As Michael Cox so expertly argues, squad rotation was an instrumental driving force behind Manchester United’s two Champions League title wins under Sir Alex Ferguson. The 1998/99 season was one of the first occasions in which a major European club boasted four first-team strikers of almost equal top-level quality, while the 2007/08 campaign saw United lift the domestic and continental crowns without ever naming an unchanged starting XI, using 33 players in total.
Although there’s still something to be said for a rock-steady first string – during the last three seasons, three virtually unchanged sides claimed the Premier League title in the form of Leicester and Chelsea (twice) – rotation is very much the name of the game these days, and especially at Old Trafford. Part of the legacy Ferguson left behind, whether intentionally or not, is the sheer size, scale and diversity of United’s first-team squad, experienced players like Ashley Young, Michael Carrick, Chris Smalling and Sergio Romero all playing bit-part roles this season.
Through David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, whose attempted transitions of the team only expanded the squad further, Mourinho has inherited and part-built one of the most holistic squads in Europe, something which arguably leaves the Red Devils better-placed than any other English club to make a real statement in the Champions League this season – or at the very least reverse the tide of disappointing performances from Premier League clubs.
“The manager decides his squad and chooses a certain number of players to face the season. That is it. I normally like to work with 20 players plus the three goalkeepers, which is what I have done for 15 years.”
The problem, however, is that Mourinho’s never been that type of manager; his preference is to work with just 23 players, three being goalkeepers, and Chelsea’s incredible capitulation in 2015/16 was partly a consequence of how predictable and overused his title-winning starting XI had become. Even this season, only 14 different players have started for United in the Premier League and until the 2-2 draw with Stoke City on Saturday, Mourinho had made just one change to his starting XI in three games – something forced by Anthony Martial’s unavoidable form from the bench.
The Champions League returning to Old Trafford this season represents perhaps the biggest test yet of Mourinho’s ability to rotate, and potentially the most convincing evidence either way of whether he’s learned from the mistakes of his last season at Chelsea. While Mourinho fluctuated his squad effectively last term to steadily manoeuvre through the Europa League, 2017/18 represents a different proposition altogether. For starters, the Champions League is a tournament of far greater competitiveness, prestige and quality than its smaller sister. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, United must now hold their own in Europe while chasing down the Premier League title. Only winning Europe’s top competition will excuse United from not being a part of the title race.
On the surface, FC Basel should be easy pickings for United, having won just three of their first seven games this season in a top flight they’ve dominated for the last eight years. The Red Devils, on the other hand, have dropped only two points and conceded only two goals domestically, following a summer transfer window in which they spent a whopping £150million, signed a two-time title-winning midfielder in Nemanja Matic and one of Europe’s top strikers in Romelu Lukaku. On paper, the sides don’t compare.
But FC Basel have a strong record against English opposition – Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea have all slipped up against the Swiss champions in recent years – and in many ways, the limited quality they possess highlights the real challenge for Mourinho; selecting a starting XI capable of claiming a win at home while resting key players with the weekend in mind, without running the risk of handing another scalp to the habitual giant killers of Premier League sides.
“To do rotation you need to think about two or three games at the same time. Normally you change three players, four maximum, without losing the structure and balance of the team. A left-back for a left-back, a right-winger for a right-winger. The question is to know your team well and the performance of the player in that moment.”
Once again, it’s a task a manager of Mourinho’s experience and quality should be able to adequately handle. But rotation can never be judged on one game alone, as the Portuguese’s own assistant manager Rui Faria attested to while serving as Chelsea’s fitness coach, and if the 2-2 draw with Stoke City on Saturday was the first part of the test, the Red Devils boss already has already missed out on full marks.
Last season’s Player of the Year Ander Herrera was brought into the team at the expense of Juan Mata, changing the shape of United’s midfield, while the inclusion of Matteo Darmian at left-back seemingly injected uncertainty into a defence that had otherwise been impenetrable all season. Neither player enjoyed particularly strong performances upon their first outings of the season, and while a draw away to Stoke is hardly the worst result (just ask Arsenal), a side challenging for the Premier League title would hope to come away with all three points.
That’s the kind of game you usually need to win to become champions, so a comprehensive victory against Basel followed by another win over Everton on Sunday is needed to truly justify the two points dropped at the Bet365 Stadium. Mourinho can at least call on arguably his most creative player and a left-back who can offer more going forward in Mata and Daley Blind respectively, but the tough encounter on the horizon against Everton throws up more dilemmas and more tests of squad management.
At first glance, some selection calls have already been decided for Mourinho tonight, with centre-backs Phil Jones and Eric Bailly both suspended in Europe, but the real question is how fielding two second-choice centre-backs will weaken the rest of the team. Are first-choice options needed around them? Will uncertainty at the heart of defence cost United dearly against a team hoping to hit them on the counter? Under such circumstances, can Michael Carrick’s lack of pace be afforded? Can Victor Lindelof be trusted to cover for Antonio Valencia at right-back? In fact, practically every area of the pitch from Lukaku up front to David De Gea in goal asks Mourinho to find a balance between rest and risk, Europe and the Premier League, fresh legs and familiarity.
But in truth, balancing out a vast squad between an away trip to a mid-table club, a Champions League clash against European minnows and a home tie with a member of the Premier League’s top seven is a mere microcosm of the challenge Mourinho faces this season. Rotation isn’t simply a matter of reducing the risk of injuries and giving lesser members of the squad a run-out; just like Ferguson did so consistently, it’s about balancing out those fitness concerns, while bringing in the right players in the right roles for precisely the right games. Stoke proved to be the wrong occasion to bring in Darmian and Herrera – over United’s next two games and the course of the whole season, Mourinho will have to make better calls.