The Decider: Should Mourinho Rotate the Chelsea FC Squad More?


This is the latest installment of an ongoing series looking at the decision-making process of Premier League club owners, executives, and managers

Jose Mourinho is a footballing genius. That isn’t up for debate. The Special One has a reputation for winning wherever he’s managed, and doing so in a way that baffles, irritates, and intrigues the media and fans alike.

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This season, more than anything provocative he has said, the most interesting thing from my point of view has been his use of the Chelsea FC squad. Specifically, Mourinho has used his preferred eleven players more than any other manager in the Premier League. Let’s take a look at how unique Mourinho’s approach has been and whether he ought to consider giving Cesc Fabregas and co. a rest.

I. Chelsea’s Lack of Rotation Is Nearly One of a Kind

When the Blues win the Premier League, this will be the lineup we remember

It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that the lineup for Chelsea on any given weekend reads as follows: Courtois, Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta, Matic, Fabregas, Oscar, Willian, Hazard, Costa. If/when the Blues lift the Premier League title (which seems likely), this will be the vintage lineup that we’ll remember. And rightly so, as they’ve played the vast majority of minutes this season.

How vast is vast, you ask? Well, they’ve played 84.4% of all available minutes. That’s actually quite a lot. I know it doesn’t sound like it, and there might be some old-timer who remembers a bygone era where players couldn’t be substituted and had to play 100% of the minutes.But that’s rubbish, because the Charleston is no longer a popular dance and Zeppelins aren’t a viable means of transportation.

84.4% of Premier League minutes is an enormous amount of time for eleven players to be playing. The only other club in that range is Burnley, who, it should be added, only have eleven players* (*to be verified).

Let me draw you a picture:

Fig.1 We’ve done the maths and it shows us just how far outside the realms of normalcy Chelsea’s lack of rotation has been.

(Click to enlarge)

Quick explanation: I’ve taken every Premier League club and looked at how many minutes their top eleven players (“1st XI”) have played and then the next eleven players (“2nd XI”), stats courtesy of

This is not based on who I think should be in their starting lineup or who was supposed to be but missed out due to injury or suspension. This is based on usage, in other words, who has actually played the most.

Using this information, I determined what the average usage looks like across the Premier League (the “mean”) and compared each club in terms of how different they were (“standard deviations from the mean”). Basically, anything within the shaded box in the picture is within one standard deviation from the mean, so we’ll treat that as relatively normal. Anything outside of that is notably different.

Both Chelsea and Burnley are over two standard deviations from the mean in terms of how likely they are to play their 1st XI more than everyone else, and how unlikely they are to play their 2nd XI. I can’t really explain to non-math heads how unique two standard deviations is without using a bad analogy. So here goes nothing:

The average IQ is 100. Two standard deviations from the mean would be an IQ of 130. I’m not saying that anyone who plays in the starting lineup for Stoke City is of average intelligence and that Eden Hazard and friends are near-geniuses…. but I’m saying it’s like that.

Of course, the flip side of that is insinuating that the substitutes available to Jose Mourinho on the Chelsea bench are of Forrest Gump level of cognitive ability, which is a really mean thing to say about Petr Cech.

“The scrum-cap is for a reason, guys.”

(Petr Cech – Flickr Creative Commons)

II. Mourinho Knows His Best XI

We already knew that this season would be the one when Jose Mourinho was able to put his stamp on Chelsea (beyond the obvious lingering residue from his previous stint that has woven itself into the club DNA).

Instead of having to deal with inferior players brought in by other managers, this would be the season that Mourinho would have his players. Last season provided some hint of this too. Of the current 1st XI, seven of those players were in last season’s 1st XI. An eighth player, Nemanja Matic was just outside that, but as a mid-season signing, he quickly became a regular starter.

The remaining three slots are all players new to the club (or returning from loan). Cech is replaced by Courtois. Fernando Torres is replaced by Diego Costa. Frank Lampard is replaced by Fabregas. Mourinho has shrewdly identified who fits in his lineup and found adequate replacements for those that don’t or needed to move on.

How many squads can say with certainty that they know who their best XI is? I’m not sure there are too many in that category (again, with the obvious exception of Burnley).

Also, with few exceptions, Chelsea’s season hasn’t been dogged by injury, illness, and suspension, so they haven’t had too many days where they are trying to shoehorn in players outside of the 1st XI. That’s not been the case for Arsenal or Manchester United, who for various reasons haven’t had settled sides all season.

III. The Chelsea Bench Isn’t As Deep As You Think

I’m a proponent of rotation to some extent. I think as a manager you have to be able to rest players when they’re exhausted, and this is a season following a World Cup, so many players are indeed exhausted. I also think that you have horses for different courses, and depending on a given opponent and game-plan how you lineup will change.

