Squad rotation is a topic that I have wanted to discuss for quite some time. I think a general understanding of it is almost mandatory for supporters of big clubs like Manchester United. Too often, much is made of the selection choices by the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, and managers of other big clubs. For example, I recently heard pundits criticize Wenger after Arsenal FC's recent 0-0 draw versus Marseille in a midweek Champions League group-stage tie because he did not include his captain and talisman Robin van Persie in his starting XI.
No mention was made of van Persie playing the full 90 minutes just days before in an extremely uptempo match versus Chelsea FC. No mention was made of the Dutchman's injury history in recent seasons and the difficulties that he has had staying injury-free. No mention was made of the Gunners leading their group ahead of this tie -- one in which they were favored anyway at home without van Persie -- and also of their vulnerable league position after a difficult start. Wenger was not selecting his team with only Marseille in mind. He was selecting his team with the previous Chelsea match in mind along with the upcoming league match versus West Bromwich Albion just days later. He was being a manager and trying to prevent his best player from breaking down this season by spreading out van Persie's matches in a calculated fashion.
Last season, United played 59 competitive matches on four different fronts -- 38 Premier League games, 13 Champions League ties, 5 FA Cup clashes, and 3 Carling Cup matches. It was actually 60 matches if you count the FA Community Shield to kick off the season. This congested fixture list is quite typical for the biggest clubs in Europe. In addition, many of the players on these top sides represent their national teams during international breaks and during their 'off-season' summer breaks. The cumulative effect of all of this for the clubs -- when combining the calendar of both club and national team -- is two matches a week for the majority of the season.
Modern day footballers are incredibly fit but this congestion in their footballing careers is incredibly demanding. It is just not reasonable to ask a footballer to continually play two matches a week and expect him not to eventually suffer an injury or suffer a loss in form. Perhaps in a counter-intuitive way, peak fitness from these incredible athletes results in matches played at a higher intensity and in turn, this increases the risk of injury or of a player breaking down. Proper management of each footballer's playing time is important.
Consider this, long-distance runners -- who most would generally agree are elite athletes -- typically only have one 'long-run' per week in their training regimen. The workouts from the rest of the week are generally workouts at shorter distances. This simply is because the body cannot handle more than one rigorous 'long-run' a week. And even then, these runners often incorporate taper periods or 'step-back' weeks in their training so that their bodies can properly recover.
A common occurrence is seeing a club struggle in league after venturing into Europe for the first time recently. Last season, Tottenham Hotspur made a splash in Europe after reaching the quarter-final of the Champions League but their battle on two fronts -- Europe and their domestic league -- wore them down and they failed to earn a top four league finish again. The squad simply was not deep enough to support their grand ambitions on two difficult fronts. Even the youthful Gareth Bale saw a drastic dip in form and suffered numerous injuries in the second half of Spurs season. One could reasonably guess that it was due to the high number of minutes that he was playing from being featured so much in both competitions.
Fergie was one of the first managers to implement this squad rotation policy that most big clubs currently use. Last season during the run-in over a 13 day span, United faced a two-legged Champions League semi-final tie versus Schalke and also two extremely important league matches versus Arsenal and Chelsea. After earning a comfortable two goal lead away to Schalke, United lost at the Emirates after making only two changes for that match. The Reds were in a relatively comfortable position for their semi-final versus Schalke but Chelsea had now pulled within three points of them ahead of their upcoming clash at Old Trafford. Eight changes were made for the 2nd leg of the Schalke tie and commentators once again seemed appalled that Ferguson had made so many changes. What they did not mention was that Ferguson had made a calculated gamble to rotate his side and rest his key players -- those who had become first-choice at this point in time -- ahead of this title-decider versus Chelsea. United comfortably defeated Schalke and effectively won the league title with a relatively fresh first-choice side at Old Trafford versus title-contending rival Chelsea.
In the earlier portions of the season -- such as now -- squad rotation occurs but too much really cannot be read into the selection choices. Most managers are simply jockeying for position for the run-in later in the season while also attempting to space out matches for their players. If a particular week contains two important matches, a manager might play important players -- such as Wayne Rooney and/or Patrice Evra -- twice that week. But they will be rested on the first opportunity that presents itself. It is a delicate balancing act. Squad rotation can be imprecise but it is carefully calculated by the best managers. As the run-in comes, managers assess where their clubs are positioned and generally have a first-choice lineup by this time. They prioritize matches and simply make decisions based on league/cup/European standing and quality of opponent. Big clubs like United have squads deep enough that the likes of Nani and Dimitar Berbatov can be dropped for big matches if others are simply in better form. Nonetheless, they still play a part in squad rotation.
So, the next time you hear a commentator say something like -- "Ferguson has drastically made eight changes to his side since United's disappointing draw with Blackburn Rovers three days ago. He must be sending a message to his squad for this important European tie" -- be aware that he simply may have rested some key figures for a match that he deems more important. Or he simply rotated. Squad rotation is a fact of life for big clubs and quite often, too much is read into what names are on the team sheet.