Pep Roulette: GW2 v Norwich (H)

Manchester City started their Premier League defence with a lacklustre 1-0 loss to Tottenham on Sunday, seeing them languish in 13th place. Manager Pep Guardiola will be hoping for a response from his team in their next fixture against promoted side, Norwich City, on Saturday (3pm kick-off). Boosted by the availability of his late returner stars, we can expect numerous changes to the starting line-up. But where will those changes come and who is most likely to come into the XI?


Pep opted for a 4-3-3 against Nuno Espírito Santo’s side, making three changes to the team who lost 1-0 to Leicester City in the Community Shield one week earlier. Zack Steffen, Cole Palmer and Samuel Edozie made way for Ederson, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling respectively.

Image taken and adapted from Google Search.

The line-up meant that out of the six late-returning players – Ederson, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Gabriel Jesus and Sterling – two were included in City’s XI, despite only returning to training on Monday (or in Laporte’s case Wednesday/Thursday). Ederson’s inclusion was unsurprising as the team’s Premier League goalkeeper. However, Sterling’s was and this gives us a good indication of how quickly he was able to get his fitness back up to speed.

In terms of the third change, though he made a cameo on the wing against Leicester City, Grealish lined up in midfield for City against Spurs. It highlights the positional flexibility of the former Aston Villa man, which will prove valuable when the schedule moves from one game a week to two.

The final big surprise was Kevin de Bruyne being named on the substitute bench. The Belgium midfielder had been partaking in group and individual training sessions throughout the week to manage an ankle injury. Yet his inclusion showed that Pep and City’s medical team had deemed him fit enough to play some part in the match.



One place in the starting line-up that will not change is in goal. Barring any last-minute injuries, Ederson will retain his place. However, he could have a very different defence in front of him against Norwich.

Pep opted for a back four of Cancelo-Dias-Ake-Mendy against Tottenham, largely out of necessity as Walker, Stones and Laporte were all late returners. Nonetheless, all three should be back in contention this weekend. Given City’s following fixture is against Arsenal, I am expecting Pep to give some of these players minutes. Walker looks a likely bet to come in at right-back, with either Stones or Laporte set to partner Dias at centre-back.

Yet they are not the only changes that could happen in defence. Benjamin Mendy had a poor game against Spurs, so could be dropped in favour of Oleksandr Zinchenko, who is in need of a start. This makes a back four of Walker-Dias-Stones/Laporte-Zinchenko the most likely scenario.


Midfield is another area where Pep may have a dilemma. Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan and Grealish formed a midfield three against Spurs that was left exposed at times due to Fernandinho operating as a single pivot. While that might not prove as problematic against Norwich, the fact that Gundogan suffered a shoulder injury at the end of Sunday’s game and looks set to sidelined this weekend is.

Normally, Pep would have Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne to call upon in such circumstances. However, there are doubts over the former’s future so might not be risked until the transfer window is closed, while the latter is managing an ankle problem that raises doubts over his ability to start. De Bruyne managed 11 minutes against Spurs, but it seems more likely that he will have a 30/45-minute cameo against Norwich rather than play from the beginning.

This leaves Pep with a few options:

  • Play Fernandinho and Rodri in a double pivot
  • Revert to three at the back and a midfield two (supported by advanced full-backs)
  • Utilise someone “rogue” to fill that final midfield spot

The first option appears unnecessarily cautious against Norwich, though it would give the full-backs more attacking license. This makes either the second or third scenario seem more likely.

Firstly, in terms of a back three, there are a few permutations. It could provide an opportunity to give both Stones and Laporte minutes alongside Dias. Alternatively, Walker could form a three with Dias and Stones/Laporte. Either way, this would most likely lead to Rodri and Grealish starting in midfield as a two.

However, if Pep does want to retain a 4-3-3 formation, who could he use in that final midfield spot if Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne are unavailable? Well, he could turn to youth player Cole Palmer, who played there in pre-season, or he could utilise Cancelo or Zinchenko. The two full-backs have played in midfield under Pep before, so their positional flexibility could provide a short-term solution for City against Norwich.


Where the XI seems more settled is in attack. Mahrez-Torres-Sterling operated as the starting three against Spurs and with both Mahrez and Sterling subbed off during the game, they look likely to retain their places against Norwich. This leaves one place up for grabs.

As Ferran Torres played the full 90 minutes and Phil Foden is still sidelined with a foot injury, it seems likely that Torres will drop down to the bench in favour of Jesus, who appears to be building towards a start after enjoying a 20-minute substitute appearance on Sunday. This would mean all of Pep’s available attackers will have gained a decent amount of minutes over the first two gameweeks – good preparation ahead of playing Arsenal in GW3.


Weighing up the options available, my City predicted line-up against Norwich is a flexible 3-5-2 / 4-3-3:

Ederson; Walker; Dias; Stones; Zinchenko; Rodri; Cancelo; Grealish; Mahrez; Jesus; Sterling

*This is provisional ahead of any further selection updates from Pep in his pre-match press conference*

Pep Roulette: GW1 v Tottenham (A)

The Premier League kicks off once again on 13th August, which means the infamous return of one manager and his hard-to-predict starting XIs. Pep Guardiola is known for his rampant rotation as much as his tactical ingenuity. However, with the lack of break between the major summer tournaments – the European Championships and Copa America – and the start of the domestic campaign, early team selection for Manchester City could be even more difficult to second guess this time around. So what could we expect to see come Sunday afternoon away to Tottenham Hotspur?


