Pep Guardiola is as infamous for his tactical ingenuity as he is for his propensity to rotate players at what feels like a whim. Last year, he played left-backs Benjamin Mendy and Oleksandr Zinchenko in the same starting line-up, as well as giving third-choice goalkeeper Scott Carson a Premier League run-out. Those types of curveballs are impossible predict, but even who makes the XI game-to-game feels like a mystery at times. So, with a new season fast approaching, what can we expect from Guardiola rotation-wise in the first few games? This piece attempts to establish those very factors and tendencies.
To gain an indication into how Guardiola approaches rotation at the beginning of a season, it is important to look back at data from previous years. However, 2020-21 was a unique season as the coronavirus pandemic altered the typical football schedule, with the first match taking place six weeks later than normally would be the case. Therefore, I am focusing on the 2019-20 season as that will give us the latest and closest data to gauge Pep’s rotation strategy early on.
ANALYSIS – ALL COMPETITIONS
The season started for Manchester City on 10th August with four weekly Premier League games before the September international break. After, these league games were alternated with the start of the Champions League group stages and the third round of the League Cup. Below is a picture detailing City’s starting line-up for their first ten games (all competitions), as well as their last friendly fixture as a point of comparison.
Even though the sample sizes are small, we can see more changes to City’s starting line-up post-international break (average of 5.5) than before (2.75). This is an understandable consequence of moving from one-game-a-week to two, as well as playing in the early rounds of the League Cup – a competition that typically sees Premier League sides resting their key players. Though it must be noted that Guardiola tends to rely on his first-team squad for such a fixture, with minimal youth representation in the starting line-up. Their third round fixture against Preston North End in the 2019-20 season, for example, saw only one youth player make the XI (Taylor Harwood-Bellis). Yet Pep still made nine changes to the team that faced Watford in the league three days earlier.
ANALYSIS – PREMIER LEAGUE
If we narrow in on just Premier League games though, detailed in the table below, we see a similar trend in terms of changes but the difference is less exaggerated. The first four league games saw an average of 2.75 changes, while this increased to 3.5 changes in the second four. This suggests slightly more continuity in City’s starting line-ups for the league.
What is most interesting, however, is where these changes tend to occur. Out of the 25 total changes made, there were:
- 1 goalkeeping change (4%)
- 7 in defence (28%)
- 7 in midfield (28%)
- 10 in attack (40%)
We can now compare these percentages to the formation make-up of the team to see which positions saw an above average amount of rotation. Guardiola used either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 during the early part of the 2019-20 season, meaning out of the 88 positions up for grabs:
- 8 positions were for the goalkeeper (9.09%)
- 32 for defence (36.36%)
- 24 for midfield (27.27%)
- 24 for attack (27.27%)
This shows that the more attacking your position is in the team, the more likely you are to be rotated. Attackers made up 40% of the changes to the starting line-up, but only 27.27% of the positions available. On the other hand, the defence is more stable, with Pep preferring to build continuity in the back early on. Defenders made up 28% of the changes to the starting line-up, but 36.36% of the positions available.
Does this trend continue when we separate changes into enforced and proactive though? An enforced change is one made due to injury or suspension, whereas a proactive change is one made due to tactical or rest-related reasons. Guardiola had to make four enforced changes in the first eight league games in the 2019-20 season: three in defence and one in midfield. If we take out these changes, we are left with:
- 1 goalkeeping change (4.76%)
- 4 in defence (19.05%)
- 6 in midfield (28.57%)
- 10 in attack (47.62%)
Taking out enforced changes widens the gap between goalkeepers and defenders being less likely to be rotated by Guardiola compared to midfielders and attackers. For example, defenders made up 28% of the total changes but only 19.05% of proactive changes, whereas attackers made up 40% of the total changes but 47.62% of proactive changes. This means that if Guardiola makes a proactive change, there is a ~1 in 5 chance it is in defence and a ~1 in 2 chance it is in attack. Yet can we be confident of seeing similar trends in the early stages of 2021-22?
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2021-22
The biggest difference between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 seasons is the fact that a major tournament took place over summer, hindering the amount of preseason training for certain players. This has particularly affected City’s squad as numerous members reached the latter stages of the European Championships and Copa America. How much time off Guardiola gives these players and how quickly he wants to integrate them into his starting line-up is unknown.
However, the scheduling of games for 2021-22 could help tilt the Spaniard towards rotating little early on. There are only three Premier League games before the first international break in September, compared to four in 2019-20. With such few minutes, building continuity and rhythm seems like a more sensible idea, especially as the period after the first international break involves moving from one-game-a-week to two, requiring more players to navigate successfully.
What this could mean then, is that those who featured heavily for their national teams over summer, could be eased back just before the first international break with the aim to increase load afterwards when the schedule moves from one-game-a-week to two. This would allow the players who did not feature over summer a chance to build rhythm and minutes. But this does depend on whether Guardiola feels the team can cope without the likes of Kyle Walker, John Stones and Aymeric Laporte for a few weeks.
Therefore, it is still too soon to gauge who will feature in that early period, though there is a precedent for measured rotation from Guardiola, particularly in defence. We will know more after seeing the starting line-up for City in their Community Shield clash with Leicester City on 7th August – one week before the Premier League commences. As well as any comments from Pep on the progress of those late-returning stars.