Rotation, rotation, rotation: Needless tinkering or an essential aspect of Everton’s approach?

Roberto Martinez's propensity to move players in and out of the side from week to week has its critics but it's an important part of balancing the needs of the players and the demands of European competition over a long season.

Rotation is still a policy which alienates some supporters. It is one aspect of the managerial repertoire particularly subject to results’ polarising finality – commendably progressive in victory, self-indulgently fussy in defeat. Rotation is also a fundamental part of Roberto Martinez’s squad management. When he first arrived at Goodison, I loosely assumed this was a tactical preference and whilst it often is, time, particularly the recent variety, has taught me that regular injuries force his hand. Even so, I’m a firm believer in the benefits of rotation so I thought it seemed like a good time to address a few concerns amongst Everton supporters.

Play your best team is the catchphrase of disapproval whenever a rotated side achieves a poor result, play your best players in their best position is never far behind. Both were given an outing in the aftermath of Everton’s 1-1 draw with Sunderland, another missed opportunity following a similar stalemate against Swansea a week earlier. Win those games and Everton would have been fourth, but still, short-term focus can distract. Rotation is not just a week-by-week, horses for courses approach, it’s a policy adopted over an extended period. There will always be occasions when altering the side does not result in victory – although rotation is never the sole reason for failure – but the benefits offered over time should be the criteria for judgement. This is where Martinez makes up for the occasional shortcoming.

Rotation is merely one factor in a wider process of squad management. What’s instilled in training must be given chance on a match day. Like fitness, Martinez builds up self-belief over time. Steven Naismith for example isn’t just miraculously amazing, Martinez’s long-held appreciation, which predates both Everton careers, is paying off. The manager set about developing the player as no previous manager had; in turn Naismith works himself into the ground. And yet despite often being Everton’s most important attacker, he’s not guaranteed a starting place. He must compete with Ross Barkley, Samuel Eto’o, Romelu Lukaku and soon Kevin Mirallas and Aroune Ko – actually, yeah just them four. Rotation is the outlet for Martinez’s man-management; players are given both the belief they can contribute and regular opportunities to do. Build them up, give them a chance, keep them on their toes.

A closer look at that attack makes a compelling case for rotation. Despite boasting only two out-and-out strikers and losing Barkley and Mirallas early on, Everton have scored 28 goals in 16 games. Blending offensive roles has been vital. The Toffees currently have three no. 10s: Barkley, Naismith and Eto’o, three completely different players. The latter two have played on the wing and up front, as have Mirallas and Lukaku, whilst Barkley has drifted out wide and dropped closer to the centre. This hasn’t always been successful – Barkley’s nullification out wide against Swansea and Lukaku’s 90 minutes at Sunderland for example, but productivity has spoken for itself. Naismith, Lukaku and Eto’o have each scored four; they might not have always been played in their best position but they’re consistently earning points.

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Developing alternatives

David Moyes was the type to consider 14 players more than enough. Rotation was more like a cup day outing for deadwood and a reminder that James McFadden was still on the books. Everton’s tiny squad was made smaller by devotion to key players and negligence of youth, but in fairness, Moyes’ chosen few were consistently hard to beat. Martinez’s much more youthful side are quicker and more dynamic, the Blues now think and play at a faster tempo. Maintaining the same side week in week out would not only tire players out quicker but deny others the opportunity to build up their fitness. The likelihood of your chosen eleven lasting the season uninjured makes the development of alternatives highly recommended. Keeping players fresh stands them in better stead to contribute from the bench and step in when required longer.

At any time, circumstance can thrust less fancied players into the side. Blurring the line between the first team and fringe helps minimise risk; the manager’s behind-the-scenes preparation comes into focus. Take for example Tony Hibbert, seven months injured with no league starts since 2012 and considered past his retire-by date in light of Seamus Coleman and Tyias Browning. Many people found Martinez’s frequent talking up of Hibbert to be false, the defender’s new two-year contract ridiculous, but Hibbert has been excellent especially when offering ammo for supporters by keeping Liverpool loanee Divock Origi quiet in back-to-back Lille clean sheets. Similarly, Martinez used much maligned Leon Osman in every game last year. It’s not always about massaging superstar egos, rotation allows you to prop up the team with handy shifts from the periphery who may become essential as injuries mount.

Key to Martinez’s approach is making every member of the squad feel part of the team. This sounds simplistic but it can be tricky. One advantage, often considered a disadvantage, is not knowing/ not insisting upon a ‘best team’. This contrasts fellow up-and-coming, young managers Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino at Liverpool and Spurs respectively. Rodgers’ distinction between his A and B teams has intensified pressure in recent weeks after fielding a reserve side during a defeat at the Bernabeu who outperformed regulars but were then dropped for the loss at home to Chelsea. Similarly, Pochettino’s average of eight changes per Europa League line-up, double Martinez’s four, suggests a dichotomy between favoured and non-favoured personnel. How this plays over time is what matters.

Perhaps the crucial detail to remember when evaluating Martinez’s rotation policy early in the season is that his sides always finish strongly. Everton won nine of the final 12 games last season, Wigan once won seven of the last nine to stay up in style. The culmination of Martinez’s season-long fitness work accounts for a lot but well-maintained squad morale cannot be underestimated. These critical aspects go hand-in-hand throughout the season preparing the whole squad to pull in the same direction during the run-in; it’s only through rotation that they’re able to do so.