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Rotation, Weakened Teams and the Premier League Rules


October 8, 2010

Last season saw Wolverhampton Wanderers (Wolves) being slapped with a suspended £25,000 fine as a result of breaching PL rules for fielding a weakened team and that PL Board decision raised questions about past situations where managers have rotated or rested players in important games yet not been punished.

The Regulations

The PL Board found Wolves guilty of breaching rules B.13 and E.20. B.13 relates to each PL club behaving “towards each other Club and the League with the utmost good faith.” Rule E.20 stipulates that “in every League Match each participating Club shall field a full strength team.” Following the PL Board’s decision there was much debate about how previous instances of heavy rotation had gone unpunished.
Neil Warnock, the ex-manager of Sheffield United whose team were relegated after Liverpool and Manchester United (United) allegedly fielded weaker teams (against teams competing with Sheffield United to avoid relegation in 2007), did not mince his words.

“It’s a disgrace the Premier League even thought about charging them [Wolves]. They didn’t charge United or Liverpool, which were far more expensive mistakes. Have Liverpool been docked points for the team they put out against Fulham or the one Manchester United did against West Ham? I don’t think so somehow.”

There is no accepted definition of what constitutes a “full strength team” and it is clearly a difficult area based on subjective assessments of perceived player quality, rotation, resting players and player injuries.

Perhaps what went against Wolves was that their manager Mick McCarthy was blunt in his explanation that Wolves had a relegation six pointer against Burnley three days after the United game, and that was his priority. Wolves fans who travelled to Manchester for the game were subsequently furious that they paid over £40 to watch a Wolves reserve team take on United.

Two Premier League Examples: The Quality of Your ‘Second String’

Below are two examples of heavy rotation by United and Liverpool. The context of the United example, was that they had just won the PL with one game to spare. They played Hull on Sunday 24 May 2009 ahead of the Champions League Final against Barcelona just three days later. Nine days earlier United put out its strongest team against Arsenal because at that stage the race for the title with Liverpool was still up for grabs. Once United had secured the PL title they rotated 10 of the starting 11 players for the trip to Hull.

Arsenal vs Manchester Utd 15 May 2009

Hull v Manchester United 24 May 2009

Van der Sar

Kuszczak

O’Shea

Rafael Da Silva

Vidic

Brown,

Evans

Neville

Evra

De Leat

Ronaldo

Nani

Fletcher

Fletcher

Carrick

Gibson

Giggs

Welbeck

Rooney

Martin

Tevez

Macheda

Alex Ferguson made ten changes for the Hull game but was not sanctioned by the PL (this was the same number of changes as Wolves made against United for the match it was found to have breached PL Rules). This begs the question whether the fact that the United players playing Hull included Nani, Fletcher, Brown and Neville who were all internationals playing in United’s ‘weakened’ team influenced the PL in ignoring United’s failure to put out its ‘full strength’ team?

Liverpool made nine changes from the team that had previously beaten Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final four days prior to their PL game against Fulham. Even with those changes the starting 11facing Fulham contained 9 internationals. Arbeloa and Insua were the only two who at that time had not represented their country although both have subsequently been called up for Spain and Argentina respectively.

Liverpool v Chelsea (Champions League semi-final second leg) 1.5.07

Fulham v Liverpool (PL match) 5.5.07

Reina

Reina

Finnan

Arbeloa

Agger

Paletta

Riise

Hyypia

Carragher

Insua

Pennant

Pennant

Gerrard

Alonso

Zenden

Sissoko

Mascherano

Gonzalez

Kuyt

Fowler

Crouch

Bellamy

Even with nine and ten changes made, international class players were still present in both Liverpool and United’s ‘weakened’ team. What is certain is that any managers ability to change his staring line up will depend on how strong the clubs playing squad is.

Unfortunately and crucially for understanding how these issues will be dealt with by the PL in the future, the PL did not make its full decision in the Wolves case public so we cannot assess how the disciplinary Board measured what constitutes Wolves’ full strength team and whether they dealt with the apparent inconsistencies highlighted in this bulletin.

Objective Assessments

There are a number of relevant factors that could be used in assessing whether a PL club is fielding its “full strength” team.

A basic measure of a club’s full strength team might be to base it on the players that start the most number of PL games for the club. A team that is not at full strength team would fail to contain many of the players that have started the most PL games for a club. In the case of Wolves it would mean assessing how many of the team that played United where amongst Wolves’ top eleven starters since Wolves had returned to the PL. However, this alone is clearly too crude a measure as it fails to factor in player unavailability due to injury, international duty or having only recently being signed to the club.

Does or should the fact that players are internationals have any bearing on whether they are considered to be full strength when included in a club’s team? It may seem perverse for the PL to sanction a club who had made wholesale changes to their starting line-up yet the majority of those players named in the allegedly weakened team played international football.

The problem with such an analysis is that it would clearly penalise teams which do not contain an entire squad full of seasoned internationals. Teams like Manchester City and Chelsea with squads packed full of internationals could all be deemed capable of first team action.

Does the result have a bearing on the alleged breach?

In the above United example, United beat Hull with its weakened team and Hull stayed up only because Newcastle lost to Aston Villa on the last game of the season.

If Hull had beaten United’s weakened team and Newcastle had beaten Aston Villa, it would have been very interesting to see whether Newcastle would have asked the PL to charge United under the very same rules that Wolves were guilty of breaching.

The PL’s decision to penalise Wolves suggested that clubs with a smaller or ‘weaker’ squad face a far greater likelihood of the PL attacking them for squad rotation then a club which enjoys the luxury of a squad full of top quality international players.

Conclusions

Wolves chief executive, Jez Moxey, believed that the “ruling may now lead to a wider discussion regarding the issue of squad rotation and the Premier League’s rules.” Wolves striker Kevin Doyle was more outspoken in his criticism of the decision commenting that;

“Bigger teams change their sides massively every week, so why is that any different for us?”

Whilst Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger believed that the Wolves team selection against United “threatened the international credibility of the Premier League” many in the game are intrigued as to why Wolves have been found guilty of a rule breach when other clubs appear to have behaved in a similar manner.

The message the PL is keen to send out is that:

“any future rule breach of this nature would be subject to a disciplinary commission that would have available a full range of sanctions”.

The small, suspended fine given to Wolves is certainly a warning shot to all PL clubs to ensure each club fields its strongest possible team for every PL match. The beginning of the current PL season may again throw up instances of clubs prioritising certain competitions if their league position is secure. It remains to be seen whether the PL will enforce these rules this season and if it does how it will ensure that it does so evenly, consistently and fairly. Let the fun, games and maybe even the fines begin!