City’s starting line-up in their final pre-season match – a 1-0 loss to Leicester City in the Community Shield – provides the basis for what their XI could look like against Spurs on Sunday. Guardiola opted for a 4-3-3 with nine first-team players and two youth products:

Formation taken from Google.

In the past, the Spaniard has only made 3-4 changes between the Community Shield and the first league fixture of the season, so we can expect a similar number to the starting line-up against Spurs on Sunday. Cole Palmer and Samuel Edozie both look likely to drop out in place of the established first-teamers, but who else could be on the chopping block?


One change could easily come in goal. First-choice goalkeeper Ederson returned to training on Monday 9th August after reaching the Copa America finals with Brazil over the summer. This has meant second-choice stopper Zack Steffen has been filling in between the sticks during pre-season.

However, it seems unlikely that Steffen will keep his place in the starting line-up for City’s opening league game as he has been traditionally used as the domestic cup keeper, whereas Ederson typically plays all Premier League and European matches. Though a lack of training and pre-season minutes could be an issue, it would be surprising for the latter to not be in goal against Spurs at the weekend.


Joao Cancelo and Benjamin Mendy have been frequently used as City’s two full-backs during pre-season, accumulating 285 and 286 minutes respectively. The former’s inclusion has been expected given Kyle Walker’s delayed return following England’s run to the final in the Euros, meanwhile Mendy’s is more of a surprise as fellow left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko has been back in the fold for a couple of weeks now.

Reports suggest that this is Mendy’s last chance to impress Guardiola after four roller-coaster years in Manchester. Yet the fact that he has started all four pre-season games breeds confidence that the Frenchman will be City’s starting left-back against Tottenham on Sunday.


Whether Guardiola will stick with his pre-season partnership of Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake at centre-back, however, is less certain. The latter conceded that crucial penalty against Leicester City in the Community Shield, highlighting the prevalence of errors in his game. Therefore, Ake’s position in the starting line-up would appear to be the most precarious. The problem for City, though, is that their other options – Aymeric Laporte and John Stones – are only just coming back to training.

Stones returned on Monday, meanwhile Laporte has to wait till either Wednesday or Thursday due to a positive coronavirus case on his flight back to England. This appears to rule Laporte out of City’s first league game on Sunday, with Stones an outside bet depending on what his initial fitness is like. That leaves midfielder Fernandinho as the only other option to replace Ake at centre-back, but that would be a bold call by Guardiola against a fast-paced Tottenham attack.


Replacing Ake with Fernandinho also appears unlikely due to the ramifications this would have on City’s midfield. Fernandinho has been the most-used midfielder in pre-season and looks set to retain that holding role given Rodri is yet to start a game since returning to training. Ilkay Gundogan seems like an obvious choice to partner Fernandinho in either a midfield two or three, with Bernardo Silva a likely replacement for Cole Palmer. Kevin de Bruyne is a big doubt for the game against Tottenham due to concerns over an ankle injury.

Yet it is in attack that City’s first-team players have had the fewest pre-season minutes. Riyad Mahrez has been the most senior inclusion throughout and would be a likely starter at the weekend, with Ferran Torres the next-placed after playing 74 minutes against Leicester City.

However, the third spot is more uncertain. Phil Foden is sidelined with a foot injury sustained while away with England over the summer, whereas Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus only returned to training on Monday after their escapades with their respective national teams. Whether their fitness levels are ready for a competitive match on Sunday remains to be seen.

That leaves new signing Jack Grealish as a potential starter. The former Aston Villa attacker has 25 minutes under his belt for City, but it would be a big ask to start against Tottenham in what has proved to be a difficult match in the past for the Premier League champions. If it is deemed too soon for Grealish, Guardiola will have to weigh up throwing Sterling or Jesus into the mix or retaining faith in a youngster to play 45-60 minutes.


City played Spurs three times last season and in each Guardiola stuck to either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Tottenham have a new manager in Nuno Espírito Santo, which could change how Pep approaches the game, yet it still gives a useful guide on personnel choices.

2-0 away loss – November 2020 (Premier League):

(4-3-3): Ederson; Walker; Dias; Laporte; Cancelo; De Bruyne; Rodri; Bernardo; Mahrez; Jesus; Torres.

3-0 home win – February 2021 (Premier League):

(4-3-3): Ederson; Cancelo; Stones; Laporte; Zinchenko; Bernardo; Rodri; Gundogan; Foden; Jesus; Sterling.

1-0 win – April 2021 (Carabao Cup final):

(4-2-3-1): Steffen; Walker; Dias; Laporte; Cancelo; Fernandinho; Gundogan; Mahrez; De Bruyne; Sterling; Foden.

Chelsea: 2020-21 Season Review

It was a season of two halves for Chelsea. Manager Frank Lampard came into it having developed a side brimming with young talent that now needed to be integrated with the summer acquisitions of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Ben Chilwell, Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy. However, he was unable to ensemble a cohesive team and was swiftly replaced with Thomas Tuchel in January. Switching from a back four to a back three provided a defensive solidity that would see the Blues go on to win the Champions League, as well as achieve top four in the league and reach the final of the FA Cup. This article aims to summarise the key developments to Chelsea’s squad during the 2020-21 season.


