It seems clear that Rafa Benítez has tweaked his rotation policy, in the way he suggested, several weeks ago, that he would. That’s right, he’s tweaked it; made a small but subtle alteration.
However, several times in the media last weekend, I was told that Rafa has now dispensed with his wholesale changes – rotation is out – and that is why the Reds are now top. As if it really was that simple all along. After all, Benítez ‘rotated’ (including injuries, of course) to a more-or-less identical level to Alex Ferguson last year.
But of course, to lazy pundits, everything needs to be black or white. Previously, Rafa rotated like crazy. Now, he doesn’t rotate. Black, white.
At this stage last season (12 league games), Benítez had made an average of three changes from one Premiership game to the next. Currently, the changes are down to two per game. That’s a 33% reduction – not a wholesale change of ethos, not an abandonment of his principles to please the ‘Anti-Rafas’, such as the New of the World’s weasley Rob Beasley.
Rotation still exists. The most changes made by the Liverpool manager from any league fixture to another has been four, as opposed to six in one of last season’s first dozen Premiership matches.
The early game last season with six changes – Birmingham at home – was one of the big disappointments of the last campaign. But the worst result of this season so far came at Spurs, where no changes were made. (Then again, it was one of the better performances.)
Equally, throughout last season as a whole, Liverpool won 3-0 at Newcastle with six changes, 3-1 at home to Blackburn with six changes, got the first point in years at Arsenal with six changes, beat Man City at home with seven changes, and beat Fulham away with no fewer than eight changes. So Birmingham aside, any time Rafa made six or more changes the Reds got an excellent result: it was one bad result and five good ones from those six matches.
My point, as ever, is not to say therefore that making lots of changes will win games; that is nonsense. It is simply to say that changes do not spell the disaster that the media likes to lead people to believe. There are thousands of variables that produce any result. You can pick the right team, and lose. You can pick the wrong team, and win; although, of course, it’s never a wrong team when you get the three points.
Are Liverpool doing better because Rafa has rotated less? It’s possible that it may have contributed in some immeasurable way.
But it’s also possible that the squad is better, and that new and younger players have improved. For example, until this season, the rather irrelevant Nabil El Zhar looked like he stood no chance of featuring in the first team; this season, he’s actually helped win some games, and now looks a decent option. Albert Riera offers width and a new dimension on the left, and Robbie Keane has brought a real intelligence to the role of second striker.
Until his injury, Martin Skrtel was a rock. Last season, before Skrtel was signed in the winter transfer window, Liverpool lost Agger and Alonso to bad injuries; so maybe the Reds are doing better now not because of greater or lesser rotation, but because they now have extra options in all central areas? Last year, until February, the only two fit senior centre-backs were Carragher and Hyypia, with the promising but very raw teenager Jack Hobbs thrown in for five games, and even Arbeloa getting games there (out of necessity, not mindless tinkering).
There’s also been the addition of Sammy Lee – a top coach and an even better motivator – to the backroom staff, not to mention Mauricio Pellegrino’s return, which, as with his first stint at the club, has coincided with a massive improvement in the zonal marking success rate; so far this season, only Jamie Carragher has beaten Pepe Reina with a header. The Reds have also had some luck at vital times (although it wasn’t there against Stoke and Tottenham).
So for Rob Beasley to say on Sky’s Sunday Supplement something along the lines of “because Rafa abandoned rotation they’re top of the league” (i.e. Rafa has taken his and other hacks’ advice) is wrong not only because the rotation has only been slightly reduced, but also because it ignores innumerable other factors, some of which I’ve listed.
But one thing hasn’t changed from last season’s rotation policy: the spine, and the key players, are almost always in place.
Reina, Carragher and Kuyt are in the team almost every week. And when fit, Gerrard and Torres, both of whose sharpness is so crucial over the long campaign, will play more-or-less every game, bar the occasional rest. And Mascherano and Alonso will play more often than not, although this season each has had a rest every few weeks – particularly the Argentine after his gruelling travels with Argentina.
Last season, both Torres and Gerrard missed games with injury, and the same applies to this season. As it happens, the Spaniard has just had the kind of extended rest he could probably have used after a hectic summer before coming back for yet more high-intensity football with Liverpool. Indeed, he’s missed a lot more games this season with injury than he did last year through rotation.
Just to reiterate, the rotation figures mentioned in this piece do not include the Champions League or domestic cups; all teams make numerous changes from competition to competition. But even this can get overplayed, as I will explain.
If, for example, Robbie Keane gets to play every Saturday match, but sits out every midweek fixture, is he going to lose his striking ‘rhythm’?
While I understand the psychological disappointment of being left out for a game, if he is playing regularly (every Saturday), then how could he lose his edge? My point is backed up by this second scenario: Liverpool aren’t in Europe, and go out of every cup at the first hurdle. The total games played would be 40, rather than the 60-70 that a club doing well in the cups can rack up.
No-one would then suggest that a player starting every Saturday game was going to lose his rhythm, would they? And yet it’s an identical situation in terms of games played to the first example I outlined.
Providing that a player who is rested knows that it is just that – and that he hasn’t been dropped – then he should be able to maintain his sharpness, if he still starts 40 games a season.
The furore about Keane being taken off when on for his hat-trick against West Brom is, for me, missing the bigger picture. While scoring his hat-trick would have boosted his confidence yet further, it was hardly in need of it after the two he’d already bagged. The bigger picture was banking the three points, getting Torres to stretch his legs, and saving Keane for a busy winter schedule, having already played 23 games this season.
If you keep a striker from playing 20% of the football in the first half of the season (ideally the lesser fixtures and at the end of matches when the game is sewn up), there has to be a good chance he could be 20% fresher in the second half of the campaign. Fitness coaches and sports scientists measure players’ fitness levels to the nth degree, to help the manager make his decisions, and yet so many fans make assumptions based on something they are not party to.
The more you reduce the risk of a player burning out, the greater your chances of having him fresh later on. Surely that stands to reason? There are no guarantees, because fate could intervene in other ways, but all those 20/30 minutes at the end of games add up, particularly as it is at the stage of games when the body is starting to grow fatigued.
Look at Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid a couple of seasons back. The Galacticos had to play every game; there was zero rotation, it simply wasn’t allowed. After a great start they ended the season on their knees, losing a load of games as they crashed and burned. The players all said that the manager should have rotated.
Another example: Arsenal were the only team from the top four to make an average of less than three changes per game from one Premiership match to the next last season – at 1.95 per game (the other big four teams made between 3.08 and 3.45). It’s not conclusive, but they were the team who fell away the most at the end. Perhaps – and I’m just surmising – that played a part, while the teams who made three or more changes had more left in the tank, and for Chelsea and United, that proved crucial in overtaking Arsenal.
Clearly the Gunners lost their confidence, but also, their stamina may well have been affected, too.
The fact is, Rafa’s teams since 2001 (at Valencia) have almost always ended the season far stronger than they started it.
The key this time was to be in the running by the halfway stage, and at the moment, Liverpool are more than in the running; they are leading two of the big favourites by some margin (for this juncture), and behind the other only on goal difference.
The hope has to be that the players are as sharp and fit in the second half of the season as they were last time out. And to do this, rotation is still necessary, as is taking off key players when the three points are in the bag.