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Blackpool - Weakened Team or Squad Rotation?

When the Premier League gave Wolves a £25k suspended fine last season for fielding a weakened side, they set a dangerous precedent. It suggested that the manager was not free to select whatever team he felt suitable for any given football match, and that the Premier League would determine what the strongest side was.

This issue is back under the spotlight again after Ian Holloway made ten changes ahead of Blackpool’s trip to Villa Park last night, with midfielder Keith Southern being the only player retained from Saturday’s home draw with Everton. As it was, the ‘weakened’ Blackpool side played brilliantly, and gave Aston Villa a real shock in front of their own fans. They thought that they had grabbed a point when DJ Campbell’s shot was deflected past Brad Friedal, only for James Collins to break Tangerine hearts with only one minute left.

However, today the Premier League have announced that they will be investigating Blackpool’s decision to make those ten changes. If they find them guilty of having fielded a weakened side, then one would imagine that they would receive a similar £25k suspended penalty. On the surface, it is not really a major issue for the club. However, it is the thinking behind it that is worrying.

Who are the Premier League to suppose that they know what a manager’s strongest team is? The manager works with his players on a daily basis, whereas the Premier League occasionally see them play once a week. In this day and age, football is a squad game – a club does not simply have 11 players, who play week in week out. Indeed, the Premier League has set a rule stating that clubs have a squad of up to 25 players. Yet if a club uses this squad, it will be punished?

And why does this argument only ever seem to relate to the smaller clubs? When Manchester United travel to Villa Park this weekend, they will send out a strong team undoubtedly. If they sent out a line-up consisting of the likes of Tomasz Kuszczak, Wes Brown, Gary Neville, John O’Shea, Anderson, Ryan Giggs, Javier Hernandez, Wayne Rooney, Darron Gibson and Gabriel Obertan, would the Premier League take any action? Of course they wouldn’t. Bringing in all those international players couldn’t possibly be equivalent to sending out a weakened side.

So why should Blackpool’s team be classed as a weakened side? In goal, he brought in Richard Kingson. Kingson has played in the Premiership for Birmingham and Wigan in the past, he has played in Turkey for Galatasaray, and he has won 83 international caps for Ghana. Should he really be classed as such a ‘weak’ player compared to Matt Gilks?

Chris Basham has played for Bolton for two years in the Premiership and cost the club a record fee of £1m. How could including the club’s record signing be classed as weakening the team? Dekel Keinen has represented Israel 15 times – he can hardly be classed as a poor player. Jason Euell is the club captain with almost 15 years experience playing in the top division of English football. Matt Phillips is a current England U19 international. Marlon Harewood has played for Nottingham Forest, West Ham and Aston Villa in the Premiership.

Yet the inclusion of all of these players has been construed as fielding a weakened side. Ian Holloway is quite correct when he says that “I’m the manager of Blackpool and I manage the players how I want.” As he admits, “we’ve got four games in 12 days and the lads I’ve played every week are struggling to keep up the level.” Would the Premier League have rather he kept playing the same eleven players for every game, even if they were exhausted and not able to play to their best level?

If someone told you that a team was set to replace a keeper who had played in two World Cups, and had twice been named the goalkeeper of the tournament at the African Nations Cup, with a 28-year old that had never played internationally, and who only had seven appearances in the Premiership, you would argue that it was weakening the team.

If someone told you that a team was set to replace an Israeli international defender with a player who had a grand total of 11 Premiership appearances in his 11 year career, you would argue it was weakening the team.

If someone told you that a team was set to replace their club’s record signing, with several years Premiership experience, with a player who had not even played in the Championship until last season, you would argue that it was weakening the team.

However, if Blackpool revert to their usual side this weekend, that is exactly what they will be doing. It should not be up to the Premier League what team Ian Holloway picks. He has a squad of 25 players, all of which he will feel are capable of performing in the Premiership. Otherwise, they would not be in the squad.

Not only does this bring up the question of whether the Premier League should interfere at all, it also re-raises the question of whether the same rules are not fairly applied to the bigger teams, simply due to the strength of their squads.

Let us go back to the penultimate day of the 2006/07 season. Fulham were fighting for their lives, battling with Wigan, West Ham and Sheffield United to avoid becoming the third relegated team. They welcomed Liverpool to Craven Cottage, expecting a tough battle. However, Liverpool had made nine changes from their side for the previous match, resting the likes of Javier Mascherano, Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger. They were replaced by the likes of Gabriel Paletta, Emiliano Insua, Alvaro Arbeloa, Momo Sissoko and Robbie Fowler.

Now, even with all those changes, Liverpool had nine players who had represented their country in their starting XI, and the two that hadn’t have subsequently been called up. However, they are clearly playing a ‘weakened’ side, going by the definition of that by the Premier League.

Fulham went on to win that game 1-0, and stayed up by one point, relegating Sheffield United. If Liverpool had played a full-strength side, it seems unlikely that Fulham would have got that win. In this situation, the Premier League took no action, although it had a far greater impact on teams’ seasons that either the Wolves or Blackpool games.

Is it because Liverpool could put out a team of internationals as a second string side that means that they can do that? Is the Premier League saying that the top teams are allowed to rotate their teams, but that the smaller teams should have to stick with whatever side they start the season with?

The problem the Premier League have given themselves is that they have to fine Blackpool for it. Having handed out such a punishment to Wolves last season, they now have no choice. But in reality, the Premier League should not be involved at all in determining what team a manager plays. The manager is the one in charge of selecting the team that he feels is right for each match, given the overall aim of the season.

As Ian Holloway has said:
“If some bright spark from the Premier League wants to tell me who I can pick, then come and have a cup of coffee and you’ll probably get it chucked in your lap. Let them try and fine me, it’s an absolute disgrace. I’ll show the Premier League. We were a credit to football, and let the Premier League try to tell me otherwise.”


1 comment:

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