A few years ago, the policy of rotation was far from popular, particularly in England. The fact that managers would even dare to leave their star players on the bench to rest them or to bring new options in, was appalling to most.
Now with the success of many top teams employing rotation, Man United in particular, opposition to it seems to have died down. The summer signings so far have just proved the importance of rotation is not lost on managers. Liverpool, who are currently filled to the brim with central midfield players and have been the subject of mockery, now have a whole host of different tactical options in midfield and a whole host of options when players need a rest or get injured. The overall picture for rotation as the norm in the future looks rosy, indeed.
Manchester United’s summer transfers have also been very interesting so far. After being dominated in the recent Champions League Final, a lot was said about United’s so called attempt to close the gap on Barcelona for next season with a whole host of star signings and players. So far they’ve made 3 signings. One, a replacement for Van Der Sar. The other two in Ashley Young and Phil Jones, were signings for positions that were already filled by two or three other players. No world class talent of yet, simply players of good potential and still below the age performances usually peak.
Take a look at Real Madrid’s signings; Coentrao, a dynamic, attacking left back for a role already filled by Marcelo. Nuri Sahin plays a role similar to Xabi Alonso. The young winger Jose Maria Callejon is behind Di Maria and Ronaldo in the pecking order and Raphael Varane is a possible long term replacement for Ricardo Carvalho while not an obvious top quality centre back yet. There have been no ‘extravagant’ signings, no signings to fill roles that aren’t already there, just young players being readied for the big time and yet still capable of first team football.
It’s possible that with the success of Barcelona’s youth system and developing of young players plus the growing monetary influence in the market, that teams are simply planning ahead and are looking for new ways to build. It wasn’t long ago that teams won titles and championships using just 14 players all season. It wasn’t long ago that fans and media alike were bemoaning the fact that players were effectively hypochondriacs. The infamous incident where Bert Trautmann broke his neck in the FA Cup final of 1956 yet carried on playing, making some crucial saves to ensure his team won the trophy, has been used against modern day football to show how it’s become a game for wimps.
On the positive side, a manager not risking players because of minor injuries shows just how far the game has come. It’s so much more organised, more intense, far quicker and harder to make something happen individually. Players have had to adapt, become more versatile, fitter, better mentally, better tactically. Having watched the 1966 World Cup Final, you can’t help but notice how slow it was as a game and also how much space players got. For two World Cup Finalists to get that much space nowadays would be unthinkable.
With top teams having to play upwards of 50 or 60 games at such a high level of intensity, players have had to become used to being rotated. Managers demand so much more discipline of players now. Whereas the best players in the world 30 or 40 years ago would have been able to concentrate on just one role to fulfil, the best players now have to fulfil a number of roles. To have superb skill and flair is not enough. You have to be mentally strong, you have to chase back when you need to, you need to be disciplined in your positioning, and you have to work together with your team mates to achieve the best possible result. It’s possibly why the role of the natural goal poacher has largely disappeared. They tend to be excellent in one area and not of much help to the team much for the rest of the time. Hence in a defensive formation, the team is already minus one player.
With the versatility needed for players to work in big teams, it takes its toll. That’s why the role of rotation has become so important for managers. Players need to be able to work at their maximum every game and with modern organisation and intensity. If a player is off-form or is suffering from an injury or fatigue, they will often get found out. Not to mention, drag the whole team down with them.
Why else would Barcelona want Fabregas? They’ve already got arguably the best midfield trio in the world in Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta as well as Mascherano and the up and coming Thiago. Yet even Barcelona are not exempt to fatigue:
First 19 league games
Goals scored: 58
Goals conceded: 11
Last 19 league games
Goals scored: 37
Goals conceded: 10
4 fewer league games won, 4 more draws and 21 fewer goals scored.
It’s still winning form yet with Real Madrid bound to improve, the challenge is going to be harder to maintain. Their performances in the second half of the season were not as good as the first half. Players like Villa and Pedro went 11 and 13 games in a row without scoring. Barcelona weren’t scoring as many goals as their pressing wasn’t as aggressive as before. Therefore they were increasingly winning the ball in less threatening areas of the pitch, further away from goal. They had become tired.
That’s why the signings of players like Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez have become so important for them. Both are highly talented in their own right, and are there to take roles that exist. It would be easy for Barcelona to just sit there with their squad and convince themselves they don’t need any new players and that they don’t need to waste money. Yet to maintain their excellent performances and results over the next few years, it’s going to take more than just a settled team of 11 players. One day a Messi or an Iniesta is going to become injured. And if there is nobody to back them up then who’s to say that their results won’t take a big dip. Even the best team in the world needs a break.
The reserve squad as a whole is becoming increasingly important as the game continues to progress. With managers, embracing the concept whole-heartedly, perhaps in the future, it will become impossible for someone to name their team’s first choice eleven and in terms of the quality of football on show, that can only be a good thing.
– Jonny “Lanky Guy” Mullins