How the 2000s changed tactics #7: Squad rotation

January 28, 2010

Although this doesn’t directly concern on-field tactics, the concept of squad rotation has become almost mandatory for the top sides in Europe, and has a large impact on the team selection of the managers concerned.

In 1980/81, Aston Villa won the league, their first title for 71 years. The most remarkable statistic was not their points total, their ‘goals scored’ or ‘goals against’ column, it was the number of players they used. In 42 league games, they used just 14 players – a number which today would be equalled by most Premiership sides within one match. Bremner, Cowans, Deacy, Evans, Geddis, Gibson, McNaught, Morley, Mortimer, Rimmer, Shaw, Swains, Williams, Withe. Count them – 14 players. Seven of them started all 42 matches.

How many players do you think Sir Alex Ferguson used as Manchester United won the title last season (2008/09)? Have a guess – answer at the bottom.

Indeed, Ferguson has revolutionised the squad game on two separate ocassions, in the two seasons United have won the Champions League. In 1998/99, United were the first side to effectively have four strikers worthy of a first-team place – Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole had a great partnership, but Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were arguably better footballers, meaning Ferguson could rest his first-choice players without a loss in quality. Even in the FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal at Villa Park, Ferguson was confident enough to leave out his stars – Andy Cole wasn’t in the squad, whilst Paul Scholes, Dwight Yorke and Ryan Giggs – who would come on and score that goal – were all on the bench.

This concept effectively set the tone for the next decade, but then, when they won both the league and Champions League in 2007/08, United upped the ante again. Amazingly, they didn’t name an unchanged side the whole season – there was, in effect, no established first choice XI, and yet they still managed to be victorious in the biggest two competitions.

A similar concept is supported by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side. This season, they too haven’t gone unchanged all season – and Guardiola has only named the same combination of players twice in the league. Rafa Benitez has constantly been criticized at Liverpool for rotating his players, but it’s not the rotation that is the problem – it is the lack of depth in the squad and the lack of quality in the first team when Gerrard and Torres aren’t playing, which means the rotation doesn’t work.

So why has rotation become such a key feature?

Firstly, the expansion of the Champions League means the big sides play more games, which inevitably results in tired players, and means you can’t start with the same line-up every game. (Indeed, the season after Villa won the league with 14 players, they went on to win the European Cup – but the extra games were to the detriment of their domestic form, and they only finished in 11th place.) If you want to compete on multiple fronts, you’re going to play up to 60 games a season, and it’s near-impossible for all but the very top athletes to perform to their best that frequently.

The main reason, of course, is the increased pace and intensity of modern football, which puts huge demands on footballers. Perhaps a misconception is that players are rested solely so they don’t become ‘tired’. Tired is the wrong word to use – implying that the players are in some way unfit, or incapable of lasting the 90 minutes. It is more that they are unable to play every game at 100% intensity. It is far better to have two players rotating, and therefore able to give 100% each time they play, than to have a player able to get through each minute of each game, but doing so playing at only 70% of his ability.

As Rui Faria, Jose Mourinho’s trusted fitness coach (left), explains:

“To do rotation you need to think about two or three games at the same time. Normally you change three players, four maximum, without losing the structure and balance of the team. A left-back for a left-back, a right-winger for a right-winger. The question is to know your team well and the performance of the player in that moment.”

Another reason for changing teams is that players are more frequently injured today, because they are fitter than ever before. This might seem like a contradiction – but use the analogy of a Formula 1 car, where about one-quarter break down each Grand Prix, which is held over the course of about 200 miles. And yet, if you drove your Ford Focus between Birmingham and London twenty times and it broke down on five ocassions, you’d quite rightly be unhappy. But just as the lack of reliability is the cost of making a car go at fast as an F1 car, the susceptibility to injuries is the cost of having incredibly fit footballers. Mick McCarthy was heavily criticized for fielding a virtual reserve side away to Manchester United in December, but he actually has the right idea:

“I read an article where Carlo Ancelotti had said that the risk of injury in one game is 10%. And then that goes up to 30% or 40% if another intensive game follows in three or four days. We believe that anyway, but that came from the Milan Lab research centre set up by AC Milan.”

Rotation still isn’t fully accepted by supporters, and certainly not by the mainstream media. Every time a club signs a big-name player in a position they are already well-stocked in, the issue arises of ‘how they will fit into the team’, ignoring the fact that, as United and Barcelona have shown, there isn’t as strict a ‘first team’ as there used to be. Similarly, match reporters often announce teams by detailing that ‘United have made 4 changes to their side…’ before listing said changes and moving on to the opposition, assuming we know the players that contested the previous game.

Nevertheless, a squad rotation system is a fundamental part of any top-level modern football club.

The answer to the Manchester United question is – incredibly – 33, well over double the number used by Villa in 80/81. Anderson, Berbatov, Brown, Campbell, Carrick, Da Silva, De Laet, Eckersley, Evans, Evra, Ferdinand, Fletcher, Foster, Gibson, Giggs, Hargreaves, Ji-Sung, Kuszczak, Macheda, Manucho, Martin, Nani, Neville, O’Shea, Possebon, Ronaldo, Rooney, Scholes, Tevez, Tosic, Van Der Sar, Vidic and Welbeck all featured. Whereas Villa boasted seven ever-presents, United didn’t have any. United played 38 league games – only Ronaldo and Vidic started more than 30 of them.

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