Does Rafa Benitez's rotation policy work?

The Napoli boss has come under the spotlight again of late thanks to his insistence on shuffling the pack, but are his methods backed up by statistical success?
By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent

After each Atalanta goal had hit the back of the net, the TV director chose to display a shot of Rafa Benitez. The Spaniard looked frustrated with the way his Napoli players were performing, but if there was meant to be a sense of finger-pointing in the focus on the Partenopei coach, he won’t have felt it too much.

Benitez had done what Benitez does for the Serie A fixture in Bergamo last Sunday, shuffling his pack ahead of an important cup game. Napoli’s 3-0 loss may have given the fans and the press a stick with which to beat him, but he will remain steadfast in his belief in rotation.

On Wednesday, Napoli took on Roma in the Coppa Italia semi-final first leg with their side showing four changes, reverting back to the XI which had sent them through to the last four a week earlier. The two away goals which followed in a five-goal thriller will be used by Benitez as evidence that he was right to change things around.

Rotation has long been a hot topic around Benitez. At Liverpool in particular, he was regularly castigated by outsiders for his serial tinkering, yet he helped the Reds to a fifth Champions League title, took them to another final, won an FA Cup, and came as close as Liverpool have ever been to winning a Premier League title in the competition’s 22-year history.


"Rafa Benitez was the best coach in the history of Valencia. His belief in rotation was very important during his time in Valencia. His team was very strong in defence and very effective in attack and they showed they'd had great physical training. The rotation worked superbly."

Cesar Hurtado | Goal Spain

"Benitez seemed to be generally unpopular with the British press, and rotation was a stick to beat him with, even though Sir Alex Ferguson had been rotating for years.

"The difference was, in my opinion, that Benitez was not a good judge of player in the main and did not have the funds to get in good enough reserves. So when he rotated, as he clearly likes to do, he didn't have the capable players to come in and make a difference.

"At Chelsea, after a shaky start he managed to get his side to third (regarded as an achievement despite taking over a side closer to the leaders than they finished), won the Europa League and got to the FA Cup semi-finals."

Sam Lee | Goal UK
By the time he arrived at Anfield, he already had personal experience of the policy working. At Valencia, he rotated heavily and the rewards were great. In 2001-02, he made an average of 3.69 changes per game and won La Liga. Two years later, los Che lifted both the league title and the Uefa Cup despite Benitez shuffling 4.8 starters per game. So when Liverpool came knocking in 2004, it was exactly those values which had attracted them to the Spaniard.

Despite the focus on Benitez’s policy, the 53-year-old is far from the only coach who places great stock in the need to mix and match.

Paco de Miguel, who has worked with Benitez at Liverpool, Inter, Chelsea and Napoli since 2004 as a fitness trainer, used his boss’ official website to defend the concept of rotation in July 2013. In the blog, De Miguel called upon statistics which showed Manchester United won the double of Premier League and Champions League in 2007-08 without playing the same XI in consecutive matches at any stage, while Pep Guardiola’s similar feats with Barcelona in 2008-09 were achieved with an average of five changes made per league game.

What he could also have added is that Guardiola’s Barca side of 2010-11, a team much vaunted for their consistency of brilliance at the top end of the game, had an average of four-and-a-half changes to its starting XI over the course of the season in all competitions. Napoli’s turnover rate this term is only three-and-a-half, lower than that of last year’s all-conquering Bayern Munich team.

De Miguel claims in his piece for that there are three key reasons for rotating. “The first reason is to prevent overload in the number of minutes played… The second is the decrease in physical performance, especially in high intensity, which comes from playing two or three matches in one week… and the third reason is to create competition within the squad.”

There can be little arguing with the first two points, but perhaps it is the latter which has left Benitez open to some criticism. Whereas at Valencia and Chelsea he had fair-sized squads capable of taking on the demands of squad rotation, at Liverpool, Inter and now Napoli he has not had that luxury.

At Anfield, there was a dearth of real talent, meaning that the resting of players like Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano left the side lacking true quality. When he arrived at Inter, he soon found that the loss of key experienced players exposed the squad assembled by Jose Mourinho as small and insufficient for a season which was to include the Club World Cup, two Super Cups and the Coppa Italia, as well as Serie A action.

These days, he has a squad which has numbers but no real quality in depth. While he has five or six attacking players who could lay claim to one of the four starting berths, any extensive rotation leaves them looking short. And while in midfield he now has plenty of bodies following the signing of Jorginho from Verona, at the back he barely has the talent to make one change per game, let alone two or three.

Average changes per game of CL winners
  BAYERN 2012-13 CHELSEA 2011-12 BARCA 2010-11

Season Average
Changes ahead of win
3.91 4.30 4.69
Changes ahead of loss 2.00

Perhaps once he and sporting director Riccardo Bigon have been able to add further back-up defensively, Napoli will start to see the benefits of Benitez’s work. After all, the Partenopei have been more successful when rotating more heavily under the Spaniard.

Their victories this term have come with an average of 3.67 changes to the starting XI, yet defeats have been suffered with 2.86 alterations per game, suggesting that Napoli are a better team with more fresh faces in evidence. Dropped points against Atalanta, Sassuolo, Parma and Cagliari may frustrate many, but Benitez clearly sees such risks as a necessary evil in ensuring his players are fit when the hard yards still need covering at the season's end.

There will always be some who don’t like rotation, but given the physical demands of football in the 21st century, the policy is seemingly here to stay. Those who still believe you should “never change a winning team” would do well to look at the records of Barcelona, Manchester United and most Rafa Benitez sides for evidence suggesting the contrary is true.

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