Chelsea played 59 games this season: 38 in the Premier League, 13 in the Champions League, two in the League Cup and six in the FA Cup. Below is a graph detailing the changes made per game to their starting line-up across the year. Interestingly, Frank Lampard (4.63) and Thomas Tuchel (4.64) made almost the same average number of changes to their starting line-ups, giving the Blues an overall average of 4.64 changes made per game.

Yet there are some differences between Lampard and Tuchel’s rotation styles. The former fluctuated from a period of little rotation to mass rotation, evidenced through the steep peak and trough in the three-game average. Alternatively, Tuchel preferred to keep his changes within a tighter range (3-7 changes) until the final few games of the season where he narrowed in on a starting XI for the Champions League final.

Could there be mitigating factors for these differences, such as the number of injuries in the squad? The graph below shows the number of Chelsea players missing a game through injury throughout the 2020-21 season. What it shows is that Lampard did, in fact, have to deal with more injuries in his squad than Tuchel, particularly at the beginning of the season. This typically correlates to less rotation as the options available become limited – we saw a similar trend with Manchester City this season. So it is reasonable to put these differences down to mitigating circumstances rather than personal style.


But which players were used the most throughout the 2020-21 season? The below scatter graph plots the availability and utility of Chelsea players across all 59 games, with the medians included on both axes.

  • Availability is classed as the percentage of minutes a player was available for selection out of the total possible minutes in a season (5,310 for Chelsea)

  • Utility is defined as the percentage of minutes played out of the total minutes available for selection

The players above the utility median were most used throughout the season, while the players to the right of the availability median means they were frequently included in the matchday squads. Typically, availability can show if a player has had an injury-free campaign, but it can also show the players who are out of favour with their manager.

Left-backs Marcus Alonso and Emerson are good examples of the latter. Neither player missed a game through injury, according to Transfermarkt, but they failed to make the matchday squad on 21 and 19 occasions respectively, showing how far down the pecking order they were. However, it is worth remembering that Chelsea switched managers part-way through the season, so it was possible for a player to not be used by one manager but feature frequently under the other. For a detailed breakdown of who was favoured under Lampard vs. Tuchel, I wrote an earlier article analysing the difference.

Nonetheless, certain players were integral to both managers. We can find these in the top two quadrants. Some (Cesar Azpilicueta, Jorghino and Mason Mount) continued their presence from the previous season, while others (Edouard Mendy, Timo Werner and Ben Chilwell) were new signings who integrated well into the starting XI. Together, they represent Chelsea’s core.


We see a similar nexus of players when looking at the data on starts for Chelsea during the 2020-21 season. The scatter graph below plots total number of starts (as a percentage) and the average number of starts before omission from the starting line-up. This helps us see who started more frequently, as well as who was rotated more often.

Seven players feature in the top-right quadrant, indicating that they were above the median for both total starts and average number of starts before omission. These were Mendy, Mount, Azpilicueta, Werner, Chilwell, Jorginho and Thiago Silva. Yet the first two are comfortably ahead of the rest. As first-choice goalkeeper, Chelsea’s reliance on Mendy is expected. But the fact both Tuchel and Lampard used Mount so often and rotated him infrequently is a testament to the skills and tactical maturity of the 22-year-old midfielder.


So who had the most involvement in Chelsea’s season? The below graph shows the percentage of minutes played across the season. Fourteen players find themselves above the team’s average of 42.31%, yet none had a percentage higher than 80%, suggesting that minutes were shared out well among the squad.

Mount was Chelsea’s most involved player, with Werner and Azpilicueta the most involved attacker and defender respectively. Others, such as Tammy Abraham, will be disappointed by how little they were involved though. Abraham had a breakthrough season the year before under Lampard, but struggled to make the starting XI under Tuchel. Whether this changes as the German undertakes his first full season as Chelsea boss is a mystery. Olivier Giroud‘s departure means there are attacking minutes up for grabs, however, this depends on a new centre-forward not being signed over summer.

In terms of what to look out for in the 2021-22 season, it will hinge on the formation Tuchel opts for long-term. He implemented variations of a back three in his first five months, which proved successful defensively. Yet the balance felt overly so at times, stifling Chelsea’s offensive potential. So, it is a case of waiting to see whether Tuchel sticks or twists come August 14th.

How does Guardiola approach rotation at the beginning of a season?

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.


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.


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?


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.

Manchester City: 2020-21 Season Review

Manchester City had another successful season under Pep Guardiola, winning two pieces of silverware. They wrestled the Premier League title back from rivals Liverpool in comprehensive fashion, as well as maintaining their dominance in the League Cup. The Citizens also reached the latter stages of their other two competitions – the UEFA Champions League (losing finalists) and the FA Cup (losing semi-finalists). Despite playing the most games of any English team, Manchester City negotiated the pandemic-hit season with ease. Guardiola’s philosophy towards rotation was a big reason for this. He prefers to spread the burden across the squad rather than in a small concentration of players. This review aims to summarise how exactly Guardiola utilised his squad during the 2020-21 season.


Manchester City played 61 games this season: 38 in the Premier League, 13 in the Champions League, five in the League Cup and five in the FA Cup. Below is a graph detailing the changes made per game to their starting line-up across the year. Guardiola made an average of 5.35 changes per game, cementing his place as one of the most prolific tinkers in 2020-21.

