Consistency and continuity are assets in football. But in an age of cut-throat decisions, unheralded pressures, and outrageous financial power, changes can be as impulsive as they are shocking. If you think of the greatest teams in history, you can name all eleven players who regularly started in those groundbreaking outfits. Arsenal’s ‘invincibles’ were iconic, as was Pep Guardiola’s 2011 Champions League winning team.
But there comes a point where squad rotation and subtle tweeks and changes are necessary to yield maximum results. The one standing criticism of Chelsea this season is just this: Jose Mourinho needs to rotate away from his starting XI more, because he risks fatiguing his over-worked players into sub-standard performances, a dangerous thing to do as we enter the business end of the season.
This problem has become exacerbated in the last few weeks, for a number of reasons.
The first emanated over January when Chelsea sold Andre Schurrle to Wolfsburg and let Mohamad Salah head out on loan to Fiorentina – meaning, despite the immediate arrival of Juan Caurdrado, they’re now lacking cover in the attacking midfield zone. If Eden Hazard or one of Willian and Oscar get injured, Mourinho won’t actually have three fit recognised attacking midfielders in his squad.
That zone is especially sensitive and worthy of anlaysis because Mourinho demands more of these players than any other in his team. John Terry’s been able to play every minute of every premier league game for a reason – he’s well protected by those in front of him.
The same can in many ways be said of Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta – albeit to a lesser extent – in that Mourinho demands less of his full backs than most other top managers. His trademark move in recent years is to put them on a leash when Chelsea get into a two goal lead. You won’t see them cross the halfway line nearly as much as other modern day full backs, who like to sprint down to the opposition byline. It’s his subtle way of killing off games.
With Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas taking up deeper, more reserved roles, the physical impetus lies on Chelsea’s front four – Diego Costa, Willian, Hazard and Oscar to do the bulk of the teams running. This is where the team get their bite and drive. Those four cover a remarkable amount of ground per game.
Loic Remy has done a fine job of filling in when Diego Costa’s been unavailable – nearly always due to suspension – but the attacking three behind him now only have Cuardrado to support them. Mourinho may argue that Ramires can also fill in here, but that’s hardly an ideal option for a side supposedly chasing success both at home and on the continent.
It was easy to gloss over this when Chelsea were winning with ease, but the demands of the run-in where you’ll play two high-pressure games a week without fail, means Mourinho will need to place faith in peripheral players if his squad is to be at it’s best on all fronts.
Squad rotation is actually essential in leading campaigns on several fronts. Many have credited Manchester United being the first team to win a European ‘treble’ in history because Sir Alex Ferguson introduced squad rotation.
The fact is Chelsea look short in key squad areas having concluded their January business. When tired, they’ll lack the energy and bite which are key to Mourinho’s style of play. They looked especially haphazard in spirit against Manchester City and they easily could have lost that game. That display looked purely down to their fatigued players, with Mourinho unwilling to lay faith in alternatives.
It’s not an issue now, but a savage injury crisis could ruin Mourinho’s season if he’s not careful. And for a team with that much money it would be a remarkable forward-planning error to succumb to something so basic in their downfall. Utlising every player in their squad is thus essential for Chelsea to succeed on all fronts this season, and something that Mourinho will need to address soon.