Changing times in Premier League but Houllier’s tinkering doesn’t add up

HAVING fielded just 14 players throughout the entire campaign the last time they won the title, Aston Villa is not a club to which squad rotation has always been a familiar concept.

Unfortunately for Villa fans, nobody seems to have told Gerard Houllier.

A week ago things were looking good for Villa — they’d just beaten Blackburn 4-1 to ease towards mid-table, and an FA Cup quarter-final place was in the offing. Seven days and 16 team changes later, they’re faced with nothing but a potential survival battle.

Things, of course, were different back in 1980-81 — when Villa were last crowned champions — but maybe this whole business of rotating players isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Houllier made eight changes — a couple of which, admittedly, were enforced — for the feeble midweek cup exit away to City, and then eight more for Saturday’s 3-2 defeat at Bolton. His reason for effectively sacrificing Villa’s chance of progressing to the quarter-finals of a competition they last won in 1957 was to keep his key men fresh; after seeing his side concede two goals in the final 15 minutes to throw away a winning position at the Reebok, even the Villa boss must be questioning whether or not his approach had the desired effect.

Maybe footballers need to be playing regularly to find their best rhythm. Pep Guardiola certainly seems to think so. The Barcelona coach hardly ever rests his top man Lionel Messi, who not only played in the first leg of a Spanish Cup tie with Real Betis earlier this season, for example, but also started the return match — even though a 5-0 victory in the initial game had virtually guaranteed Barcelona’s place in the next round.

And it’s not just Villa who have been ‘shuffling the pack’. Alex McLeish made five changes — understandably, perhaps — from Birmingham’s League Cup-winning team for Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at home to West Brom. That reverse dropped the Blues into the bottom three, which leaves them in danger of being relegated in the same season as winning the League Cup.

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