Yet it was a season of two halves for City in terms of rotation. Their three-game average was consistently below their season average in the first half of the season, whereas it was consistently above in the second half. This is perhaps unsurprising as one would expect to see more rotation towards the end of a season to ease the increasing burden on players. However, I would argue that this was more due to the amount of injuries City had at the beginning of the season, which restricted Guardiola’s ability to rotate.

As we can see from the graph below, City’s three-game average for players missing through injury was consistently above the season average for the first 16 games of the season, as well as over the dreaded Christmas period, yet was consistently below for the final 24 games. This means Guardiola had less players at his disposal at the beginning of the season than he did at the end, meaning his ability to rotate was severely constricted early on. But which players benefitted from this the most?


The below scatter graph plots the availability and utility of Manchester City players for the 2020-21 season.

  • Availability is classed as the percentage of minutes a player was available for selection out of the total possible minutes in a season (5,490 for City)

  • Utility is defined as the percentage of minutes played out of the total minutes available for selection

Fifteen players feature in the top-right quadrant that represents those with availability above 50% and utility above 50%. This shows how Guardiola was able to distribute minutes well across his squad. There were not many players which he relied on heavily. In fact, only Ruben Dias and Ederson had a utility above 80%.

Considering City’s first-team squad consisted of just 23 players, it also means just eight players failed to make it into the best quadrant. These were Fernandinho, Ferran Torres, Benjamin Mendy, Zack Steffen, Eric Garcia, Sergio Aguero, Nathan Ake and Scott Carson. Only the last four had seasons hampered by serious injuries, whereas the other four were reliable bench options.

Interestingly, City had no players in the top-left quadrant that represents low availability yet high utility – a sign that a starter has suffered serious injury problems mid-season. This stands them in stark contrast to their league rivals Liverpool, who had three players there after their three senior centre-backs were sidelined during the season. It indicates that City’s injury problems this year have been relatively mild and they benefitted as a result.


We see a similar dynamic when looking at the total number of starts (as a percentage) and average number of starts before omission from City’s starting line-up for the 2020-21 season, detailed in the scatter graph below. Only one player had less than 10% of starts and that was Scott Carson – City’s third-choice goalkeeper. The biggest concentration of players can be found with 60-70% of starts, highlighting again how Guardiola shared the burden across his squad.

The one outlier is Ruben Dias, who cemented himself as City’s principal figure at centre-back. Though he started a similar percentage of games as Ederson (~80%), his average starts before omission was considerably higher, demonstrating that Guardiola was less likely to rest the Portuguese national than his first-choice goalkeeper, who sat out domestic cup games. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in 2021-22 as we have seen how dangerous it can be to become reliant on one centre-back.


What does this mean for players’ overall involvement in City’s season? The below graph shows the percentage of minutes played across the season and again we see the burden spread out across the squad. Thirteen players find themselves above the team’s average of 45.83%, yet none had a percentage higher than 80%.

Dias was the most involved defender, with Rodri and Raheem Sterling the most involved midfielder and attacker respectively. The latter is a surprise given that a common narrative towards the end of the season was that the 26-year-old had fallen down the pecking order. However, it shows that you can still accumulate a tonne of minutes at City without playing in the big games and that Sterling is still a massive part of Guardiola’s plans moving forward.

In terms of what to look out for in the 2021-22 season, it entirely depends on who picks up injuries for City really as every member of that squad will be involved. It also depends on what transfer business they do before the window closes in August as there are not many free minutes to pick up apart from those made available by Aguero and Garcia leaving. Torres would be the obvious choice for the former, but that could change if City do decide to buy a striker. Watch this space.

Analysing the Euro 2020 Semi-Finalists: Player Freshness

On Tuesday and Wednesday night, the semi-final stage of Euro 2020 will take place at Wembley Stadium in London. Italy, Denmark, England and Spain are the four national teams left in the competition, but each has had a different journey to this point. Spain has had to come through extra-time twice to beat Croatia and Switzerland, whereas the Italians needed extra-time to beat Austria but were able to dispatch Belgium without. Alternatively, England and Denmark have beaten their respective knockout opponents in 90 minutes, so have not yet endured extra-time.

What this means, in practice, is that the four semi-final squads will arrive at Wembley with differing levels of freshness. In a tournament of fine margins, this could prove the difference between reaching Sunday’s final or not. So what does the data tell us about each semi-finalist?


Below is a scatter graph plotting total minutes played vs. percentage of minutes played for Italian, Danish, English and Spanish players in the tournament so far.

As expected, we see a linear scatter of plots due to the positive correlation between total minutes played and percentage of minutes played. However, the dots are not packed as tightly together in the top-right quadrant (within the red rectangle) as they are in the bottom-left quadrant. This is because the effects between the teams playing in extra-time (Spain and Italy) and not (England and Denmark) are more visible in the regular starters than the fringe players.

So let’s zoom in on that top-left quadrant, more specifically the top five involved players for each semi-finalist. This is shown in the graph below.

Unsurprisingly, the top three players are Spanish. Unai Simón and Aymeric Laporte have played 510 minutes each (100% of La Roja’s possible minutes), with young midfielder Pedri close behind on 509. Italy’s Gianluigi Donnarumma and Jorginho complete the top five, playing 479 and 465 minutes respectively, before four players are found on 450 minutes – one from England (Jordan Pickford) and three from Denmark (Kasper Schmeichel, Joakim Maehle and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg). Martin Braithwaite completes the top ten for Denmark with 445 minutes.

