Crystal Palace defender Aaron Wan-Bissaka has been in the spotlight for his performances this season. But how much of that attention is down to Fantasy League?
Everybody is talking about Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Aged just 20, the Croydon-born Crystal Palace defender has started the season as Roy Hodgson’s first-choice right-back, helping his side to three clean sheets in five appearances.
At the end of August, Hodgson called his defender “a very good player”, expressing satisfaction (but not surprise) at the youngster’s first England U21s call-up.
But there’s another important element to Wan-Bissaka’s story, and this element has very little to do with the Palace defender or his on-pitch performances.
Rather, it has to do with the internet.
At the beginning of the season, Wan-Bissaka was assigned a £4.0m value on Fantasy Premier League, the official fantasy game of the EPL. That valuation made him the joint lowest-priced player on the database alongside the likes of Yohan Benalouane, Jan Bednarek and Palace team-mate Martin Kelly.
Unlike those reserve defenders, however, Wan-Bissaka began the season as a starter, outdoing Palace’s previous first-choice right-back Joel Ward in every relevant metric.
His price and first-team status quickly earned him cult status among FPL managers, and he was even included in ‘The Scout’s XI’ for Gameweek 1 on the official FPL website.
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“Five starts over the summer friendlies suggest the youngster has secured a starting role for Crystal Palace’s trip to Fulham,” The Scout wrote ahead of the first round of fixtures.
Wan-Bissaka didn’t disappoint the tipsters — nor real-life Palace fans, who saw their locally grown talent put in a strong performance in the opening match at Fulham.
A red card in his next game put the brakes on the hype somewhat, but the full-back has picked up where he left off in his three games since suspension.
On the whole, Wan-Bissaka has excelled in a Palace side that has — somewhat surprisingly — proved resolute in defence this season.
What is particularly fascinating about Wan-Bissaka’s ascent is how the lines are being blurred between real-life football and FPL results.
Wan-Bissaka’s performances have no doubt been impressive — whether they merit ‘Bonus Points’ or not — but it’s hard to find a discussion of the talented full-back that doesn’t point to his prominence in the FPL world.
A Sky Sports profile on the England youngster, which ostensibly had nothing to do with online games, couldn’t help noting that he had become “a Fantasy Football player’s favourite” after an assist and clean sheet at Craven Cottage.
Even when there is no explicit mention of FPL, it’s clear that Wan-Bissaka’s point-scoring on the fantasy game — not to mention his notable £4.0m price tag — has raised his profile to some extent.
Virtually every follower of the Premier League knows about the young defender.
Moreover, the 1.6 million ‘managers’ who currently have him in their teams are actively keeping an eye on his performances, even willing him on to success.
In other words, Wan-Bissaka’s real-world performances have earned him headlines, while his cult FPL status has guaranteed genuine interest in those stories.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka has the most bonus points in Fantasy Premier League this season, tied with Marcos Alonso (9).
— FPL Fantasy Football (@FantasyFPundit) September 23, 2018
Of course, real football is much more important than its fantasy equivalent for the majority of fans, but one indicator of how FPL may have inflated the hype around Wan-Bissaka is the relative lack of coverage of his defensive team-mates — each of whom has contributed his fair share to the team’s defensive solidity.
Take Palace’s full-back on the other side of the pitch, for example. Patrick van Aanholt’s contributions to Palace’s decent start (three clean sheets, just like Wan-Bissaka; one assist against Fulham, just like Wan-Bissaka) have gone under the radar somewhat.
This is slightly ironic since the Dutchman was himself once an FPL must-have, and remains a very public advocate of the online game. (He even hosts a popular public Mini League.)
The prioritisation of the younger of the two full-backs can be partly attributed to Wan-Bissaka’s more recent emergence.
Van Aanholt, who has had his fair share of the limelight in recent years, has been playing in the Premier League since the 2009-10 season; he is clearly less of a news story than Croydon’s new favourite son.
But 28-year-old Van Aanholt is of lesser public concern for other reasons: owned by just 260,000 FPL managers, mainly due to his much higher price tag of £5.5m, Van Aanholt’s performances have less consequence for neutrals — many of whom would have little interest in a game like Fulham vs Palace were it not for the presence of the potentially point-scoring Wan-Bissaka.
All this is to say that, while Wan-Bissaka’s emergence has been a fascinating one, the nature of the discourse around him has been equally interesting.
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With more Premier League fans playing FPL than ever before, interest in a footballer can now be boosted — to some degree or other — by a player’s performance (and price) in fantasy league.
In the same way that the Football Manager computer game has defined the careers of unremarkable players like Cherno Samba (15 real-life career goals) and Tonton Zola Moukoko, FPL is now shaping the public discourse around Premier League newbies.
Wan-Bissaka may yet enjoy a distinguished career in elite football, and it appears he has all the necessary tools for doing so.
One thing is for certain, however: when the youngster’s FPL price rises way above the £4.0m mark next season, part of the buzz around him will be dampened.
Less committed Premier League followers will take their eyes off the Palace starlet, another modestly priced cult hero will emerge and Wan-Bissaka will follow Van Aanholt into mid-priced FPL obscurity.