Jose Mourinho does not give one hoot what I think. He’s not rotating unless absolutely necessary. And looking at his options on the bench, I can see his point of view. How many legitimate first-choice options currently find themselves as second-choice at their position? Probably one. Maybe two or three, if we’re generous.

Filipe Luis is among the best left backs in the world, and was signed for no small chunk of change. He’s probably the only player deserving of starting in his favored position, but he’s been outplayed by a right back (Azpilicueta). He’s also played the second most minutes of the 2nd XI.

After Luis, who would you say deserves to start? Petr Cech? Maybe. In terms of performance, he and Courtois are probably equals, but age is a fickle beast, a decade of a gap favors the young Belgian and it sounds like Cech will go searching for greener pastures. Mourinho likes his guys, but isn’t afraid of letting them go when they’re of no more use to him (cf. Lampard, Casillas, etc.).

And then, maybe, just maybe, you can try and convince me that Juan Cuadrado is a starter — in favor of Willian. Sure. Why not? I’m not going to argue with you. But really, Cuadrado is a replacement for Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah. Pure Mourinho: get rid of two bench warmers and replace them with one.

You’re now left with players past their prime (Drogba), really young (Loftus-Cheek, Zouma), or not starters (Ramires, Obi Mikel, Remy).

For comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at what Manchester City has to work with in their “2nd XI”: Mangala, Fernando, Milner, Kolarov, Dzeko, Jovetic, Sagna, Lampard, Caballero, Bony, and Pozo. There’s still some of the past their prime (Lampard) and really young (Pozo), but the depth of the potential starters is astounding. This 2nd XI could actually compete for a title.

Who is Jose Mourinho’s James Milner? You laugh, but it’s that type of player that a top squad needs in depth. As described lovingly by Manuel Pellegrini:

"“I am Milner’s No 1 fan — find me a more complete English player. There are players who are better technically, yes. Quicker players, yes. Players who head better, yes. But show me one who does all the things Milner does well. There isn’t one.”“Milner is a phenomenon, a guy with big balls and a heart this big. I hope he stays. If he doesn’t, it will be because there’s an important offer [from elsewhere].”"

This level of depth is part of the reason why Pellegrini has rotated his lineup much more than Chelsea, though not that far off from the Premier League average:

Fig. 2 The title contenders have rotated their squads in very different ways this season.

(Click to enlarge)

As you can see, there is a big drop off in playing time between Player 11 and Player 12 for Chelsea, where it is a much more gentle slope for Manchester City all the way to Player 15. Both clubs had similar aspirations entering the season (WIN ALL TROPHIES), but the approach has been quite different.

IV. Big European Clubs Rotate More

Manuel Pellegrini’s approach of rotating more is actually in line with what other big clubs in Europe do.

Fig. 3 Pretty much everybody rotates their squad more than Mourinho.

Fun Fact: Xavi and Andres Iniesta are in Barcelona’s 2nd XI. Another Fun Fact: Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger are in Bayern’s 2nd XI.

What we can extrapolate from this is probably two things: 1) Jose Mourinho is nuts, and 2) the Premier League is very competitive and Mourinho actually needs his 1st XI more often than those other clubs if he wishes to win a title.

Another Fun Fact: Andrea Pirlo is in Juventus’ 2nd XI.

Maybe Pellegrini has been conserving energy for his squad, knowing that every bit will pay off over the course of a long season. Maybe they can catch up to Chelsea in the last few weeks. Or maybe they will continue to unnecessarily lose games to Burnley, who it should be noted, only have eleven players.

Last Fun Fact: Luka Modric is in Real Madrid’s 2nd XI.

V. Cesc is Fabre-Gassed

Pardon the pun, but I’m going out on a limb here and suggesting that maybe signing a player who has largely been a backup player for Barcelona and Spain for the last several seasons and then turning him into a workhorse in the Premier League at the age of 27 might not be the sanest idea.

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Fabregas has been terrific (past tense). He’s dipped in recent months (both in health and performance) and could probably use a rest week. I’m sure that Fabregas would like to be sitting on Las Ramblas, reading Orwell and drinking Cava, living the leisurely Mediterranean life, but that’s just not how the Premier League works.

I also just don’t see Mourinho throwing Obi Mikel or Ramires on the pitch in his absence unless forced to. Time to suck it up, Cesc.

VI. This Is Unique, Even for Mourinho

Years from now, we’ll look on this season as an anomaly. Jose Mourinho has never used a 1st XI to the extent he has this season. Or, if he did, it was in the era (I’m lazy). Sidenote: Mourinho’s last season at Real Madrid looked interesting, but we already knew that.

This season is unique, even for the Special One.

 (Click to enlarge)


Shine on, you crazy diamond. Mourinho should drive this 1st XI into dust in his pursuit of Premier League glory. Whatever horse hormones keep Diego Costa’s legs moving and his mane shimmering is alright in my books. #TeamJose

Next: Diego Costa Says He Doesn't Get Enough Protection