I was shocked to read that Aston Villa won the first division title in 1980/81 using only 14 players for the whole season (see here). If we compare that to Manchester United’s 2008/09 triumph where Alex Ferguson used, unbelievably, 33 players we can see the vast changes to the game that have occurred over the years. My question now is, given the anomalous depth of talent of the Spain squad, is squad rotation applicable in a World Cup?
Squad rotation is still a much derided concept by many supporters and the media. The problem is that the general public don’t understand why 90 minutes of football twice a week is too much to ask from professional athletes. This isn’t a completely fair rendering of the circumstance that top managers face when competing in up to four competitions simultaneously. Playing to 100% intensity is more the issue than simply being able to last the 90 minutes so maximising players’ outputs remains the key issue. When United last won the title Ferguson did not name an unchanged XI in consecutive matches. Guardiola employed a similar concept for large portions of last season before injury (and tension) forced his hand in the latter stages. So why is Ferguson/Guardiola not admonished in the public sphere for ‘tinkering’ when the infamously dubbed Tinkerman (Claudio Ranieri) or restless Rafa Benitez had to answer for their changes?
The obvious reason is success. When there is a glaring gulf in quality between first team regulars and squad members squad rotation becomes a dangerous exercise. But Ferguson has repeatedly proven that the idea of rotating players in a domestic league is imperative. Whilst Aston Villa won the league in 1981 with seven players playing each of the 42 games, United won the league in 2009 with only Ronaldo and Vidic playing more than 30 games (no one being an ever present, whether it be through suspension, injury or rest).
So after such a long season for so many World Cup players can squad rotation actually be employed in a knockout tournament? I would say in Spain’s case, probably. At the moment they’re losing 1-0 to Switzerland so talk of favourites is evidently premature. But in terms of players coming back from injuries (Iniesta, Fabregas, Torres) these group matches were supposed to provide an opportunity to manage his stars. Does Del Bosque know his best XI? I think the starting team against the Swiss was what he thought to be his strongest team. But with the natural width of Navas and the direct threat of Torres coming off the bench to positively influence the Spaniards’ chase, Del Bosque has some difficult decisions to make.
In theory it would have seemed that the only team who could realistically manage some sort of squad rotation system would be the Spanish. But as I’m writing this I’m being proven wrong.
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