Thursday, September 20, 2012
Size isn't everything
As they beat Swansea City on Saturday, Aston Villa used 14 players. There is nothing unusual in that except that, by fielding 11 starters and three substitutes, Paul Lambert deployed as many footballers in the space of 90 minutes as Ron Saunders did in Villa's entire title-winning campaign in 1980-81.
If football was a team game three decades ago, it is a squad game now. But that comes with complications. Building a side seemed simpler, especially in the times of tactical uniformity. When everyone in English football played 4-4-2, it was a case of finding a goalkeeper, a pair of full-backs, central defenders, centre midfielders, wingers and strikers, plus a handful of reserves.
Now there are endless permutations and combinations, depending upon formations. Now the demands of European competitions mean top clubs could play 60 games a year while the pace of the game may mean injuries occur more frequently. Either way, squad rotation is more necessary.
Yet stockpiling players is not the solution, and not just because of Premier League regulations. The 25-man squad rule has a negligible impact: any club with a decent youth system or that buys young players can have a pool of 30 or more footballers. In any case, keeping too many with little chance of first-team football is a recipe for disharmony and disillusionment.
While major tournaments last a month and seasons the best part of ten, FIFA offers a model. The 23-man party each country can take to a World Cup allows for three goalkeepers and two players for every outfield position. Yet while goalkeeper is a specialist position, so is striker, and three of the Premier League's elite clubs that only operate with one up front contrived to end the transfer window with just two senior centre forwards. It is at least one too few.
In Liverpool's case, that was a well-chronicled cock-up. But Chelsea, with only Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge, and Tottenham, with only Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor, will also lack attacking options should injury strike. Indeed, Spurs loaned out their third striker, Harry Kane, at the end of the window, perhaps reasoning the versatile Clint Dempsey can step in.
But while Andre Villas-Boas has a strong starting XI, Spurs' squad is proof that assembling a group of players can be harder. There are four senior goalkeepers - clearly one too many - but just a solitary specialist left-back. Now he, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, is injured, just after his deputy, Danny Rose, was loaned to Sunderland. Meanwhile, Villas-Boas appears to have a surfeit of central midfielders, a problem that is still more evident at Stoke: Tony Pulis usually plays 4-4-2 but now has eight men competing for two spots.
The opposite applies at Stamford Bridge. While Roberto Di Matteo has a host of wingers, after the exits of Raul Meireles and Michael Essien, Oriol Romeu provides the only cover for Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel in central areas unless Ramires or Oscar are dropped into a deeper position.
A previous Chelsea squad was pruned at a cost. In 2006-07 and on Roman Abramovich's instruction, Jose Mourinho was forced to get by with a group of 20 and found it too few, partly because Khalid Boulahrouz was one of them.
As they lost their league title, Chelsea were left over-reliant on a small core. Squad-building is about planning for most eventualities, even if some situations are so extreme that managers should not be blamed for failing to anticipate them. Arsenal spent the best part of two months last season without a specialist senior full-back after all four were injured at the same time. With varying degrees of difficulty, players such as Thomas Vermaelen, Johan Djourou and Francis Coquelin had to slot in.
But what Arsenal's recent past proves is the significance of utility men in any squad. They reached the 2006 Champions League final with midfielder Mathieu Flamini standing in superbly at left-back when Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy were both sidelined.
And it illustrates that versatile players constitute an insurance policy in themselves. Sometimes those derisively deemed a Jack of all trades and master of none can prove invaluable through their ability to slot in wherever needed without being a weak link. John O'Shea accumulated the best part of 400 appearances for Manchester United operating as everything from emergency goalkeeper to auxiliary striker, but usually filling a gap anywhere in defence or the centre of midfield.
A former United team-mate, Phil Neville, took his adaptability to Goodison Park, where he has been joined by likeminded individuals. David Moyes named the smallest squad in the division, with just 19 senior players, but almost every outfield player can adopt at least two positions. Like Leon Osman, Steven Pienaar and Steven Naismith, Neville has three strings to his bow. Everton beat Manchester City last season with Tony Hibbert doing a fine impression of a central defender, drew at Old Trafford with Sylvain Distin an auxiliary left-back and reached the 2009 FA Cup final when Tim Cahill was compensating for the absence of the professional centre forwards.
A slender group has shown it is not always the size of the squad that counts but the number of options a manager has in every position.