This matches up with what we would expect to see given that Spain has played in two extra-times, Italy one, and Denmark and England none. However, whether this is reflected throughout the full teams depends on how each national manager has utilised their squads. Have they rotated minutes or are they concentrated in fewer players?


To work this out, I am focusing first on the average minutes played by the top five involved players for each team. These are shown in the graph below.

This is where we start to see the effects of squad utilisation. Despite playing in one extra-time, Italy has a lower average than both England and Denmark, indicating how Roberto Mancini has been able to share minutes throughout his squad instead of concentrating them in his regular starters.

Gareth Southgate has also utilised his squad well. His top five have played an average of 424.8 minutes compared to Denmark’s 447.2, even though both teams have made it through to the semi-finals without needing extra time. It gives England a slight advantage going into their knockout clash on Wednesday night.

Luis Enrique’s side top the average with 474.8 minutes, indicating that the two extra times Spain has played have been exacerbated by poor squad rotation. Going into the semi-finals, this could be crucial. Spain’s top five have played an average of ~55 minutes more than their Italian counterparts. Quite a staggering difference to build up in just five matches.

These dynamics are maintained if we expanded the criteria to the top eleven involved players for each side, shown in the graph below.

Italy still has the lowest average of the four, with Spain the highest, though the gap between the two has shrunk from 54.2 minutes to 42.7. We see a similar trend with the other two semi-finalists. England keeps its lower average than Denmark, but the gap between the two has decreased from 22.4 minutes to 17.4.

Smaller margins, yet you would rather have them favouring your side than against. If both Italy and England make it through to the final on Sunday night, it would not be unreasonable to argue that player freshness might have helped them get there, especially after the crazy amount of football that has been jammed in during this pandemic-hit season.

Liverpool: 2020-21 Season Review

Liverpool finished the 2020-21 season with a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, securing Champions League qualification in what has been an injury-ravaged year for Jurgen Klopp’s side. Missing their three senior centre-backs – Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip – for large parts of the season, as well as a host of other key players, meant the make-up of Liverpool’s team has looked significantly different from the side that went on to win the Premier League comprehensively last year. Klopp has relied heavily on the nexus of senior players who were available, while some new faces have had to fill in the gaps left by those sidelined through injuries. This review aims to summarise the key developments to Liverpool’s squad during the 2020-21 season.


Liverpool played 52 games this season: 38 in the Premier League, 10 in the Champions League, two in the League Cup and two in the FA Cup. Below is a graph detailing the changes made per game to the starting line-up across the year. Klopp is not known as a manager that likes to tinker – unlike Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel, for example. However, he does rotate heavily for cup games.

We see this trend in the graph below. During the first half of the season when Liverpool were navigating league, cup and European matches, Klopp was consistently making changes above his season average of 3.53. As the season progressed though, this changed. The three-game average was consistently below the season average during the second half of the season after Liverpool’s elimination from the FA Cup at the end of January. Albeit with a slight blip when they beat RB Leipzig 2-0 in the second leg of their Round of 16 tie.


But who were the players used the most by Klopp throughout the season? Well, the below scatter graph plots the availability and utility of Liverpool players this year in all competitions.

  • Availability is classed as the percentage of minutes a player was available for selection out of the total possible minutes in a season (out of 4,680 for Liverpool).
  • Utility is defined as the percentage of minutes played out of the total minutes available for selection.

As we can see from the graph below, thirteen players feature in the top-right quadrant that represents those with high availability and high utility. These are: Andy Robertson, Mohamed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Sadio Mane, Gini Wijnaldum, Alisson, Fabinho, Roberto Firmino, Ozan Kabak, Thiago, Jordan Henderson, Diogo Jota and Nathanial Phillips. Though it is worth pointing out that the latter five are cast away somewhat from the first eight, who are clearly the core group of players utilised most by Klopp this season.

Most interestingly, however, is that Liverpool have three players in the top-left quadrant that represents low availability yet high utility – a good sign that a starter has suffered serious injury problems. The fact that these three players are the Reds’ senior centre-backs – van Dijk, Gomez and Matip – highlights their problems in this position. It is the single biggest difference in Liverpool’s team make-up this year.


We see this pattern continue when looking at the total number of starts (as a percentage) and average number of starts before omission from Liverpool’s starting line-up for the 2020-21 season, detailed in the scatter graph below. Again, we have the same group of eight players to the right of the plot, who match up to those in the top-right corner of the availability vs. utility scatter graph.

However, we also have some outliers. Typically the graph points should curve upwards as squad players often start a fewer overall number of games as well as a fewer number of consecutive games, whereas starters enjoy longer spells in the line-up before omission. Yet in Liverpool’s graph there are four players outside of the trend: van Dijk, Kabak, Thiago and Henderson.

Interestingly, these players match up position-wise. Though he did not arrive at Anfield till the end of the January transfer window, Kabak filled the void left by van Dijk at centre-back, whereas Thiago filled Henderson’s gap in midfield when the English international suffered a groin injury in February. Essentially, these players were relied on heavily, but injuries prevented them from starting more games across the season.


