Let the post-season analyses commence. Let the record books pen in their numbers and let the excuses flow like wine.
My favourite excuse is that ‘We missed X-player for so many matches’; because its utter nonsense.
If you’re a team that was relegated, and you think it was because a key player was missing in certain games, you’re wrong. The reason you were relegated is that the replacement for that player wasn’t good enough. If you missed somebody that badly, it means the squad was deficient, that it was weighted too heavily onto one player, so that when that player was missing, the team was fatally flawed. That might be due to financial constraints, might be due to oversight (or even the sale of a player), but it remains a fact.
Huddersfield had the self-same problem. After Jordan Rhodes left, there was James Vaughan. Without James Vaughan, they were half the team. Whichever player came in to replace him wasn’t as good and the team suffered. It was not because Vaughan was absent – players miss games, that’s the nature of it – it was that there wasn’t a Vaughan-ability replacement for him when he did.
Building a squad is a difficult task. Yes, ideally, the first XI needs to be as strong as possible, but that first XI won’t play the majority of games; there’ll be second string players plugged into the holes they leave behind. Those second string players need to be almost, if not actually, good enough to play in the first XI.
It is particularly evident in leagues where the standard is more even – the Championship being an ideal case in point. Peterborough, as the results show (6 points against 1st placed Cardiff), were more than a match for anybody on their day. Over 46 days, though, their squad wasn’t good enough (0 points against 24th placed Bristol City) to keep them up. It might have been that they lost the points, and lost the ground, early in the season, but they lost those points because players were out, and their replacements were not at the same level, nor could the board afford to bring in a player like (for example) Leroy Lita to fill that gap that was created; eventually they brought in Dwight Gayle, and their results improved dramatically.
Cardiff – promoted because they brought in players (Barnett, particularly) when it was needed. Hull – promoted because they brought in players (Boyd, for example) when it was needed. Gillingham were able to strengthen – Leon Legge came in, noticeably. Port Vale brought in Lee Hughes. That’s the nature of it. No Championship club is going to have 22 players good enough to play at the top end of the division, but they might have enough that can shuffle round early on and then the ability to bring in others when it becomes apparent which position of player is needed and a manager with the nous to do so. Middlesbrough obviously had talent in their squad, but didn’t have the funds to strengthen (or willingness to release them), hence their post Christmas slump.
This is where the rich rise to the top; its why, over a season, the league table doesn’t lie. Its also why David Moyes is in such demand. Season after season, he minimises the losses Everton make when their first XI are out, despite having such a small pool of players to work with. Its why Barcelona have tailed off this season. Without Messi available in their key games, the team that was used to a player operating at his level wasn’t able to replace him adequately – how would you?
Football is ever more a squad game and it is in the extremes of the squad that seasons are won and lost; look at the stats I produced about Eintracht Frankfurt’s first XI. Next season, I’m going to start by looking at the substitutes’ bench on the first week of the season and make my judgement from that.