TO REST OR NOT TO REST?

Japan Soccer Club World Cup
I was the first person into the pub on Saturday and it was not even 9am. That’s devotion for you.
At times you have to be a truly committed and dedicated supporter out here in the wilds of Southern Louisiana. With a six-hour time difference games are regularly screened as early as 630am, and frequently Finn McCool’s opens at that ungodly hour. Not this week though – I guess the Brighton v Newcastle game was not exactly a top-drawer attraction – so they showed it on tape delay at 9am as well. One Geordie fan was unlucky enough to come in and watch it after avoiding the score. A nice start to his weekend.
So for the first part of our match I sat at the bar alone and watched us progress smoothly in the FA Cup after a rocky start. A (more or less) full-strength team dispatched our fellow Premier League club with ease, in contrast to our midweek slip-up at home to QPR. Squad rotation. When exactly did that phase enter the football jargon, taking its hallowed place alongside “over the moon” and “a game of two halves?” Five years ago? A decade ago? Longer? What year did managers start playing reserves, fringe players, whatever you want to call them, in cup ties? Can anybody pinpoint an exact season?
The debate over the practice rages on, eh? Just play your best players all the time. No argument if they are fit, right? If we get a few goals ahead then bring them off and rest them and save them from injury and wrap them up warm and give them a hug and a cuddle and whatever. But win the game first.
On the other hand – and in regards to the QPR debacle specifically – we at at home to the worst team in the league. Three starters were rested, but surely the 11 who played should have been able to dispatch our West London rivals? I think it’s a fair point that Rafa made. What is the point of having an expensively-assembled squad if you can’t trust them to beat a side who had lost their three previous matches, and won just once all season?
A few years ago I spent the evening of St Patrick’s Day at Finn McCool’s with Steve Nicol, the ex-Liverpool player who was then in charge of the MLS team New England Revolution. We talked at length about this very issue as Rafa was in charge of the Scousers at the time, and had been heavily criticised for his tinkering / rotation policy.
Steve’s view was that you should not change for the sake of change. He said that you can tell if a player is tired and needs a rest, and if that is the case then give it to him. There’s no doubt that these days with the year-round calender and the season running from August until May, never mind the end-of-season tours and pre-season exhibitions and all the rest of it, there’s the possibility (probability?) that top-class players can get burnt out.
But Steve also said that the game is so much quicker than it was back in the eighties. Players are fitter and faster and that needs to be remembered. There is no doubt that the demands of the modern game are different than they were 20 or 30 years ago, when FA Cup Third Round ties went to seven replays and a quarter-final of the League Cup was the highlight of the season for many teams.
So play your best players all the time but rest them when they need it. Glad we got that sorted. Easy enough, right? Good because I need a nap. I’ve been down the pub all day you see…
Stephen Rea is the author of the book Finn McCool’s Football Club, a tale of supporting Chelsea from the United States, the formation of a pub football team in New Orleans and the devastating effect of Hurricane Katrina on that city. Visit his site here: www.stephen-rea.com or friend him at www.facebook.com/stevorea

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