THE SQUAD ROTATION MYTH
Football today is played faster and harder than in the old days, and there are too many games. To ensure the best results in all competitions, players must be fresh and hungry, and as such, rotated in and out of the starting 11. This, in a nutshell, is the theory of squad rotation.
And it's complete bull$#!^.
Nowhere has it come under more scrutiny than at Liverpool. But if the theory is correct, then it should bear out that players in the pre-rotation era should have either: (1) played less often due to injury and/or (2) been less fresh and (3) gotten worse results.
Take a look at the two tables below on Wikipedia about the Liverpool appearances of Steven Gerrard and Kenny Dalglish (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_gerrard#Club_statistics, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenny_Dalglish#Club) whose career spans are roughly 20 years apart. If you pull it into a spreadsheet and sort descending by appearances, you'll note the following interesting facts:
- In Dalglish’s 7 heaviest years, he averaged 57.4 appearances and a total of 401, whereas Gerrard averaged 48.7 appearances and a total of 341.
- In those same 7 years Dalglish had 3 years of 60+ appearances. Gerrard has never had more than 55.
- In those same 7 years Dalglish's teams reached 4 European Cup finals and won 3 (Gerrard 2 and 1), reached 4 league cup finals and won 3 (Gerrard 2 and 2) and here's the kicker: Dalglish won the league 4 times, whereas Gerrard's team have finished 2nd once.
Hmm...It seems the rotation theory doesn’t bear out with the two most influential Liverpool players of their respective eras. This doesn't take into account the pitch conditions (have you ever gone 90 minutes in the mud?) the ball technology, or the general improvements in physical fitness. Fair enough, one player does not account for the results of an entire team, but you can continue the comparison to Alan Hansen vs. Jamie Carragher, or Phil Neal to John Arne Riise, and you'll see that it never bears out. Old school players played more and got better results - period.
So what is it about the myth of squad rotation? Why has it been propagated on us when it doesn't bear out in superior results? As with all things that make no sense, do like Woodward and Bernstein and follow the money.
Exactly Why Are There So Many “Cups”?
You guessed it - money. Until 1961, there was only one “major” cup competition in England, the FA Cup, and even then it was 98 years old. The English FA, primarily in existence to manage the England team, are and have been the primary financial beneficiaries of FA Cup revenues, whereas the League Cup has financed the various football leagues.
Tired of being chicks on the end of the FA’s regurgitated seconds, they started their own cup competition – the League Cup. Fixture congestion was initially addressed by following the lead of the European Cup and playing night matches under floodlights mid-week. (FA Cup fixtures are almost exclusively on weekends).
Up until the advent of satellite television, football revenue came primarily from ticket sales to matches, and as such, clubs looked for any excuse they could find to play matches on their empty grounds. FA Cup matches that end in ties are replayed, not because it makes any sense from a sporting perspective, but to double the revenue from the fixture. In the end, it's all a big money grab.
Today, the money in English football comes from television rights to 2 competitions: the Champions League, and the EPL. Ticket sales are a proportionally significant source of income to only those clubs with the biggest stadiums, and even they continue to build more and more capacity, but mostly that's with the hope of hosting a European final or an international match, which can be a big payday.
There is a risk of injury in any football match, but the risk of having a Gerrard-less Liverpool UCL fixture at any given moment far outweighs the value of playing him, and all 10 of the other best players in the team, in a meaningless cup tie, even if they're better served in sporting terms by creating continuity and keeping changes to the squad to a minimum.
Squad Rotation? What Squad Rotation?
The first team in the EPL to espouse the squad rotation system was Manchester United, whose incorporation in the early 90's meant they had the cash to go after many quality players without prostituting themselves in meaningless cup competitions.
The 1998-1999 season is considered the squad rotation gold standard, when they won the league, the European Cup and the FA Cup. Ignominiously absent from the trophy cabinet that season was the League Cup. On their payroll that year Man U(seless) had Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Any one of those strikers would have been considered a first team automatic in 9 out of 10 EPL teams. Playing all 4 at the same time was out of the question, so they had to be rotated to keep them all pleased, right?
