Rotation and Squad Management: Are We Doing Enough?

Posted by rafathegaffa83 on December 15, 2012, 08:15:07 PM

Rotation. The R-word. A word that conjures up in the English media ideas of "Rotating Rafa" and Claudio "The Tinkerman" Ranieri. A few years ago, those who would rotate were treated in the same manner as alchemists and snake oil salesman. Pundits would often sneer at rotators "Why rotate when you need to play your best team?" or "He doesn't know his best eleven." Of course, the exception to the rule being that Alex Ferguson rotated for years without much fuss. However, those who rotate understand the benefits for it are enormous. A season is a marathon, not sprint and rotation aids in among other things keeping a large squad fresh, happy and on their toes. Rest and competitiveness are paramount in both a mental and physical sense in a long season, especially when many teams in the past who haven't rotated, notably O'Neill's Aston Villa and Curbishley's Charlton sides have begun to heavily flag in February and March.

This season has seen some members of the sports science team leave to be replaced with others. Yet, rotation, a previous byword of disdain for its critics, has barely been mentioned so far this campaign, yet it needs discussing. Some elements associated with it have already been noted in the excellent Fitness and Recovery thread outlining some of the training ideas espoused under Rodgers for physical fitness. Certainly, Brendan Rodgers has been working under some restraints. It is not ideal to be going into mid-December with one fit senior forward. However, it is possible that in other areas, he hasn't fully maximized what is at his disposal.

December brings with it festive cheer and games galore. The effects of December's packed schedule are not always felt immediately. Arguably, we are seeing evidence in some players that a lack of rotation so far, in the league in particular, has not been beneficial, particularly those in more physically intensive roles. The likes of Joe Allen, Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard have looked at times sluggish and tired. So far, this season two players (Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen) have started in all seventeen league games this season. Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel have played in sixteen. Had Suarez and Agger not been suspended, they surely would have ranked alongside Allen and Gerrard. The teenage Sterling has started every year league game bar West Brom away, the first game of the season. Skrtel missed out against Chelsea due to illness. His defensive partner, Daniel Agger admitted that he too should not have played in that game due to a groin injury. Glen Johnson and Pepe Reina have missed two and four games respectively with hamstring injuries.

With the exception of Sterling and possibly Allen, all of the aforementioned are senior players. The lack of squad depth in certain areas, forward for instance, as well as the injury to key players like Lucas Leiva certainly has put Brendan Rodgers in a difficult position. However, is it truly necessary for Liverpool to start some of these players on a regular basis, no matter their level of form? Personally, I would argue, it isn't beneficial in the long-term to do so, not simply from an individual fitness perspective, but also from a meritocracy standpoint.

In terms of starts in the league this season, the list is as follows

Starts in the league

Allen - 17
Gerrard - 17
Suarez - 16
Sterling - 16
Agger - 16
Skrtel - 16
Johnson - 15
Reina - 13
Enrique - 9
Wisdom - 7
Sahin - 7
Suso - 6
Borini - 5
Shelvey - 4
Lucas - 4
Kelly -4
Downing - 4
Jones -4
Henderson -2
Carragher -1
Coates -1
Morgan - 0
Cole - 0
Carroll - 0
Assaidi - 0
Adam - 0

Rodgers method of squad management, appears to be structured around having a core group start regularly with others brought in an as needs basis. The needs in this case primarily seem to be due to injuries or suspensions. What is interesting is that whereas the likes of Allen, Gerrard and Sterling have been flagging in recent weeks, they don't appear to be getting dropped or rotated in and out of the team, in the league. In fact the matchday squad has remained largely the same for most of the season

Times named in the matchday squad in the league

Allen -17 (100%)
Gerrard - 17 (100%)
Jones - 17 (100%)
Henderson - 17 (100%)
Carragher - 17 (100%)
Sterling - 16 (94%)
Agger - 16 (94%)
Suarez -16 (94%)
Skrtel - 16 (94%)
Johnson - 15 (88%)
Downing - 14 (82%)
Shelvey - 14 (82%)
Reina - 13 (76%)
Sahin - 13 (76%)
Suso - 13 (76%)
Enrique -13 (76%)
Wisdom - 10 (58%)
Coates - 10 (58%)
Assaidi- 9 (52%)
Cole - 7 (41%)
Borini - 7 (41%)
Kelly - 4 (29%)
Lucas -4 (29%)
Gulasci -4 (29%)
Carroll -2 (11%)
Adam - 1 (5%)
Morgan - 1 (5%)

