Just the 10 changes, then

When I wrote before the Aston Villa game that changes were afoot, even I wasn’t expecting quite so many of them. Ian Holloway opted to make no fewer than ten changes to the side that took to the field against Everton, and in doing so has drawn the full glare of the media spotlight. In the wake of this story, I think there are some key issues that should be looked at:

  • Was Holloway right to make so many changes?
  • Were the ‘Pool fans who travelled short-changed?
  • Did Holloway over-react in the post-match interview?
  • Should the Premier League be getting involved?
  • Is Holloway’s quit threat genuine?
  • What does this mean for Saturday?
  • What are the longer-term consequences? 
Let’s take a look at these questions one at a time, and try to provide some answers…
Was Holloway right to make so many changes?
This obviously depends on your definition of right. The reasons given by the manager for the overhaul were twofold – the first being to rest players who have played regularly. This season has no doubt been a step up in terms of the standard and pace of the game, so the view that players need to be kept fresh is a worthy one. The second reason given by Holloway was to let some of the fringe players have an opportunity. Fringe players, might I add, that have been selected among Blackpool’s 25 man squad submitted to the Premier League. 
By the letter of the law, surely fielding players part of this squad cannot possibly be construed as purposely sending out a weakened team? Then again, you have the ambiguous Premier League rule E.20 – “In every League Match each participating Club shall field a full strength team.” In whose opinion? With pre-selected squads of 25, who determines just which players are strong and weak? Some might suggest a rule of limiting changes from game to game, but where would this arbitrary limit be set? A maximum of six changes? Seven? What if injuries and suspensions mean a team has to make more changes than this pre-determined limit?
Holloway has a squad, and he is surely entitled to use it as he sees fit, without outside influence.
Were the ‘Pool fans who travelled short-changed?
This is a tricky one. Anyone who was at Villa Park last night cannot argue with the level of performance. First choice team or not, for long spells the men in tangerine matched their more illustrious counterparts, and but for a last minute goal from a set-piece, ‘Pool would have come away with a well-earned point. The team sent out did not roll over, and did not do the club a disservice. Fans were given a chance to see potential future starts, such as Matt Phillips and Ludovic Sylvestre, shine on the big stage.

Then again, had a more familiar XI started the match, Seasiders’ fans could have been rewarded with another away win. Villa, through a number of injuries, were also depleted, and arguably there for the taking. Last night cost me in excess of £50, and it will have cost many even more than that. Personally, I don’t regret going and I still feel it was value-for-money in entertainment terms (as much as Premier League football can be good value). However, for financial reasons I am having to miss my first away game of the season at Upton Park on Saturday. Would I have chosen West Ham over Villa if I’d known that Holloway would make 10 changes? Possibly, possibly not. Is it really for me though, to pick and choose my games depending on the chances of my team winning? Absolutely not. Following Blackpool through some truly horrendous times, it would be churlish to now cry off at the first sign of the Premier League dream turning sour.
What’s to say, though, that Blackpool would have played better with an unchanged team? In spells, ‘Pool played as well as they have done all season, and in Phillips had one of the outstanding performances of the season so far. If some fans feel aggrieved at Holloway’s decision, then that is their prerogative, but by and large, I believe most Blackpool supporters understand the reasons, even if they don’t necessarily agree with them.
Did Holloway over-react in the post-match interview?
For me, this is possibly the heart of the story. Would the media reaction today have been so pronounced had Holloway not have been so ‘wiggy’ in his post-match interviews? I doubt it. In some ways, Holloway’s reaction has become the story, rather than the changes themselves. Holloway may have felt his fringe players weren’t being treated with due respect by post-match interviews, but a little more civility towards them might not have gone amiss. A quiet post-match press conference would have, in all likelihood, kept the issue largely under the radar.
Should the Premier League be getting involved?
This is a no-brainer. With the new rules on 25 men squads, this should be the end of the debate on weakened teams. It is not for the suits to decide what constitutes a full-strength team. The confirmation that the Premier League are looking at this issue is disappointing. By handing Wolves a suspended £25,000 fine for making 10 changes at Old Trafford last season, the authorities put themselves in an awkward predicament.
The precedent set in that case leaves the Premier League with three choices
  1. Follow through on their original decision giving Blackpool a similar punishment
  2. Admit their original decision was a mistake
  3. Judge Blackpool’s transgression to be ‘less wrong’ than Wolves, perhaps giving Holloway a warning, or possibly take no action whatsoever
Going off past form, the second option is unlikely. I rather suspect the Premier League will take the easy way out, taking no action. Holloway has endeared himself to the country, and any sanctions would surely result in a public backlash Scudamore et al will be hoping to avoid. Following the first course of action could potentially have some very serious repercussions.

Is Holloway’s quit threat genuine? 
Initially, I thought it probably wasn’t. We all say things in the heat of the moment, and Holloway is certainly no different. In his press conference today, Holloway has stood firm on his threat to quit if the club are fined, claiming the team he picks should be down to him alone. It’s hard to argue with him on this, and nor would I dare, but it still looks like he is backing himself into a bit of a corner. I don’t imagine it’s likely the club will be fined, but it cannot be completely ruled out.
If the club are fined, would he keep to his word and resign? This would obviously be disastrous, and I find it hard to believe he would walk away just like that, but it only goes to show just how intense the pressure is on managers at this level. I can’t help but feel though that he has brought some of this on himself by being so outspoken post-match yesterday.
What does this mean for Saturday?
With 10 changes last night, there’s every chance that nearly all those who were left out could return to the starting line-up, which would surely only magnify the issue and increase the probability of a fine. Again, you have to wonder if Holloway has dug himself into a hole here. Does he ignore all the media scrutiny and just pick the team he wants, or to temper the reaction, does he try and retain some of those who featured last night? 
Realistically, it’s hard to imagine more than three or four players keeping their places. Phillips has done himself no harm in retaining his place, while Marlon Harewood might be given the chance to score against another of his former clubs. Injuries at the back to Craig Cathcart and Dekel Keinan could mean Rob Edwards stays at centre back, but beyond that I find it hard to see who else will keep their place. This would mean another eight changes, which is bound to cause another stir, deservedly or not.
What are the longer-term consequences? 
Looking forward to January, yesterday’s match will prove very useful in assessing who might be surplus to requirements, and where extra depth might be needed. There are one or two who played last night that could be moved on to make room in the 25 for new blood, and others who will have impressed the manager enough to feature on a more regular basis.
More significantly though, is wondering how costly dropped points tonight could be. As already mentioned, picking a more familiar starting XI might not have necessarily effected a more positive result, but if ‘Pool are relegated by a narrow margin at the end of the season, critics may well point to last night’s team selection and wonder ‘what if?’.

Conclusions

The outcome at Upton Park on Saturday will be instrumental to how last night’s decision will be viewed. Three points on Saturday with a rejuvenated and fresh group of players will look like inspired management, especially when one considers how close ‘Pool were to a draw last night. However, back-to-back defeats will inevitably lead to more searching questions about the decision to rest key players. Holloway has denied the changes were made with the trip to West Ham in mind, but from the outside looking in, a win over a team also battling against the drop is a more valuable one.
One point I must stress, and one that Holloway sought to achieve in his press conference today, is to note how well the replacements played. I’ve often thought more attention should be paid to the football itself, rather than the circus which surrounds it. That a Blackpool team with 10 changes was still able to compete at this level is a hugely encouraging sign for the rest of the season, when changes may be forced due to injuries and suspension, rather than fatigue.
I’ll be doing a full analysis of the Villa match in the next 24 hours or so, when the focus will be firmly on the pitch.
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