The Grey Neutral: Does continuity always bring success?

ASTON Villa may have been beaten by Manchester City this past week but their most fielded 11 players have accounted for 86.9% of their playing minutes this season, the highest figure in European football. Villa have certainly had a stable line-up in 2020-21 and they’ve enjoyed some success, notably their 7-2 victory over Premier League champions Liverpool. They also have the youngest squad in the Premier.

Five other teams in the Premier have used their most used 11 over 80% of the time: Southampton (85.3%), West Ham (84%), Leeds United (81%) and Burnley (80.6%). At the other end, struggling Newcastle United have the lowest figure, 67.6%.

A study by CIES Football Observatory reveals the long-time accepted wisdom that a stable team is a successful one doesn’t always ring true. Paris Saint-Germain, for example, are top of the Ligue 1 table, but they have the lowest percentage (58.1%) in France’s top flight. It all comes down to quality and strength-in-depth. PSG have choices that other clubs in France do not enjoy. Similarly, Red Bull Salzburg and Young Boys Berne are top in Austria and Switzerland but they have low figures, 63.7% and 68.7% respectively. 

Interestingly, Aston Villa’s last league title, in 1980-81, was a great example of consistency and stability in their line-ups. They only used 14 players in the league that season, with six appearing 42 times. In total, their most used 11 accounted for 89% of appearances. Liverpool in 1983-84 used 15 players of which their top 11 appeared 90% of the time, which was nine percentage points higher than Liverpool 2019-20. When Tottenham won the league in 1961, their 11 most-used had 93% of playing time. 

Modern squad sizes suggest it is far more unlikely that a champion club in the 21st century will use the same 11 players virtually every week. Manchester City’s most used 11 players played just 75% of their league games in 2018-19, but Chelsea and Leicester’s figures for their recent title wins were 87.08% and 89.23% respectively.

Across the big four continental European leagues, the league champions in 2019-20 used their squads sparingly. Real Madrid (72.97%), Juventus (71.77%) and Paris Saint-Germain (63.30%) generated quite low percentages, while Bayern Munich came in at 80.21%.

In 2020-21, according to CIES, the statistics are low by past standards: PSG 58.1%, Bayern 73.1%, Juve 67.6% and Real 74.6%. Barcelona, who not enjoying a brilliant season by their standards, are at 70.6%. Something to do with that pandemic?

Inter Minimal

IT’s interesting that Inter Milan are soon to undergo a rebranding and will be known as Inter Milano and a new logo will feature the letters “I” and “M”. Juventus went through a rebrand a couple of years ago, using the “J” as an instantly recognisable corporate identity. It has worked for the Turin club, even though it is quite likely the die-hards and purists, not to mention veteran fans, absolutely hate it. It is easy to see why Juve, and now Inter, are following this path. Italian football lost its cachet a few years back and their top clubs have been overtaken by the leading Premier, Bundesliga and La Liga clubs. The name of the game is global reach and Italian clubs need to appeal to new markets in Asia, the Americas and Africa. Inter, who have been sponsored for some time by Pirelli, are set to change their shirt sponsor to China’s Evergrande. This all comes at a time when there is growing talk of the club being sold to a private equity firm. What should the fans be more worried about – cosmetic changes or the involvement of PE?

The danger of tampering with legacy

IF IT goes very horribly wrong at Stamford Bridge and Frank Lampard is relieved of his job as Chelsea’s manager, it will be another example of a club legend failing to live up to his own high standards and his legacy. If Chelsea sack him, there will be a lot of awkward people around the club. Chelsea have been in this boat before with John Hollins, who was shown the door in the late-1980s after gracing the club’s blue shirt just a few years earlier. It’s a situation that also exists at Manchester United and if Steven Gerrard does end up back at Anfield, they could, one day, have to sack a player who is still idolised by the Anfield faithful. Hiring an old player comes with hazards that include spoiling a reputation, falling out with old pals, and not knowing where to look as an old hero and friend walks out. As I once said to a non-league manager who was appointed at the club where he had played for 20 years and captained the team with honour. “Not sure it’s a great idea… how the hell do we sack you?”.

Photo: PA

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