While Andre Villas-Boas may have not re-invented the wheel with his omission of Jan Vertonghen from the Tottenham Hotspur line up on Saturday, he certainly went a long way to reminding supporters about one of the great-lost arts of a Premier League season.
Indeed, following the announcement of the Spurs side yesterday and the rather looming hole that the big Belgian’s name left amongst it, some were initially left almost aghast. Sunderland away, big festive fixture and the manager has left his best defender on the bench? Is AVB tinkering with the backline again? AVB out?
Of course, far from dropping Vertonghen for yesterday’s trip to the Stadium of Light, the Portuguese was in fact resting the ex-Ajax man. Yet what would Spurs supporters remember about rotation?
Taking the tongue firmly out of cheek, supporters in the white half of North London are perhaps more detached than most when it comes to witnessing one of their first team players miss a game besides the medium of injury and suspension.
While some are weary of the continued jibes still aimed at Harry Redknapp since he left the club in the summer, for all the gripes that some supporters carried towards the now QPR boss, it was his seeming reluctance to rest his most important players that many viewed as his biggest failing. And although the popular belief is that Redknapp’s flirtations with the England job preempted the side’s spectacular capitulation during the second half of last season, the abject lack of anything resembling squad rotation may have played just as big a part.
As Spurs entered the back end of the 2011-12 season, they did so with a first XI that had played an awful lot of football with not much resembling the way of rest. While the squad’s fitness over the course of 38 games saw nothing like the sort of injury problems Villas-Boas has had to deal with this term, the lack of major injuries seemed to transcend into an excuse to play the same players week in, week out.
The old adage of playing your best team when fit may fill many with nostalgia, but during a top-flight season in this day and age, that simply isn’t the case anymore. The Premier League is an unforgiving beast and while supporters are filling their boots with the unrelenting festive fixture list, somewhere along the line, it will eventually catch up with the players. And it didn’t half catch up with Spurs last term.
Kyle Walker still hasn’t got over his slump he endured towards the end of last term, but after playing all but one league game at the age of 21, is that necessarily a huge surprise? Maybe not this term, but last term it certainly wasn’t.
Even by his own high standards, Scott Parker seemed to run out of steam from February onwards, but he wasn’t given a minute’s rest since making his debut against Wolves last September. In hindsight considering his age and style of play, were his proceeding late season injury issues a coincidence, or an accident waiting to happen? Furthermore, the talismanic pairing of Gareth Bale and Luka Modric missed only four games between them last term. When Tottenham started to press the self-destruct button, the pair didn’t seem to have enough in the tank to try and change the side’s fate.
Yes, it’s all very well speculating over what might and might not have been last term and what’s done now is done – besides, Villas-Boas has only taken to resting one or two of his defenders in recent days, hardly the entire squad.
Although these are the things that can ultimately make a difference to the Lilywhites come the end of the season. Rotating his centre halves as he has done with Vertonghen, Steven Caulker, William Gallas, and Michael Dawson in recent days may seem like common sense, but it’s something we’ve rarely seen at White Hart Lane in recent days.
Villas-Boas is keeping his backline fresh, fit and ready; with a home game against Reading coming up, the Portuguese has timed it perfectly to perhaps give some of his attacking unit the opportunity for a breather, too. And as the injuries begin to clear up, finally it seems that Villas-Boas is beginning to get a bit of luck along the way, too. You couldn’t pick a better player than the returning Scott Parker to give the outstanding Sandro a breather in the centre of midfield.
It may seem bordering on the condescending to praise a manager for doing something as basic as switching a few players round during the festive period but considering the failure of the management to do it last term, supporters shouldn’t underestimate the art of squad management.
Many football fans cringe upon hearing sporting philosophies in the mould of Team GB cycling coach Dave Brailsford and his ‘marginal gains’ shtick, but it is the little things which can make the biggest difference in any sport and football isn’t any different. If giving your central defenders one or two games out of the firing line prevents a bit of fatigue creeping in, the emergence of an injury or the regression of concentration, then that’s all that matters.
If Spurs qualify for the Champions League this season, no one is going to attribute much of their success to a bit of squad rotation at the turn of the year. Yet last season serves an only too painful reminder of the taste in the mouth that comes with the over-reliance upon your first choice XI. So while it’s not likely to bag him an LMA gong anytime soon, it’s a well done to Villas-Boas for reminding supporters just how you shuffle the pack.