. Not having a gameplan is suicidal and you are akin to a plastic bag that just floats in the wind, but at the same time, do not fall into the trap of sticking to a gameplan too religiously. You need to be prepared to rip up all well-laid plans at the drop of a pin.

I’ve read many players planning to build 3 gameweek teams only to wildcard during the 1st international break and so on and so forth. Sounds good on paper. But as we all know, in a game of paper-scissors-stone, you don’t always get paper. You must be prepared to deal with rock and scissors too. This game is very unpredictable.

If I can give only one advice on how to prepare for the unpredictable, it is to invest in preparedness. Be ready to change, be ready to roll with the punches and just be ready. A good example would be to always set a provisional team early or mid week before your planned transfers. Why? You never know when an emergency might rob away your Friday and Saturday and you could be caught with a team that is not ready for the next gameweek. Just set your team first, set your Captain and then get on with life. You can tinker and still make transfers next Friday or Saturday itself, but at least in the worst case scenario you have already set it.

Another example would be to factor in things like setting FPL team whenever you’re going away for the weekend or have something major coming up. FPL is a marathon, not a sprint. Therefore, being 101% tuned on and playing vigorously for 3 months and then nothing for the next 3 months is NOT the way to play this game. Don’t give yourself a burn-out early or midway through the game. Just pace yourself, take it easy and always have FPL at the back of your mind in the next 10 months.

Lastly, remember that it’s just a game. Have fun. You can’t control whether you’d do well or tank badly in any given gameweek. All that planning and tinkering can end up with shit points and sometimes you may even breach the 100 point mark by not doing anything. Luck is something which swings randomly. Be aware of it and just enjoy the flow.

Good luck, gentlemen.

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