Ever since Claudio Ranieri was labelled “The Tinkerman” for altering his Chelsea team and using other players in the squad, the issue of squad rotation has been the subject of much debate on the terraces and in the press. Does such a policy allow the team to be freshened up, or does wholesale changes to a team disrupt it to such an extent that it’s not worth the risk? There were plenty of examples in the FA Cup at the weekend, where Premier League teams made wholesale changes and ended up the victim of cup upsets, however it could be argued this was more down to the clubs in question not regarding the FA Cup as important as their league campaigns.
This was brought into focus much closer to home with the rearranged game last night between Bristol City and Watford, rained off on Boxing Day. The home club came into the game bottom of the table but buoyed by a new manager in Sean O’Driscoll, and a good result against fellow strugglers Ipswich Town at the weekend. Watford are one of the division’s form teams, and their last two results had seen victories of 4-0 and 3-0, with six of the seven goals scored by their front pairing of Matej Vydra and Troy Deeney. To burden you with another stat, City were the division’s lowest goalscorers at home, Watford the highest goalscorers away. There could only be one result then surely?
Of course, one of the wonderful things about the second tier of English football is its unpredictability. Who would have forseen Peterborough ending leaders Cardiff City’s unbeaten home record at the end of last year? Gianfranco Zola, the Watford manager suggested as much when previewing the game, warning the increasingly confident Watford support that the result was far from a foregone conclusion. And so it was proved, with Bristol City emerging 2-0 victors on a wet and windy night at Ashton Gate.
Taking a look at the Watford forums and Twitter posts, there has been much derision of Zola’s decision to make six changes to the team which won at Nottingham Forest. Going back to New Year’s Day, Zola made a similar number of changes for the home game with Charlton (who themselves were on a poor run of form at the time), and Watford lost the game 4-3, in a performance notable for some dreadful defending. Fans are therefore pointing the finger at the manager, saying he hasn’t learned his lesson, that he gave the home side the initiative by not selecting the in form strike pairing, and even one of the Bristol City scorers has come out and suggested the former Italian international showed his side no respect.
Let’s firstly look at the changes made. At the back, Fitz Hall replaced club stalwart Lloyd Doyley. Doyley was not even on the bench, which suggests the possibility that he may have been injured, although nothing has been confirmed. Doyley has recently returned to the side after a spell injured, Hall has been an important member of the back line, and has been on the bench recently after his own return from injury. Many cited the absence of Hall as a reason for the defensive shambles in the Charlton game, so his return was hardly unwelcome. In midfield, John Eustace and Jonathan Hogg replaced Nathaniel Chalobah and Christian Battocchio. Club captain Eustace has spent most of the first half of the season injured, and Zola had admitted he needed time to get back up to match fitness, Hogg had been a regular in the side before an injury kept him out just after New Year. Battocchio has only recently had a few starts in the side, whereas the Chelsea loanee Chalobah has been first choice for most of his time at the club, but on occasions has shown a need for a break…he is after all only 18 years old. Perhaps the strangest decision was to replace wing back Marco Cassetti with youngster Sean Murray, who burst onto the scene last season. Former international Cassetti is 35, so may not be as fresh as others if playing three games in seven days, but Murray had not appeared at wing back before, and has been out of the squad in the last few months. More notably, up front, free scoring Vydra and Deeney were replaced by fans favourite Fernando Forestieri, who recently signed for the club permanently, and Alex Geijo. The rotation of the front pairings was a regular feature before Christmas, however recently with Deeney and particularly Vydra scoring so many, they have tended to retain their places.
Looking back over the season, Zola’s decisions to make changes are more regular than just the examples of the Bristol City and Charlton games. In the first half of the season, Deeney for example would have runs of three or four games in the side, then be on the bench, usually replaced by Geijo. Forestieri was preferred earlier in the season to Vydra, with Zola feeling that the young Italian-Argentinian offered more to the team than his Czech team mate. Nevertheless, Vydra made appearances again every few games, notably replacing Forestieri at Leeds in a game in which Zola again made a raft of changes to the team and Watford ran out 6-1 winners.
It has been well publicised that Watford’s squad this season is on the large side, and after the game, Zola defended his decision to use some of his squad, and quite rightly pointed out that the players who came in were of a quality that most sides in the division would be delighted with, and from personal viewing he’s not wrong. The players came in would have been fresh, hungry to show the manager why they should be playing, and more to the point, will have probably been working on training on what they needed to do in the game, playing in a well practiced formation, and if they had shown signs of not being up to scratch, it’s doubtful they would have been anywhere near selection.
It’s all very well for those that sit behind a keyboard, or view the players for 90 minutes, and think that since the team were flying on Saturday, all is well and they’ll just turn up and steamroller a struggling team three days later. I’ve been fortunate to listen to talks from sports managers and coaches from many different levels, and the contrast between such simplified views and the reality are huge.
Many football clubs in the top divisions these days are in the position where they can not only afford to have larger squads of first team quality players, cover in every position, but also a large team of staff, who can keep the players well looked after. Watford are in the position of having a good medical department, and who is to say that several of those rested last night were not showing signs of tiredness following Saturday’s win, and with another game coming up on Saturday a decision had to be made on whether a particular player took part yesterday or risked picking up an injury. Who can say that one of the players left out had not performed well in training on the Monday and his manager therefore felt that the time was right to give the player a break to give him a nudge that his performances were slipping.
Players are not machines, and managers are employed to make these decisions based on what they see and understand on a daily basis. None of us on the outside are privy to this, all we can do is trust that the manager will get it right, knowing he will be only too aware of the cost of getting things wrong in the modern game. The changes could have been planned weeks ago, and if a Geijo header in the first half had gone in, or City’s fortunate first goal hadn’t, maybe the result would have gone the other way, suddenly Zola’s a genius again. To say that an unchanged Watford side would have won is impossible to say. Comparing last night to the Leeds game for example, Watford saw the home side reduced to ten men, then nine men with still more than half an hour left of the game. These things happen, and sometimes it’s just not your day.
Over the season, Watford have improved from a stuttering start to producing some top class football from some technically gifted players, under a very likeable manager. Perhaps the club doing so well has raised expectations to such a degree, that tolerance for the occasional slip up has decreased. But like any football team, Watford are far from the finished article, and the learnings from games like last night will benefit them in the long run. The home team battled well, defended for their lives and took advantage to gain three valuable points. That’s what keeps the game we all love so interesting.