There is a school of thought that football managers can do what they want with their squad, when they want. The blinkered view, or if you want a slightly stronger adjective, the selfish view. David Wagner quite clearly sits within this school, and exercised his perceived right to make 10 changes to his starting XI at Birmingham from Huddersfield’s previous fixture at Wolves.
This has caused consternation at Blackburn and Nottingham Forest, who are in direct competition with Birmingham for the final relegation place, and within the EFL who have asked Huddersfield for their observations on the matter.
The flip side thinking, which I very much buy into, is where a manager makes so many changes to a specific starting XI that it warps the integrity of the division. A manager making almost a whole team of changes to a side in opposition to one of the clubs in a fight for promotion or relegation sits uncomfortably with me, and that is exactly what David Wagner did at St Andrews last weekend.
Dispelling the Arguments
There are three key arguments in favour of Wagner’s action as far as I can see:
A club manager has every right to take an insular view of his club’s circumstances and act only with his club’s interests in mind. I would never dispute that the decision to send out any side should be the manager’s and his alone, however at the same time every club manager has to bear in mind their obligations to the overall competition, and it is this very reason why the strongest XI law is written into the EFL lawbook – to ensure the integrity of the competition is maintained.
Regardless of the arguments for and against, David Wagner has effectively shown two fingers to the specific law which states managers must pick their strongest XI. Whether you agree with that law or not, it is a law and therefore should be obeyed at the very least in spirit.
What it looks like is Wagner has chosen 11 players for Wolves in an effort to win the game (which they did to secure their playoff place). They have then made 10 changes because the players had played little to none of the previous game, and he wanted to give his key players a rest.
In doing so, he hasn’t given a single thought to the integrity of the three-way competition at the bottom end of the table, effectively giving Birmingham the fillip of three points. That doesn’t appear to be in the spirit of the law however you dress it up, hence why the EFL have asked for Huddersfield’s observations.
The team cannot be considered weakened because the players are experienced. In the context of an overall career, I agree that most players that started the Birmingham fixture are experienced professionals, but the counter-argument is that they are not first choice.
When you take into account the number of league starts these players have had this season, it tells a significantly different story to Wagner’s defence about his selection.
Joel Coleman – 4
Tommy Smith – 41
Mark Hudson – 22
Martin Cranie – 14
Tareiq Holmes-Dennis – 9
Dean Whitehead – 15
Philip Billing – 24
Joe Lolley – 19
Jack Payne – 23
Harry Bunn – 16
Collin Quaner – 15 (only signed in January 2017)
Grand total – 202 appearances this season, in comparison to the previous match which boasted 364 league appearances. Regardless of previous seasons, David Wagner clearly feels that the players he played against Wolves offer more in his team unit than those who played against Birmingham, and that opinion is borne out by raw statistical data. It’s a weakened team.
Wagner has “earned the right to make 10 changes because other managers haven’t”. This implies that football’s meritocratic system extends to rewarding managers based on league position – you’re fourth so you have the right to do what you want (and disobey elements of the EFL lawbook while you’re at it), whereas you’re 20th so you haven’t earned the same rights.
I make no apologies for saying a manager’s obligations towards his game-by-game team does not change whether it is matchday one or matchday 46 when there is a direct relegation or promotion consequence at stake. Football is a club meritocracy in league and divisional standing alone, not managerial, and the rights and expectations of one manager to another should not change purely based on his club’s divisional position.
Throughout the 46 match season, every manager is equal at all times, and they should be judged accordingly. They have an equal right to select a team of their choosing, but they must be aware of the expectation from the other 23 managers in the division to select a side that has the maximum opportunity to win the game, regardless of whether they are 1st or 24th.
Table position matters
Having said that, allow let me get one thing absolutely clear – I have made great efforts to concentrate my arguments to those clubs fighting for promotion or relegation. If sweeping changes had been made between, say, Derby County and Aston Villa (two sides with absolutely nothing to play for except a nondescript league position or two) I would have no problem.
The result between the two would have no bearing on potential divisional movement, so the results will have no bearing on the division’s significant issues come matchday 46, and therefore any punishment handed down would be utterly nonsensical. However, we can be absolutely sure that the likes of Leeds, Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday would have had absolute expectancy for Rotherham to play their strongest XI recently at the Madejski.
Rotherham could have turned around and said “we’re relegated, we’re building for next season, here’s 10 changes”, and handed the three points to Reading on a plate. If they had made 10 changes to their starting XI from the previous game, what would have been said by those clubs who at that point were vying for positions three to six (or seventh in Leeds United’s case)?
The Vicarage Road incident
Ah ha, but didn’t Reading do this very thing two season ago at Watford? Well, yes we did (albeit just the nine changes) and back then it didn’t sit well with me at all. Watford were vying for automatic promotion and in the end won promotion by three points and a +1 superior goal difference over Norwich.
The 4-1 win clearly proved crucial (although the other 26 wins they earned that season will have undoubtedly proved just as invaluable as well). Paradoxically, Reading beat Norwich twice in December, and would have had absolute expectation on Reading to play their strongest side at Vicarage Road, and we certainly would have done had the FA not used their infinite wisdom to enforce the ridiculous 51 hour difference between final whistle at Vicarage Road and commencement of our FA Cup quarter final replay with Bradford.
I expect Steve Clarke made the sweeping changes to his own side in full expectation that the Football League would make some sort of point. They didn’t, which makes the potential action taken against Huddersfield surprising but welcome in my mind all the same. Should we be blamed for that? No, but the precedent set by the FA in March 2015 was a dangerous one to set.
I can absolutely understand why David Wagner has acted the way he did, but to think so narrow-mindedly as to completely disregard the impact on the competition when divisional status is still at stake, that is worthy of condemnation.
The integrity of the competition must come first, and there is only one element of the competition that can influence that directly – the clubs themselves.
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A previous version of this article wrongly stated that Huddersfield's team against Birmingham City was made up of players with a total of 78 starts, compared to the previous line-up's 213.