Our magnificent pounding of Ebbsfleet put me in a bit of an awkward position on Saturday. Our heavy rotation of the side over a number of games had me feeling a little uneasy, so I invited fans’ opinions on it for a half time debate on Calon FM.
Of course, by that point, our radically-altered side was 4-0 up, and the debate felt a little redundant!
My wariness over squad rotation wasn’t rooted in that old-fashioned notion that you should just pick your strongest eleven, grit your teeth and fight through the fixture list. Football has changed, and keeping players fresh is an important factor in team selection.
Think back to 2013, when we reached the finals of both the FA Trophy and the play-offs. We were on our knees by the end and went into the play-offs on a run of two wins from ten games.
Despite finishing second with a remarkable 98 points, a similar thing had happened the season before: we only dropped 40 points that season, but 12 of them came in a five-match run in April which clearly cost us the title, as we finished 5 points behind Fleetwood.
What threw me was the rarity of a National League side rotating regularly. Some of the teams who have bought their way out of the division – or spent until they went pop trying to – had the quality of squad to shuffle things around, but they are hardly the norm at this level. As the consensus at the start of the season was that our squad looked a little thin, perhaps it’s taken me a while to understand that actually we have greater depth than we’ve had for a considerable amount of time.
Before the Bank Holiday weekend, Ricketts had never made more than one voluntary change to his side, injuries having a bigger effect on the stability of his eleven. Since that point, he’s made three changes for each game of his own volition: Saturday was the first time in that sequence that there wasn’t a fourth, injury-enforced change.
Some players have been above the rotation. Rob Lainton, Manny Smith, Shaun Pearson, James Jennings and Luke Summerfield have all started when fit. It looks like Ricketts doesn’t want to tinker unnecessarily with his defence – Kevin Roberts has sat out one game due to the manager’s choice – and has also retained his senior midfielder in Summerfield.
Obviously, the high energy pressing game Ricketts prefers puts the greatest pressure on our midfielders and forwards, so it’s logical that he can retain a settled back four while resting those who are spending the match harrying opponents in the opposing half. However, it’s also interesting to see the full backs not being rotated, as our system asks them to work up and down the line, providing width, much more than last season. Perhaps the injuries both Jennings and Roberts have suffered already this season have at least meant they haven’t accumulated too many miles by now.
It’s impossible to maintain an aggressive pressing game for ninety minutes. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are held up as the epitome of that approach, but they often flag in the latter stages of games. Since March, only one of the goals they’ve conceded in the Premier League has been in the opening hour. Perhaps that also explains why, eleven games into the season, we are yet to concede in the first half.
The Ebbsfleet and Fylde games were graphic illustrations of the impossibility of maintaining that intensity for ninety minutes: we mixed that strategy with considerable periods of downtime, including the whole second half on Saturday!
So, I’m a cautious convert to our policy of rotation. If you’re still having trouble accepting it, ask yourself a question: did you enjoy the first half last Saturday? Without rotation, that sort of approach probably won’t be sustainable.
If I haven’t convinced you, you’ll just have to put up with it. With a sequence of three games in a week starting today, don’t expect the policy to change any time soon.