What does this mean for their overall involvement in Liverpool’s season? Well, the below graph shows the percentage of minutes played across the entirety of the season and again highlights Klopp’s overreliance on eight players. Robertson, Salah, Trent, Wijnaldum, Alisson, Mane, Fabinho and Firmino were the ever-present figures in Liverpool’s team. Yet not a single one of those eight is an established centre-back.

If we adjust the figures to accommodate the fact that Liverpool play with two centre-backs, then the make-up of that position is as follows:

  • Together, midfielders Fabinho and Henderson played 31.27% of minutes
  • Nat Phillips – 18.43%
  • Rhys Williams – 14.45%
  • Kabak – 12.01%
  • Gomez – 9.50%
  • Matip – 9.25%
  • Van Dijk – 5.09%

Given the upheaval then, it is no surprise that Klopp relied so heavily on Alisson, Trent and Robertson as the stable figures in Liverpool’s defence. Their presence helped ensure that the Reds finished with the fourth best defence in the league, with only Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal conceding fewer goals. It suggests that Liverpool should recover well next season with the return of van Dijk, Gomez and Matip. Though it will take time for the trio to be back at their best, having a core group of players to support them will make the transition smoother.

How has Tuchel utilised Chelsea’s squad differently to Lampard?

Whenever a manager is replaced partway through a season, personnel and tactical changes typically follow as the new coach wants to put their stamp on the squad. Chelsea are no different in this respect. After sacking Frank Lampard in January, new manager Thomas Tuchel has certainly made changes to the team by converting from two centre-backs to three and experimenting with a false nine. However, what impact has this had on how Tuchel utilises Chelsea’s squad and how does this differ from his predecessor?


Though Tuchel arrived at Stamford Bridge with the reputation of being a “tinkerer” after making numerous changes to his starting line-up during his time as both Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint Germain manager, his approach towards rotation at Chelsea is not that dissimilar to Lampard’s. Below is a graph detailing the number of changes to Chelsea’s starting line-up in all competitions this season, with the games managed by Lampard in blue and Tuchel in orange:

While Lampard made an average of 4.64 changes to his starting XI during his 29 games in charge in 2020-21, Tuchel’s average is only slightly higher at 4.87. The fact both managers were above 4.5 changes per game suggests that they both saw rotation as necessary to compete in multiple competitions. For context, Pep Guardiola has averaged just over 5 changes per game for Manchester City this season, which is slightly higher again than either Chelsea manager but not by much. Given both teams have the best squad depth in the Premier League, it is perhaps unsurprising to see the two sides rotating their squads so consistently and reaping the success of such a approach.

However, Lampard and Tuchel do differ in their rotation variation, as shown by the three-game average on the graph. Lampard’s three-game average oscillated from its lowest point of 1.00 to its highest point of 9.00 (difference of 8.00), whereas Tuchel’s average has remained more consistent between 2.67 and 7.33 (difference of 4.66). The former points to a manager switching from periods of continuity in their starting XI to mass upheaval, meanwhile, the latter indicates a more narrowed and consistent focus on who is rotated and why.

A common criticism of Lampard was that he lacked a long-term identity or plan, which left him unable to integrate Chelsea’s summer signings – Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell, Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Edouard Mendy and Thiago Silva – into the first-team squad successfully. The higher variation in the number of changes made to his starting line-up could support this, giving the impression that Lampard was unsure what his best XI was. Though early into his tenure, Tuchel already appears more suited to the demands of dealing with a squad brimming with talent and expectation.


Though the rotation is not too dissimilar, there have been significant changes to the personnel used by both managers. Below is a graph detailing the percentage of minutes played by each Chelsea player under Lampard and Tuchel in all competitions this season:

The biggest winners from Tuchel’s arrival are Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger, Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcus Alonso and Jorginho, who have all seen their percentage share of minutes increase by over 20%. On the other hand, Kurt Zouma, Thiago Silva and Tammy Abraham have been the biggest losers, seeing their percentage share of minutes decrease by over 20%. Some of these changes have been due to injuries (Silva), while others appear more to do with the manager’s preferences (Abraham and Zouma).

However, when we focus on the players who have played 50%+ of possible minutes for both Lampard and Tuchel, a core group of seven begins to emerge. As we can see from the Venn diagram below, these are: Mendy, Chilwell, Reece James, Azpilicueta, Mason Mount, Mateo Kovacic and Werner. Of the names failing to make it into either circle, forwards Ziyech and Christian Pulisic seem the most surprising given their calibre. Both missed 12 and 10 games respectively under Lampard through injury, which explains their lack of use during the first half of the season. Yet both have remained injury-free for Tuchel and are still unable to surpass the 50% cut-off.


A possible reason for this is tactical. Whereas Lampard opted for 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, Tuchel prefers 3-4-2-1 or 3-5-2. Therefore, playing three centre-backs instead of two takes away a position in the starting line-up from either a midfielder or a forward, which leaves them sharing less minutes overall. We can see this more clearly when comparing the average number of starts before omission for Chelsea players under Lampard and Tuchel this season, shown separately in the two graphs below:

Of the eight players starting above the average under Lampard, five of them are midfielders or forwards – Mount, Werner, Havertz, Pulisic and N’Golo Kante. When we look at the same graph for Tuchel (see below), we see a different picture. While three of the seven players starting above the average are midfielders – Mount, Kovacic and Jorginho – crucially, none of the seven are a forward. This demonstrates how the forwards are rotated more often in Tuchel’s system than they were with Lampard.

