Rotation always looks so much prettier when it’s scribbled on a white board. The reality of wholesale changes, as we saw with Arsenal last night, is almost always more problematic.
When you have so many players to pick from - and there’s so little to choose between them in terms of talent - I understand why the modern day manager is tempted to switch things up. Keeping people happy is an integral part of the job, as is maintaining freshness.
Let’s get it straight; Arsene Wenger didn’t blood kids in Zagreb. With a Capital One Cup derby against Spurs around the corner, I even saw the logic in giving certain players a spot of match practice. On paper (or a white board) Ospina, Debuchy, Gibbs, Arteta, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud shouldn’t ‘weaken’ the side dramatically.
Six was far too many to rest at once though. And this was at the heart of the Gunners’ problems in Croatia.
Leave one, two or three at home, and your opponents won’t automatically assume you think they’re pushovers. Instead, by removing the bulk of their preferred starting XI, Zagreb’s team talk was laid on a plate for head coach Zoran Mamic.
Rotation is never meant to be a sign of disrespect, but that’s how it’s often taken. I’ve played for enough underdogs down the years to know that when an opponent makes a raft of changes, the immediate assumption is that the other dressing room thinks it’s going to be easy. That’s a big incentive, right there. The lads are instantly fired up that little bit more.
Rustiness and a lack of cohesion are under-valued sticking points that don’t show up on a tactics board too.
With no competitive reserve football on offer, Premier League players just don’t get enough game time when they’re sat on the bench. Sharpness fades. It’s bound to. If they were all at peak fitness the odds of those six incoming Gunners producing the goods would have been significantly higher.
The frustration for Arsenal fans is that Wenger’s men found their rhythm against Stoke on Saturday, having taken a few weeks to get going. Picking a dramatically different XI was like starting all over again, and in an important Champions League tie that was a real gamble.
Whenever I was part of ‘rotated’ line-ups, finding fluency was never easy. How could it be? Football relies on chemistry and partnerships all over the field, and if there’s a hint of unfamiliarity it will cause the odd problem. I remember regulars showing frustration with those that came in because they weren’t on the same wavelength (in fact I’m sure I did it myself) and that’s not ideal. This is why I’ve always preferred gentle rotation. Everyone’s more comfortable with that.
In his post-match press conference the Arsenal manager hinted that he ‘didn’t get it right’ and when he said so I suspect his decision to start Mikel Arteta in place of Francis Coquelin was on his mind.
It’s almost unfair on the Spanish veteran to step in for a young midfield enforcer that brings unique qualities to this Arsenal side. At 33 his legs don’t move as quickly as they used to, and his pairing with Santi Cazorla always had the look of a duo that might get over-run against a young, hungry Croatian outfit.
Until the Gunners sign a defensive midfielder in the young Frenchman’s mould, his absence will be noticed more than anyone else. Without a suitable stand-in, he’s almost un-rotatable.
Wednesday was just a really bad night at the office for Arsenal. I’d argue that Olivier Giroud’s red card was more costly than the rotation itself, but even so, there are lessons to be learned from the experience.
Having watched them, I wonder if Brendan Rodgers contemplated sending the plane back to Merseyside to pick up the six regulars he left behind for Liverpool’s Europa League tie in Bordeaux tonight.
Without the majority of his best players, Liverpool are set to encounter many of the same issues the Gunners had.
Sticking a fiver on Les Girondins might be the smartest play.
Read more from Adrian Clarke