Paco de Miguel
I was lucky enough to attend the ‘Audience with Rafa Benitez at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool and I saw that many subjects were dealt with in depth and others, due to time restrictions, were only dealt with more superficially. With some of these latter subjects, I think we can take the opportunity to deal with them more calmly now. Amongst these would be the famous rotation system, much criticised at the time but which now is advocated by nearly all coaches, as it is incontestable, if they want their teams to reach finals or fight for titles at the end of the season.
The controversy arises if you don’t understand why rotations are necessary. The teams that compete in the big leagues and demanding competitions have to take in to account the rotation system for 3 basic reasons:
The first reason is to prevent overload in the number of minutes played. It is commonly agreed that the players who play the most minutes are at a bigger risk of injury, especially injuries which occur due to fatigue (Lazarus & Folkman 1984)
Mick McCarthy was criticised for fielding virtually a Reserve team because he had heard Ancelotti say that the risk of injury in a match is 10% but rises to 30-40% in the following match if there is less than 3 days recovery from the preceding match. We don’t know exactly how much the risk increases but we do know that it does increase and you have to take it in to account.
The second reason is the decrease in physical performance, especially in high intensity, which comes from playing 2 or 3 matches in one week, as is shown in the following table:
The main physical difference between teams at the top level and the rest is in the capacity of their players to cover the most metres in high intensity (Mohr M et al 2003).
The loss of energy of some players can have very negative effects on team performance and this can be avoided if you field fresher players, both physically and mentally.
The third reason is to create competition within the squad. It’s obvious that players want to play every game and although at first they have difficulty coming to terms with having to rest, they end up understanding it and even asking to rest, once they realise the importance of the rotation system in winning trophies.
The concept of rotation is relatively new. In earlier times, substitutions were not allowed and later 2 were permitted finally reaching the 3 allowed today. But it may also be due to the level of performance which has evolved over time as the table shows:
Focussing on recent times, in our experience, it is well known that Rafa Benitez used rotation at Valencia where it produced trophies and a high level of team performance. At Liverpool, using the same ideas, he was able to create a very competitive team despite not being at the same level of the other big teams, winning the Champions League and reaching another final, winning a European Supercup, an FA Cup, a Charity Shield, always reaching the quarter or semi- finals of European competitions and finishing with 82 and 86 points, contesting the Premier League title right to the end. There is no doubt that for any team at the top level playing at the highest intensity in a large number of matches must use rotation. And that is what he did.
Manchester United won the league and the Champions League in 2007-8 without playing the same eleven in consecutive matches. Guardiola’s Barcelona of 2008-9 made an average of 5 changes to the starting line-up in every league game. There is no secret; every team playing a high density of matches has to use rotation to maintain the level of performance, the competition within the squad and to avoid injuries if they want to get to end of the season with a chance of achieving their objectives.