Alternatively, defenders enjoy more stability in the starting XI with Tuchel than they did with Lampard. Azpilicueta, Rudiger and Christensen have started more games consecutively than average under Tuchel, while it was only Chilwell and Zouma for Lampard. Azpilicueta, in particular, has shouldered the responsibility of a rotation option at both right-back and right centre-back, which explains why he has seen his average starts before omission jump from 1.75 under Lampard to 6.67 under Tuchel.


Yet the more time Tuchel spends at Stamford Bridge, the more we are beginning to see his preferred starting line-up. The German has now been in charge for 23 games – 14 of which came before the international break in March and nine after. If we analyse these two periods separately, we can see a growing preference for certain players. Below is a graph detailing the percentage of minutes played by Chelsea players under Tuchel before and after the international break:

For example, before the international break Tuchel rotated between Chilwell and Alonso at left-back quite consistently, with the two players sharing 39.60% and 55.79% of the minutes respectively. That dynamic has now changed significantly, with Chilwell playing 76.67% of minutes and Alonso just 20.49%. The former has certainly cemented himself as first choice.

Other players to see their percentage share of minutes increase significantly since the international break are Thiago Silva (return from injury), Havertz (return from injury), Mount, Jorginho and Pulisic. Alternatively, Azpilicueta (rest), Kovacic (injured), Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Olivier Giroud have all seen their percentage share of minutes decrease significantly since the international break. Though it is important to note that Azpilicueta’s percentage still remains above 70% despite dropping ~18.5%.

For some of these players, it could spell the end to their time at Stamford Bridge. There is rampant speculation that Abraham will leave after this season, meanwhile, Giroud’s contact expires in the summer. Both have played a marginal percentage of minutes since the international break – just 2.10% and 4.81% respectively – and, along with Emerson, seem increasingly left out of Tuchel’s long-term vision. Whether this remains the case as Chelsea play out their remaining fixtures for 2020-21 is open for debate.


When analysing the differences between how Tuchel and Lampard have utilised Chelsea’s squad this season, it becomes clear that it is based on a few key factors. Rotation philosophy is not one of them. Both managers were happy to make a high number of changes to their starting line-up, in line with what we would expect when dealing with a squad full this amount of talent.

What it really comes down to then is formation and personnel preferences. By opting to play three centre-backs, Tuchel’s system sees the defence enjoying more stability at expense of the attack, who are rotated more frequently than they were under Lampard. It means the forwards have to perform when chosen as they will not have the insurance of playing themselves into a run of games.

In terms of personnel, Tuchel has brought back players such as Christensen and Rudiger from the sidelines, meanwhile Abraham, Emerson and Giroud look as if their long-term roles in the German’s plans are dwindling quickly. The most surprising exclusion has been Abraham, who was instrumental in Chelsea’s top four finish last season. Fans will be hoping the young forward can do enough in the remaining fixtures to demonstrate his continued worth to the club as they look to become Premier League challengers under Tuchel next year.

What effect has Jota’s arrival had on Liverpool’s forward rotation?

Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino as a forward three were central to Liverpool’s European and domestic success over the past two seasons. However, the Reds lacked viable options to rotate their principal forwards to keep them fresh and prevent burn out, leaving them vulnerable if one of the three picked up a serious injury. Diogo Jota’s £40-million move from Wolverhampton Wanderers in September bolstered their depth up front and the Portuguese forward has certainly hit the ground running, scoring 12 goals in 24 games so far. But has his arrival allowed Jurgen Klopp to rotate Salah, Mane and Firmino more sensibly?


Minutes played:

Below is a graph detailing the percentage of minutes played by each Liverpool forward for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. The reason why I have used a percentage rather than absolute minutes is because it allows comparison between seasons that have different number of games played. For example, Klopp’s side had 56 matches in total in 2019-20, yet have only played 44 games so far in 2020-21.

Surprisingly, both Salah and Mane have played a higher percentage of minutes this season than they did in 2019-20, suggesting that they have not benefitted from extra rest since Jota’s arrival so far. However, Firmino has seen a drop in his percentage from 74.9% to 67.3%, indicating that the Brazilian has been rested more.

Yet, the most interesting change is the drop-off in Divock Origi’s percentage of minutes this season, which has fallen from 26.3% to 13.6%. He has been the most disadvantaged player since Jota joined Liverpool as the Portuguese forward has taken his mantle as the Red’s go-to attacking back-up. Therefore, rather than Jota’s arrival necessarily giving Salah, Mane and Firmino more rest, it has allowed Liverpool to have a more effective fourth option than Origi provided in previous years. This is also reflected by the fact that Jota’s percentage of 36.4% is higher than Origi’s 26.3% from last season (despite Jota missing eleven weeks with a knee injury), which highlights how Klopp appears more comfortable playing the former than he was with the latter.