Certainly, had it not been for injury the likes of Lucas, Borini and Kelly would have been named into the squad more often. But even the likes of Lucas, has not even featured as a substitute in the league, despite returning from serious injury. As soon as he has been fit, he has started almost immediately. Notably Carragher and Henderson have been in the matchday squad for every game this season. The latter has performed admirably well at times, yet has only started twice in the league. Shelvey and the much maligned Downing has been drafted into the matchday squad fourteen times each, yet both have only started four league games, at least one of which involved them playing in an unfamiliar role. Suso had a stretch in which he featured in eight consecutive league games as a sub or starter between September 29th and November 17th, yet he hasn't started or featured in a game since.

What is also interesting is that only ten different players have come off the bench this season for Liverpool with Carragher, Cole, Henderson and Shelvey being the most frequently used subs. In contrast, Manchester United have had fifteen different players come off the bench for them this season. Fulham have had eighteen, Tottenham seventeen. Even Everton with their small squad have had eleven.

Times named to substitutes bench/substitute appearances in the league

Carragher -16/5
Henderson  - 15/8
Jones - 13/0
Coates -10/2
Shelvey - 9/7
Downing -9/3
Assaidi - 9/3
Cole - 6/5
Suso - 6/4
Sahin -6/0
Enrique -4/2
Gulasci - 4/0
Wisdom -3/0
Carroll - 2/2
Borini -2/0
Kelly - 1/0
Adam - 1/0
Morgan - 1/0

Assaidi and Cole seem to be impact subs only with the latter seeing a surprising lot of action. Despite injuries and suspensions at the left-back and forward positions, Dani Pacheco and Jack Robinson haven't even had a look-in. Sahin, while infrequently being named to the bench, never leaves it in the league at least.

Certainly, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of rotation going on and that the squad can be seemingly divided into three groups. A core group of mostly established players appear to start, as long as they are fit to do so, regardless of form (Suarez, Gerrard, Allen, Reina, Johnson, Agger, Skrtel, Lucas, Sterling). A secondary group mostly of younger midfield and defensive players like Wisdom, Henderson, Shelvey and Suso do sometimes start, but only if one of the back-four or fixed midfield three (Gerrard, Lucas, Allen) are injured. These players like in Henderson's case at the beginning of the season and Suso's at the present time, may make several appearances in a row, but then might not even leave the substitute's bench for a prolonged period. Lastly, there is a tertiary group of players, who mostly play in the cup competitions and hardly see any action in the league, particularly as starters (Coates, Assaidi)

One could argue that Rodgers is treating the squad as an A team for the league and a B team for mostly European and domestic cup competitions. However, while some of these some of these players are getting more games in European and domestic cup competitions (Carragher has 9 appearances in European games), some are noticeably not (Coates (3) and Wisdom (4)) and some "A" members are being drafted in EL games either as starters or players coming off the bench when the team is struggling (Sterling - 8 EL appearances; Johnson and Allen -5 EL appearances; Suarez, Gerrard and Skrtel -6 EL appearances).

However, is that enough? And we rotating enough in the league? Personally, I would state no in either form. Since the cup competitions are not entirely the domain of reserve and youth as some would like, with us falling back on first-team players on a regular basis,  the purpose of providing them with an outlet for playing time isn't being fully fulfilled. Secondly, since many first-team players are playing increasing amounts in both league and cup competitions, it necessitates rotating or engaging in more purposeful squad management as we run the risk of burning out key players before the critical point in the season. Thirdly, with some players appearing virtually undroppable, there is the danger of creating a system which inhibits the development of some players and provides little competition. How Brendan deals with this issue over the next few weeks will be crucial for the direction of our season deep into March, April and May.

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