Guardiola had a ready-made rotation philosophy for this pandemic-hit season

We need the whole squad, every player of the team, if we are to be successful.

Pep Guardiola

Pep Guardiola is considered one of the best managers in football. During his time at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, he has won countless trophies, from his teams’ domestic leagues and cup competitions to the coveted Champions League. Yet one element of his managerial style that goes under the radar is his ability to rotate a squad to compete in multiple competitions. Guardiola rarely names the same starting XI in consecutive matches and is content making five to six changes per game. This well-drilled rotation philosophy has allowed Manchester City to continue fighting in all competitions this season despite the pandemic-condensed schedule.

DEALING WITH ROTATION

It is no secret that to compete at the highest level in multiple competitions, teams have to take into account rotating their first-team squad. The reasoning behind this is three-fold:

  • It prevents an overload in the number of minutes played, lowering the risk of injury
  • It prevents a decrease in physical performance, especially at high intensity, which can come from playing 2-3 matches per week
  • It creates competition within the squad because nobody has a guaranteed spot

Yet rotating players effectively is more difficult than it sounds; managers have to consider who to rotate and how. Typically, you see the whole first team being given the day off in a cup match against lower-league opposition. However, masters at squad rotation are more consistent, making continuous changes to their starting XI across all competitions and games. Sir Alex Ferguson was great at this, for example, changing one to two players per game.

GUARDIOLA’S ROTATION PHILOSOPHY

Guardiola is more radical in his approach to squad rotation though. He won La Liga with Barcelona in 2008-9 making an average of five changes to his starting line-up. A similar philosophy was present during his time at Bayern Munich and also now during his tenure as Manchester City manager. For example, he holds the record for making the most changes to his starting line-up in a Premier League season (144 – 2019/20) and he has gone 172 games without naming the same eleven before.

Underpinning Guardiola’s rotation philosophy is the belief that success is not reliant on one player but the whole squad. He wants his players to be competing with one another for a starting position as much as they are competing with the opposition. But the constant rotation is also a by-product of his fondness for tactical tweaking. The Spaniard picks players for the demands of each game individually, as much as he does to address fitness concerns and inspire motivation. Pick any permutation he wants and the team will operate at a high level that is often unreachable for others.

Squad rotation appears to be the principal reason why Manchester City has been able to contest multiple competitions season after season. It would be physically impossible to go far in the Premier League, the Champions League, the FA Cup, and the League Cup by relying on a preferred starting eleven, given the amount of games that would entail. However, spreading the burden across the first-team squad ensures a high level of performance, even when the games start stacking up. It is why you see City using their financial resources to buy depth in all positions – it is needed to make Guardiola’s philosophy work. But how does the Spaniard implement his rotation in practice?

ZOOMING IN ON THE 2020-21 SEASON

Squad rotation has been particularly important this season due to the coronavirus pandemic enforcing a condensed domestic and European schedule. It has meant City has played 46 games so far in just 181 days – an average of one game every 3.9 days. We can see from the graph below that this year has involved more two-match gameweeks than previous seasons:

There has been no time to ease your way into the season. This, plus a non-existent pre-season, has increased the risk of players picking up injuries and generally suffering from fatigue. Despite these added difficulties, City are sitting comfortably atop the Premier League and are still contesting the Champions League (quarter-finals), the FA Cup (semi-final) and the League Cup (final). I believe the underlying reason why the Citizens have been able to manage this is due to rotating their squad consistently.

Central to Guardiola’s squad rotation are the following three elements: (1) making multiple changes to his starting line-up each across all competitions; (2) limiting the number of consecutive starts for players (excluding his stalwarts); and (3) sharing out minutes across the first-team squad.

MAKING MULTIPLE CHANGES TO STARTING XI

The graph below details the number of changes made per game by Guardiola throughout the 2020-21 season. It shows that Pep has made a staggering 226 changes to his starting line-up at an average of 5.02 per game and has only named the same XI once. When delving further, just 18 of these changes have been enforced because of an injury or coronavirus, meaning 208 (92%) are proactive changes to manage the demands of the season.

This is a consistent feature across all competitions as well, though there is slight variation between them. As expected, Pep makes the most changes for domestic cup matches at an average of 6.13 per game. Yet the Champions League (average of 5.50 changes per match) and the Premier League (average of 4.43) also see a high number of changes.