We also see the majority of these observations in the starts data. Below is a graph detailing the average number of starts before omission (benching or not in squad) for Liverpool’s forwards for both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons:

Similarly to minutes played, Salah has seen his average number of starts increase this season compared to last, from 3.67 games to a staggering 6.50. The Egyptian has certainly cemented himself as Liverpool’s most important forward and this is perhaps unsurprising given the fact that Salah has scored the most goals so far too. Yet the same cannot be said for Mane, who has seen his average starts before omission drop from 4.56 to 3.67, which could be a by-product of Jota’s arrival. Firmino has also started less games in a row this season, falling from 4.00 to 2.42. Overall, this represents a change in the forward dynamics as both Mane and Firmino started more games in a row than Salah did last season, yet the opposite is true this year.

Jota has certainly played a part in this change of dynamics. Origi and Takumi Minamino are players brought into the XI to start just one game at a time (except once last season when Origi started two games in a row). In contrast, Klopp has no problem starting Jota in consecutive matches – demonstrated in his average of 2.17 starts before omission. This reinforces the argument that Jota is now seen as a better fourth option for Liverpool’s attack, which surely has implications for the utility of Salah, Mane and Firmino.


It is difficult to establish whether Jota has allowed Salah, Mane and Firmino to have more rest because of the serious injury he suffered in December. The knee problem kept Jota out of action for eleven weeks, where he missed 18 games for Liverpool. This meant Klopp could not use Jota as an attacking option during this period. So to really understand how the forward dynamics work, we need to focus on matches where all four forwards have been available. This concerns just 17 games out of a possible 44 this season.

Below is a table detailing the minutes played by each Liverpool forward – Mane, Salah, Firmino, Origi, Minamino and Jota – during these 17 games. Dark green blocks represent full games played, whereas grassy green represents games where a player has started but was substituted off. Pale green blocks represent matches where a player was brought off the bench, meanwhile, yellow means they were an unused substitute and red shows that they were not included in the matchday squad.

Interestingly enough, Salah, Mane, Firmino and Jota are involved in all of the 17 matches somehow – either as a starter or a used substitute. Not only does this demonstrate how indispensable the first three forwards still are to Klopp and Liverpool, but also how Jota has been able to insert himself into that group and become an integral member himself.

Yet when we break their statistics down, we do start to see a hierarchy. Below is a graph detailing the number of starts and full games each Liverpool forward has had during this 17-game period, as well as the amount of times they have been subbed off and on:

Salah has had the most starts (16) and played the most full games (12) out of any of the Liverpool forwards during these 17 games, while Mane is in second with 13 starts and 11 full games. Firmino is technically in third with 11 starts, yet the Brazilian has only played one full game, whereas Jota has less starts (9) but more full games played (3). The graph also shows that Jota has been the most brought-on player, making eight substitute appearances, with Firmino in second with six, Mane and Minamino in third with four and Salah in fourth with just one appearances off the bench.

Although Jota’s arrival has made Liverpool’s attack more flexible, Klopp still prefers his forward three of Salah, Mane and Firmino. When he has all his attacking options available, they were the most favoured combination, starting seven of the 17 games (41.2%). Yet Jurgen is happy to swap Jota into the starting line-up for either Mane or Firmino when needed. Mane-Salah-Jota was the second favoured combination, starting three of the 17 matches (17.6%), meanwhile, Salah-Firmino-Jota and Mane-Salah-Firmino-Jota were in joint third with two starts each (11.8%).

However, it appears more difficult to bench Salah. Mane-Firmino-Jota is yet to be used as a starting combination when all four forwards are available, having only been deployed in Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Leicester City in November because Salah had to miss the match after contracting coronavirus. So has Jota’s arrival had any impact on Salah’s utility?


Below is a graph detailing the percentage of games in which Salah started, played the full game and was substituted off and on for both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 season, as well as the 17-game sample where all four forwards were available for selection.

Of most interest is the difference between his percentages for 2020-21 and the 17 games where all four forwards were available. Though Salah typically starts a higher percentage of games, he is less likely to play the full game and is therefore substituted more often when Klopp has his full attacking repertoire. This suggests Jota’s arrival has given Salah, like Liverpool’s other forwards, more flexibility to manage his workload, which can only be a positive for the Reds as they head into the final stretch of the season in hunt for a Champions League spot.


Nonetheless, drawing firm conclusions about Jota’s impact on Liverpool’s forward rotation is difficult because of the high number of games he missed through injury. It would be reasonable to assume that his involvement would have been higher if he was not absent for those eleven weeks. Even so, he certainly appears to have reduced Firmino’s workload this season, with the Brazilian starting less and being more likely to be substituted when he does.

Yet the picture is less clear for Mane and Salah. The former is starting less games before omission, which suggests he is being rested more. However, his minutes percentage is still up on last season, pointing to a lower concentration in full games played and a higher concentration in matches where Mane has either been substituted off or brought on. This probably provides a more manageable situation for both the player and Klopp.

The same can be said for Salah too but there is a key difference. He has massively increased his average starts before omission this season (unlike Mane and Firmino), yet is more likely to be substituted off when all four forwards are available. Therefore, Jota’s arrival may not have given Salah more rest game-to-game but more rest within a game, which is still important when managing a player’s workload across a season.

What is clear though is how Jota has cemented himself as an effective fourth attacking option for Liverpool. He has managed a feat that neither Origi nor Minamino were able to in the past; Klopp trusts Jota to start more than one game in a row and to be involved in a higher percentage of matches. The Portuguese forward has repaid this faith by scoring the second highest number of goals this season, so it will be hoped that his hot form can continue.

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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.


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 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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.