Rotation is harder than you think. Back in the late seventies, Sussex CCC was blessed with four outstanding International cricketers: Imran Khan and Javed Miandad from Pakistan, Garth Le Roux and Kepler Wessels from South Africa. Two fine batters and two exceptionally quick bowlers, the quickest I ever kept to. The only problem anyone could see was that the cricketing rules at the time stated that only two “overseas” players could play at any one time, but that was felt to be easily overcome. Fitness levels, natural rotation and an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition would all come into play, and the management confidently expected to play every match that season with two top, top quality players ready to give their all for the club. Except it didn’t quite work out like that: in fact it didn’t work out at all. It soon became apparent that each of them needed to feel that they were the best at the club, that they would be the automatic choice for the most important games. Other issues came into it of course: exact contract details, personality clashes and political allegiances all had their part to play, not to mention the age old distrust of batters for bowlers and vice versa. However, at the heart of it, or so it seemed to me watching them on a daily basis, was the atavistic impulse to be the alpha male.
When I look back to those times and recall the bitter jealousies and furtive conversations I realise that it wasn’t a very happy club at all. And I go on to think about how hard it must be to manage young men not only in the prime of their life but also at their most aggressively competitive, and then I think of how easy it is for us Arsenal watchers to call for squad depth and regular rotation. But I also see that the whole notion of depth is perhaps fundamentally flawed, because you simply can’t have a squad of 24 players all good enough to be automatic first team choices, unless you have unlimited resources and extraordinary man-management skills. Imagine for a moment what would happen if everyone stayed fit, and how you would keep everyone at a peak of match-readiness, given that only 14 can be actively involved in any one match, only 18 chosen for the team. Think what would happen to those internationals who don’t quite make it onto the bench, and for how many matches they would stay happily involved with the project. I doubt it would be long before the whispers and the accusations of favouritism began to spread, and before you knew it you’d have a divided dressing-room and small groups playing for themselves rather than the club.
Injuries do happen, of course, and it is prudent not only to expect them but also to cover them. I do wonder though how many long-term injuries it is realistic to expect in a season, and I doubt if anyone would think it would have been as many as The Arsenal suffered in the season just gone. Peter Wood of Le Grove fame would argue that many of the injuries were caused by lack of rotation and the over-playing of key individuals, and to an extent I think he is probably right. However, that initial lack of rotation was caused by key injuries to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski , Cazorla and Walcott, while Wilshere was also in the process of returning from long-term injury himself, and so was perhaps not the force he has been (and we very much hope will be) in that exciting yet ultimately damaging pre-Christmas period. To have adequately foreseen and covered for those absences before the season started would have required a crystal ball and huge spending: to have managed all of those players (and those covering for them) had no one been injured may well have been virtually impossible.
Before the Cup Final I did what many fans always do, and tried to pick the Starting XI and bench – and found it hard to do. It would have been that much harder, of course, had Walcott and Chamberlain both been fit, because that might have seen Podolski and Cazorla on the bench, and Rosicky and Wilshere not even in the squad. I am using these names as examples, rather than expressions of preference, but they do help make the point that once you have genuine squad depth and more than 17 fully fit outfield players you begin to run into real management problems. How long would any competitive player wish to stay at a club if he doesn’t even make the bench for the top games? We often hear the cry go up about some prospective fancy signing of “how would he cope with a wet January night in Stoke?” but of course the fancy players don’t have to cope with those sort of nights, because they are left to the journeyman squad members. The real question is “how would Podolski cope with those nights” if due to depth of squad they are the only ones he gets picked for? My guess is that while he would cope with them very well because he is a wonderful player, he is sufficiently competitive to be straight on the phone to his agent with instructions to find him a club where his talents would be showcased in the glamour fixtures.
And this is where I find transfer talk so hard, because I know that for every top, top player that comes in, one of my favourites will either become ever so slightly surplus to requirements, or will leave the club pretty quickly. And I think it is probably also true that given reasonable luck accompanied by top medical support you don’t need a squad of much more than two keepers and 20 outfield players who are genuine first team players. But even with those numbers you are going to have rivalries and disappointments unless you have an outstanding manager with a proven record of earning the loyalty of his players and inspiring them to impossible achievements, like, say, going through a whole League season unbeaten. We have that man, and I am thrilled that he has committed for a further three years. I know that he will add to this group of players, but I also know that he will do it in a way that somehow manages to keep all of them happy. They are going to be very good indeed.
Today’s post was by @foreverheady