Wrong.Solskjaer and Sheringham didn't start any important games together, and Ole was an ever present that year only in…(drum roll)…the League Cup, which the club clearly bottled. With games in all 4 competitions early on in the season, it is only THEN that we saw the so-called squad rotation. For the most part, in matches that mattered (i.e. EPL and UCL), they paired Yorke and Cole and never looked back, with notable exceptions when the pairing wasn't producing goals. That didn't happen too often. Significantly both Sheringham and Solskjaer made more appearances that season as substitutes than as regulars.
The problem with squad rotation is two-fold: if you have an obvious best line-up, then it's difficult for the team as a whole to take games seriously when that best line-up is not in place. As a result you get wayward performances from everyone, even the substitutes – never mind the regulars. By creating a line-up based sense of priority, the players have the impression that some games are to be taken for granted, and can lose when they should definitely win.
Sound familiar to any Liverpool supporters out there?
Even in the FA Cup final that year, Sheringham only came on as a substitute for an injured Roy Keane, albeit to great effect. Suspended for the Champions League final, Keane and Scholes were replaced by Beckham and Butt in the middle (Jesper Blomqvist took Beckham's place on the right.) The Butt/Beckham pairing nearly cost United the Cup until they were saved by the super-subs Sheringham and Solskjaer. But it's important to remember that they came on as substitutes, and were not rotated into the starting line-up.
The Other Problem with Squad Rotation
The second problem with squad rotation is the simplest - the best team is not on the field. Even the best line-up will have collective fluctuations in form, and as such results may vary. The pressure is then greater on the best line-up when they are on the field because the expectation is that this result must be achieved now because it cannot be guaranteed later. Some players perform well under those circumstances, and some do not. But constantly leaving your best 11 off the field, reduces your chance of getting the best result on it.
If you're playing Liverpool, and two names are not in the line-up (say, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres) no matter who else is on the field, the opponent cannot help but get a sense of optimism that they might otherwise not have. One advantage of being one of the bigger teams in the country is that if the result is not in sight at a certain point, the energy and commitment of the opponents, while they start out ready to run through brick walls, quickly dissipates when it looks like order is restored. In other words, they bag it.
But if teams always feel they're in with a chance because the best line-up isn't on the field, it becomes a never-ending struggle to get results against even the worst teams in the league, and it is in this area that Liverpool have failed miserably since the end of the Boot Room dynasty.
Protecting the energy and fitness of players who stink does little to ensure results, unless by results, you mean bad ones. At its core it makes sense only if there is a best line-up to save. That’s not the case at Liverpool.
Squad rotation also implies that you have a squad to rotate. It doesn't apply if your reserves are terrible. The top 3 in England have reserves that would make most first teams green with envy, but Liverpool suffers from the same kind of delusion as the England team does – "we're right up there" with Arse-nal, Chelski and Man U(re), so we have to rotate our squads just like they do.
But they have the squads to do it, and we don't. For who among us would suffer the slings and arrows of Vronin and Crouch if you had Kallou and Shevchenko at your disposal? Why would you bother with Sissoko if you can have Hargreaves?
There are 3 great teams in England, and none of them are in Liverpool. That illusion went out the window the first time Everton won a Champions League berth. As a supporter of LFC, no matter how envious I am of the top 3, I hate the thought of playing second fiddle to Everton even more. This prospect, more than anything else, has snapped me out of a false sense of superiority.
Even a neutral must admit that Everton are a crap club, with crap players. It used to make me want to vomit every time I saw their name before ours on the table, even if it was just an alphabetical anomaly in the second week of the season. That I'm no longer dry heaving at the sight is my body's way of telling my mind that the party's over: we're no longer head and shoulders above all the “Toffee scum” – now maybe just half a head – and the sooner we play a line-up that reflects that, the better.
All told, Liverpool FC is a great club, with a great history, and frankly, a shitty team. Our Champions League performances have been anomalies, because results in the league, never better than second once in the last 10 years, show the true quality is 45 minutes up the road, and in London. As long as we perpetuate this illusion that we're "right up there" with the true behemoths of English football, we are subject to irrelevant and false assumptions that result in squad rotation, when in reality, they do not apply to us at all. If the best 11 players in the squad can't cut it for say, 2-3 games, nobody will question the decision to make changes. But when the best 11 never feature AND changes are made, the question of whether the club are really doing its best always lingers.
It’s time for Liverpool to admit, once and for all that, until results tell us that our players need a rest and are good enough to be rotated, they shouldn't be. It worked for Kenny Dalglish and the last great Liverpool sides, so why can't it work for this one?