If you think about how football’s changed, the edge now in football isn’t necessarily the difference in skill between players, it’s who’s the freshest. Thirty or forty years ago you only had one substitute, and played the same eleven players every week.
The players who played in that era would now turn around and say “how can players not play three games in a week?”. The fact is now that energy, freshness, recovery and rest have become an absolute paramount part of the modern game.
To give you an idea, when I started at United we didn’t have a fitness coach, we didn’t have a nutritionist. When I left we had five fitness coaches and two nutritionists. In the years from 1992 to 2010, when I left, the transformation in those departments is probably the single biggest change in football training.
For me, fitness and having a fresh team on the pitch is the absolute critical element of modern football. Which managers have the skill and bravery to navigate Premier League and European football by rotating his players?
If you break it down into units: defenders, you can churn through games. Midfielders, it gets less easy, but you can get through a lot of games as a holding midfield player. Where it really starts to tell is in attacking areas where you’re relying on that real sharpness, that explosion off the mark, that change of direction, where it becomes a little bit more labored when you’re not as fresh. That’s why it is an equally important part of FIFA Ultimate Team. You need to monitor your players’ fitness as if it gets low you’ll find they can’t sprint as long in games. Then you need to make sure you have a big enough squad to rotate players so their fitness can increase without using consumables.
It was probably one of the most important things that Sir Alex Ferguson did during his tenure at United, to make sure we had a freshness coming into February, March, April, May. All his squad got football, his squad was always ready for the moment.
Sir Alex Ferguson would pick his teams three or four weeks in advance at times. He would think “where is my big match that is coming up? Which players do I need to be fresh for that match?” and he would plan the next two to three week period, and tell players “look, I want you in two to three weeks ready for this match”.
There’s a change of mentality in a football player that gets over the age of 30 now, I think the penny’s started to drop that it prolongs their career, and that they can perform at a higher level, when they’re not being asked to churn out matches every three days. You have to say again that Sir Alex Ferguson is the pioneer of this. His handling of Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand, Vidic and myself has set the benchmark for handling players over the age of 30. You can also look at Mourinho now and how he’s handling Lampard and Terry.
There are always exceptions to the rule. Ibrahimovic is the sort who will manage himself during a game to the point where he can still give the team an edge by being there. He’s not somebody who sprints everywhere like a mad man. He saves his energy for when his team are in possession of the ball, but it will be interesting to see how he performs at the age of 33 or 34.
If you look at the Christmas period where all the teams will play three or four games in ten or eleven days, it really tests managers. We’ve even seen a couple of occasions where managers have sacrificed one of the four matches and thought “I’m probably not going to win that match even if I play my best team, so I’ll change 8 or 9 players, play a real weakened side, and get ready for the next match which I can win”. We saw it with Wolves in 2010, when Mick McCarthy made ten changes against Manchester United during the Christmas fixtures. They lost 3-0 to United, but beat Spurs 1-0 in the previous game and Burnley 2-0 in the following game, and they got a £25,000 suspended fine for it.
The bigger clubs now, City, United, Chelsea, Arsenal, what they’ll do is the manager will sit down with the fitness staff, the medical staff, and the coaches, and even with the senior players, look at the games and think “right, we need ten or twelve points out of these, how do we best do that?” You have to decide when to risk players, which three or four players might be better off not playing, even though they would usually be in your preferred starting eleven.
You’ll see the biggest evidence of the importance of squad rotation in the modern game where you have Europa League teams, like for instance Stoke, Newcastle, or Swansea, who haven’t got big squads and are all of a sudden playing up to another ten games. You then see their lack of freshness, and therefore their performance in Premier League games drops. Liverpool this season are an interesting one as they can play the same team week in week out as they haven’t got European football, you have to put that down as a factor in their success. It’s not the single biggest factor, but it certainly allows them to tactically prepare for matches in a more considerate and calm manner, and most importantly it allows their players two big things now – recovery and rest. In FIFA Ultimate Team having a big, quality squad is just as vital if you are going to play frequently. Players recover quicker if you put them in the reserves, rather than on the subs bench, so you need to make sure you have enough quality in your squad that you can afford to put players in the reserves to recover.
There have been so many incidents where teams have got towards the end of the season and their legs have gone. It happened to United in 1997/8 when we had injuries to Pallister, Giggs, Keane, the squad then became really stretched and Arsenal beat us to the title as they were fresher than us in that moment. We’ve had those experiences on both sides of the fence, we’ve lost leagues because of that lack of freshness and because of injuries, and we’ve also won leagues where the manager has been brilliant at making sure the squad is fresh in the key moments of the season. In FIFA Ultimate Team, the same principle applies, you need to make sure you have a big squad so you can rotate players and make sure your players’ fitness doesn’t drop.
I think Chelsea, City, United, have got the biggest squads in terms of numbers, there’s no doubt about that. City, to me, at this stage of the season, has the strongest squad. If you look at the four players that they added in the summer they are, to me, looking like the title favourites at the moment.