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The Minute-by-Minute Database IV: Rotation and Lineups

High-level football clubs use a lot of lineups. Like, a lot of lineups.

Ian Walton

Last Sunday, I posted a Spurs trivia question asking about the extent of rotation used by Tottenham Hotspur in the 2012-2013 English Premier League season. I asked (a) how many unique starting lineups the club used, and (b) which lineups were repeated.

The answer was (a) 36 with (b) only two starting lineups used more than once. Those two lineups:

Lloris ; Assou-Ekotto, Dawson, Vertonghen, Walker ; Dembele, Parker ; Dempsey, Bale, Lennon ; Defoe (used @ West Bromwich Albion, @ Norwich City)

Friedel ; Vertonghen, Caulker, Gallas, Walker ; Huddlestone, Sandro ; Bale, Dempsey, Lennon ; Defoe (played vs Wigan Athletic, @ Southampton)

For more Tottenham Hotspur Analysis and the Minute-by-Minute Database read these: Shots and Goals by Game State The Underlying Statistics New Expected Goals

The lineup that spent the most time on the field together were the club's starters in the road win against Manchester United, though they never actually started a second game together:

Friedel ; Vertonghen, Caulker, Gallas, Walker ; Sandro, Dembele ; Bale, Dempsey, Lennon ; Defoe

They played together for 113 minutes, the longest of any Spurs lineup.

The data here could be taken in two ways. Is it the case that Spurs were just incredibly unsettled? Maybe we just had really bad luck with injuries and most clubs at our level have much more stability. Or perhaps instability is the nature of the beast when you're competing in both domestic and European leagues?

To test this theory, I picked two clubs which were also playing in both the English Premier League and a major European competition, and which are not too, too far removed from Tottenham in their financial situation. Liverpool and Arsenal, I think, are our closest comparands.

It turns out they also used a lot of lineups, though not quite as many as Spurs. I think it's fair to say that we were a little more unsettled than you'd expect, but mostly it just takes a lot of unique lineups to complete a modern football season. Because I start to break out in sweats when I've written more than four paragraphs without embedding an html table of some sort, here's my numbers on lineups used in tabular form. I have the total number of starting XIs used by each club, how many times they used a previously used XI again, and how many times the most used XI played together. I've done this both for just starting lineups and for all lineups.

Club Starting XIs Repeated XIs Most Repeats --- Total XIs Repeated XIs Most Repeats
Arsenal 32 5 3 --- 126 9 3
Liverpool 30 7 3 --- 109 16 3
Tottenham 36 2 2 --- 133 7 2

None of these clubs used the same set lineup in more than three separate games. All of them used 30 or more starting lineups and 100 of more overall lineups.

What I Think It All Means

First, this has implications for thinking about the transfer window and roster construction. There have been a number of pieces written about the Tottenham first XI, whether you can be successful with three power guys in the center of midfield, for instance. Now, I have some thoughts about this—I think calling Mousa Dembele merely a "powerful" midfielder does a disservice to his collection of skills—but I think the most important point to be made is that we shouldn't worry to much about individual lineups. A ballclub needs to have lots of different possible lineups if they're going to get through a comtemporary football season.

As things currently stand for Spurs, assuming nothing goes horribly wrong with that still-not-yet announced Paulinho signing, I think it's best to say we have five or six possible central midfielders, including Tom Carroll, Lewis Holtby, and Gylfi Sigurdsson. The better question to ask is what different effective midfield arrangements can be made of those players, and how they'll fit together with the defensive and attacking groups the club brings out.

This also speaks to the usefulness of utility players. Someone like Clint Dempsey, who can fill in and produce at a couple of different spots in the lineups, has a lot of value if you're going to have to shake up your starting squad a couple dozen times every year.

Finally, I think there are implications for our evaluations of the 2012-2013 Spurs season. Tottenham did use a lot of lineups, even for a club at their level. You can say this points to our injury problems, or you can say it demonstrates that Andre Villas-Boas never really settled on tactics for the club. In either case—and do go ahead and argue about it—to tell the correct story of the 2012-2013 Spurs season, you need to account for the constant churn of starting lineups and the lack of any settled eleven.

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