In Defence of Squad Rotation

From the Touchline

This week in From the Touchline, we will not be focusing on a specific match and how a manger’s choices influenced the outcome. Instead we will be walking through a debate that occurs every year but has been outsized the past few weeks. That issue is of course who plays.

The media circus has focused on Jose Mourinho this past week when he admitted that the Premier League at this point is not his priority. Rather, the Red Devils would be focusing on the Europa League and due to their league run of fixtures there would have to be youth and second team players against the likes of Arsenal and Spurs. The guardians of the game immediately sounded off about disrespect and media members spilt volumes of ink on how football should actually be played (read: best XI at all times).

While the Mourinho incident may have been more of a mind game than a statement, down a level there has been an even greater outrage. David Wagner is trying to complete Huddersfield Town’s dramatic revival. Once the club qualified for the promotion playoff and settled into the third playoff place, Wagner played out the stringer with a mix of reserves and youth players. Facing Birmingham City on Saturday, the club made 10 changes from the previous week’s match. The incident was reminiscent of Mick McCarthy running out a second tier side at Manchester United in the FA Cup a few years back to save his best players for the weekend’s critical Championship match. The FA didn’t appreciate 70,000 paying fans putting money out for a dead rubber, so Wolves were fined and admonished for the move.

In every country squad rotation is a factor for almost every team. In MLS, for example, squad rotation is common despite playing fewer matches than many European clubs simply because the heat and travel for a spring to fall league wears down players. For top European clubs the sheet number of matches and competitions means that there has to be some rotation to keep your players fresh, especially since many of your players are logging minutes for their national team. Yet with ticket prices rising and players individually being marketed more than ever before, you want the best XI available on the pitch as often as possible.

When a manager is writing up his starting XI before a match, there are a number of key constituencies he has to appease:

Ownership and the Board

Often it comes down to the balance sheet. Youth development is important as is player health, but the name players get the seats sold which gets programs, pies, and pints sold as well. As an owner you don’t want to see your manager resting players too often because it discourages the fans. Also, if you have an eye towards selling off a star player, you want your manager to show that player off as much as possible to drive up the price.

Fans

As prices rise, we want to see the stars. We know subconsciously that seeing the teenage right back instead of the French international is beneficial in the long-term for the club. But we can’t go to every home match and this is the one we could attend, so we want to see our favourite players. While we are not going to protest outside the ground, it is a disappointing feeling to use and our kid we brought along.

Marketing

Pretty obvious who they want to see

Players

As mentioned, players at the highest level want to play as much as possible. Unless you’ve been playing for weeks straight without a break for club and country, Then a breather to prepare for a more meaningful match is much appreciated. The younger player loves the opportunity to put on the shirt.

As a manager, the pressure is on. Your players understand but everyone else is a bit off-put by the decision. Your players will play regardless, so why even bother consider wholesale changes? Simply put, managers have an amazing survival instinct. Like a politician or a mouse, your top goal is survival. You want to hold on to your position and eventually move up. The best way to do that is to keep your best players as healthy as possible. When you look at the successful soccer clubs, they are the ones whose depth often is tested less. No club can survive multiple long-term injuries to their best players, so you protect those players as a way to protect yourself. That means squad rotation.

But remember the pressure is on to run out your best players every match. The consequences, if you play your strategy right, are minimal. Yes management and the fans are miffed they have to see youth players on Wednesday, but if you win that must win league/promotion/relegation avoiding match on Saturday, you look like a genius. The FA may try to make an example out of you if it’s obvious, but your side of the story will be in the press the same day with the result. The key is making sure you get that result.

Squad rotation will always be a tool in the manager’s arsenal, no matter how hard the FA or anyone else tries to shame the practice. Why? Because it helps managers keep their jobs and as long as it does, it will remain in the game.