In the pursuit of success it is easy to fall into the trap that more quality players means more trophies. Greed will have you believing that a starting XI of the highest quality is insufficient. We want a world class starting XI and world class squad players as well. All roughly 23 men in a squad must be of the highest quality and be able to stroll into any team in the world. Isn’t after all what squad depth means? To be able to have 2 players of equal quality in every position – unfortunately, only eleven can play at a time. The simple solution to this dilemma of gluttony would be one word: rotation.
When a coach builds a team and a playing style there are four pillars that need to be incorporated and developed: tactics, technique, fitness and team communication. Each pillar as important as the other. A team that can run for hours but is unable to pass the ball is as useless as a team that can run and pass but does so without a tactical plan or shape likewise. While all of the pillars can be trained, the one pillar that is more dependent to develop, is team communication. A team needs to be able to communicate well with one another on a non-verbal level. Look at the on-field relationship of Iniesta and Xavi at their peak. No coach can teach what decades of playing together can create. Xavi and Iniesta is an extreme example of team communication every coach aims to create 121 times over between each player. This kind of inch perfect timing is the result of regularly playing together and something that squad rotation can destroy. Team tactics may change and shift like sand in the wind but good communication remains if done on a sustained level.
Jose Mourinho is well aware of the dangers of rotation. Every starting lineup this season has been incredibly predictable: Courtois, Azpilicueta-Terry- Cahill-Ivanovic, Fabregas- Matic, Hazard-Oscar-Willian, Costa; with Mikel coming in for Oscar when physicality was needed or a bus needed to be parked. It was initially worrying that even in the early stages of the cups, Mourinho would play a core of no less than eight starters giving them very little rest within congested periods. His decision proved correct as injuries were avoided while teams were also blown away.
Chelsea’s policy of “Strongest XI Every Game” was however compromised for one game. Against Bradford City, Chelsea’s XI was Cech, Azpilicueta-Zouma-Cahill- Christensen, Ramires-Mikel, Salah-Oscar-Remy, Drogba; a starting XI of relative strangers. It is unthinkable that a team boasting that blend of youth and experience, pace and power, and technique, should lose so comprehensively to a lower league team after going 2 goals up.
All the pillars were present except on-field team communication. There will always be a number of reasons for a team’s loss. On another day the same teams could have played and the Blues could have walked away comfortable winners but squad rotation was undoubtedly a major contributor to the loss.
The paradox however lies in that all players need to ready to play at a moment’s notice and they need game to do so but to give too many players game time emans the team will never be ready. Fringe players need game time to be match fit and sharp enough to perform when needed. They also need regular game-time to keep a happy mood in the dressing room. A balance needs to be struck between giving fringe players game time to develop communication with their teammates and not disrupting the communication and momentum of the regular starters – the team’s best players.
In football, more often than not, the team with the best players will win. As the level gets higher the game becomes more complex and a number of aspects come into play. It’s not often that Mourinho gets it wrong but in attempting to give some of the less frequent players a chance to start, he undermined Chelsea’s chances of winning.
The players must take blame for squandering the lead in an uncharacteristic fashion but Mourinho’s rotation has to shoulder the majority of blame. Now knocked out of the FA Cup, the Blues still have 3 more competitions to focus on. The question remains whether in the final run in, Mourinho will take the chance of disrupting the team through Bradford-style rotation or whether he will continue risking the same predictable XI. A tough choice but his decision will be difference between a successful season and another disappointingly barren one.