The latter is particularly interesting as it represents an increase on previous seasons. Pep has historically been one of most prolific tinkers in the league, making an average of ~3.1 changes in 2016-17 and ~3.8 in 2019-20. However, this season’s average comfortably surpasses both of those figures with the Spaniard on course to break his own record for the most changes to his starting line-up across a Premier League year by 24 (up from 144 to 168 – an increase of 16.7%). This shows how Guardiola views squad rotation as an essential part of managing the increased demands of this season.

LIMITING THE NUMBER OF CONSECUTIVE STARTS

The by-product of making multiple changes to your starting line-up is that it limits the number of consecutive starts for players. Guardiola appears particularly concerned with keeping this average down given the sheer number of two-match gameweeks City are playing this season. Below is a graph detailing the average number of games started by each player before omission from the starting line-up (benching or out of squad):

On average, a City player will start 2.37 games before omission this season. However, this average is inflated by Ruben Dias, who appears to be heavily favoured by Guardiola, starting 2.9 games more than his nearest teammate. If we take Dias out, the average drops to just 2.13 and it falls even further to 2.01 if we take out both Dias and Ederson. This suggests starts are evenly shared amongst the first team by Guardiola in an almost conveyor belt fashion.

Nonetheless, there does appear to be three separate groups of players within Guardiola’s team. The first consists of Pep’s stalwarts – Dias, Ederson and Rodri – who on average start more than three games in a row before omission. Then there is the second group – Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, João Cancelo, Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin de Bruyne, Kyle Walker and Riyad Mahrez – who start between 2-3 games, whereas the final group of 12 players start even less, around 1-2 games before omission.

On face value, it is difficult to see how this system would benefit most players as they would not be able to build the type of momentum and performance that comes from playing multiple matches. However, as City do play so many two-match gameweeks, giving most players only 1-2 starts before omission actually means they play pretty consistently – typically once a week – which is a manageable amount across a season.

This is supported when looking at the percentage of starts vs. benchings vs. games missed through injury for City players during the 2020-21 season, which is detailed in the graph below.

Only eight City players have been benched more than they have started this season – Zack Steffen, Nathan Ake, Benjamin Mendy, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Eric Garcia, Fernandinho, Ferran Torres and Sergio Aguero – whereas 14 have enjoyed more starts. There are certain mitigating factors for some of those eight players as well. Steffen is the team’s second-choice goalkeeper, meanwhile, both Ake and Aguero have spent significant spells sidelined through injury. This high number of starters reflects the sharing of responsibility amongst the team and how Guardiola’s team is built for constant changes in the line-up.

SHARING OUT MINUTES ACROSS FIRST-TEAM SQUAD

The constant rotation of the starting line-up and the low average of starts per omission means Guardiola has been able to share out minutes across his first-team squad throughout the season. Below are five tables showing how many minutes each Manchester City has played in each competition – and in total – this year:

Excluding third-choice goalkeeper Scott Carson, each first-team squad member has played at least 450 minutes (five games or more), 17 of which have played 1,440+ minutes (16 games or more – more than a third of the season). Yet only four players have played 2,790+ minutes (31 games or more – two thirds of the season) and no one has played more than 78.6% of minutes this season. This shows how Guardiola has done an excellent job of utilising his first team squad across the four competitions.

We can demonstrate this better in graph form. Below is a graph showing the percentage of minutes played in total by each Manchester City player this season:

The average City player has played 50.01% of minutes this season, putting it bang in the middle for distribution. The graph also shows the concentration of players in the middle percentiles (25%-75%), indicating that the average is not down to overly favouring certain players but sharing it pretty evenly throughout the squad. This has helped keep players fresh and performing at a high level in multiple competitions.

IMPLICATIONS OF GUARDIOLA’S ROTATION POLICY

The counter argument often used against rotation is that it restricts continuity and momentum, which many deem important for success. Countless teams have won the Premier League through making the fewest number of changes possible and keeping a pretty stable starting XI – just look at Liverpool last year. However, not many teams have won multiple trophies like Manchester City has under Pep Guardiola and be in the hunt to win the quadruple consistently. Squad rotation undoubtedly plays a part in their ability to do so by sharing the burden across the whole first-team squad.

This has been particularly important this season amidst the condensed pandemic-hit schedule. Pep’s teams are built on constant changes to the starting line-up and the players performing on limited consecutive starts. Yet even Guardiola’s rotation policy has had to be in overdrive this year. Nonetheless, it is why whilst many other teams are struggling with form and fatigue at this point of the season, the Citizens are going from strength to strength.

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