It’s great to rotate…yeah!
A few weeks ago the season looked like it was fizzling out. Suddenly, for all the wrong reasons, it has become interesting again with plenty of views on what’s gone wrong and two main theories: 1) lack of depth in the squad 2) lack of experience in the squad. To add to the noise, here’s my theory – poor use of the squad. Yes, things are easy in hindsight but here goes…
At the start of the season, Nigel Clough spoke of his preference to work with a small squad, which seemed to be working fine until recently but in hindsight, it seems the problems that came to haunt us were in the post. I reckon some of this could have been partially mitigated by some sensible rotation of the squad which would also have had wider benefits.
- Clough has preferred players and for the first half of the season was determined to shoe-horn them into the team. This was definitely the case with Hughes, Bryson and Hendrick, where we saw Hughes or Bryson playing wide left at times before switching the formation around from 4-4-2 to 4-51 vice versa and everything between. We were often less than the sum of our parts.
- The Rams style of high work rate takes its toll on players, especially in midfield and Connor Sammon. Its unrealistic to expect players to play 49 games at this tempo (look at Mainz for example who were early leaders of the Bundesliga a couple of years ago. They played such an intense pressing game, players were routinely subbed at half time having done their shift. Ours have to do it for 180 minutes most weeks).
- Players inevitably pick up wear and tear hamstring and groin injuries and can’t shake them. They will also be fatigued physically and mentally.
- Favoured players will play when not 100%, carrying on too long or coming back too early.
- A viscous circle is created where fringe players get less game time, become less sharp and less prepared when they are called upon. In the case of Tyson and Robinson, bored and wanting to go (Clough has spoke in the past of having 4 or 5 strikers to chop and change but has shown a real reluctance to do that this season).
- Lack of rotation/resting creates a culture where players are deemed to be “dropped” if not selected or in poor form if subbed before 80 minutes.
Football is no longer about having 14 players to last you the season. Most Rams fans from a certain era will be able to name 90% of the ‘classic’ Cox promotion team off the top of their head (Wallington, Sage, Forsyth, Williams, Hindmarch, McLaren, Micklewhite, Davison, Gee, Gregory, Callaghan would be not far off) but ask any Rams fan to name a ‘classic’ Billy Davies promotion team two decades later and they couldn’t – because there isn’t one. Davies chopped and changed – “freshened things up” in modern parlance – all the time and continued to do so at Forest in his two play-off runs.
Funnily enough, when Clough has changed the team this season (without injuries), it has worked to some degree. Jeff Hendrick’s rest completely rejuvenated his season and when Sammon was rested at Charlton and Middlesbrough, it did us no harm. By all accounts Tyson and Robinson weren’t great at either but with Sammon joining the fray against tiring defences, we finished both games on the front foot.
In my opinion, utilising Jacobs, Davies, Tyson and Robinson a little more (and possibly others such as Bailey, Doyle and Freeman) results wouldn’t have suffered and we’d have a bit more in the tank now. Wouldn’t it be great to have Will Hughes coming on after 70 minutes to pick open a tired defence? or Bryson upping the energy in the latter stages after Hendrick, Hughes, Coutts et al had done their shift? Unfortunately, Clough can’t bear not to start them all – all the time.
Which brings me to January. No one was too bothered about strengthening at the time but we actually weakened, losing Tyson and Bailey. Bailey has been out the equation all season but to my mind, he could have helped no end in easing the burden on existing players. We seem to have forgotten the briefly brilliant 4-2-3-1 but Bailey and a.n.other screening the back four might have served us well recently with three good players in front – solid or adventurous depending on the mood.
I’m also not entirely convinced by the experience argument and don’t think Clough means getting a warhorse in but wishes our existing players had a bit more. We were still shipping late goals with the likes of Barker, Savage and Roberts in the side. People often mention John Eustace but the fact is that Hendrick wouldn’t have broken through had we have signed him. Clough isn’t likely to drop anyone for an old stager and who would come to sit on the bench to be used sparingly? Clough’s tactics of finding the corners to close a game out are the problem to me as this concedes possession – but that’s another story.
I also think we have had genuine bad luck with injuries that no squad can realistically cover perfectly. Having three right backs injured at once (Brayford, Freeman, JOC) cannot be legislated for. Even Man U have to play Valencia and Carrick at the back sometimes!
So that’s my thoughts – a lot of over used players and quite a few under used ones. A combination that’s left us in a bit of a pickle.
I’m still optimistic as ever though – onwards and sideways!