Player usage in the Football League
Last week I took a look for PA at the number and age of players fielded by each Premier League club this season and I wanted to do something similar for the Football League. I’ve covered two things here: firstly how many players each club has used – and started – in their league matches this season, and secondly how old their starting line-ups have been on average.
Number of players used
First of all I simply counted up how many players each team had used in the league this season, but then I realised that some managers might be more willing to throw a few fringe players on late in games – more for fitness or experience than a tactical decision – which could distort the figures, so I went back and split the players into those who had started at least one league match and those who had been used exclusively from the bench.
For each of the three divisions I’ve listed each club in descending order of how many players they’ve used, but split each bar into two sections: dark green for starters and light green for substitutes:
Starting at the top, both Nottingham Forest and Bolton have used 28 players this season – the most in the division. Forest have started all but two of theirs while Neil Lennon has used four exclusively from the bench.
However Rotherham have named the most unique starters: all 27 of the players they’ve fielded this season have kicked off a match for the Millers. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but you often see struggling sides near the top of these graphs as they try different combinations of players – sometimes under successive managers – in search of a winning formula.
The reverse can also be true, with sides who are doing well tending to stick with a winning combination. At the opposite end of the graph we find Birmingham, with Gary Rowett having used just 18 players so far. Along with Burnley‘s Sean Dyche – another manager enjoying a successful season – his starting line-ups have been the least varied, with only 16 different names among the first eleven on his team sheets.
The 31 different players used by crisis-hit Swindon is the most of any Football League team and could swell further if new manager Martin Ling rings the changes in the transfer window. However both Sheffield United and Oldham have started more players than the Robins: 26 apiece.
Swindon’s fellow strugglers Crewe however have fielded just 21 different players: among the fewest in the division. The only three sides to have used fewer individuals – Gillingham, Walsall and Burton – are all enjoying surprisingly good seasons at the top of the division with a smaller core squad.
Again we find some strugglers at the top, with four of the five most varied match squads belonging to sides in relegation danger. Both Stevenage and Dagenham & Redbridge having started 27 different players – the joint-most in the Football League.
At the bottom of the graphic we can see that the division’s three most consistent team sheets belong to sides enjoying strong campaigns so far. Plymouth‘s successful season has seen them start just 14 different players: the fewest of any Football League club.
Age of players used
I was also interested in the ages of players being used. Using match dates and players’ dates of birth I calculated the average age of each starting line-up in league matches this season. To keep things simple and consistent I’ve ignored substitutes.
These graphics are a little bit more complex. Each bar shows the spread of average ages of a club’s starting line-ups, from youngest to oldest, but each bar also contains a black line which shows the average age of all of their starting line-ups combined. The graphs are sorted on this latter number, so the clubs are in descending order of average line-up age, from oldest to youngest.
Just as they were in the Premier League last season, QPR‘s starting line-ups are the oldest in the division so far. Their average age clocks in at just under 29 and only Brighton have named an older starting eleven this season.
The next four oldest sides – Brighton, Burnley, Middlesbrough and Birmingham – are all enjoying good seasons with a relatively experienced squad.
There’s a massive jump between Bolton – the youngest of a clutch of sides with an average starting age of around 27 – and Reading, who are the next most youthful but with an average of almost exactly 26.
Many of the younger sides are currently in the bottom half of the table. Leeds have been naming the youngest starting line-ups in the division, narrowly edging those of Wolves and Charlton, with all three hovering around the 24-and-a-half mark.
Doncaster have named comfortably the oldest line-ups in the division: their average age has exceeded nearly everyone else’s oldest team sheet this season.
Where the black line is particularly off-centre in the bar, as in the case of Port Vale, it suggests that they tend to one extreme more than the other. In Vale’s case, it looks as though they tend to name a side with an average age of around 26 and a half, but occasionally trot out a few more experienced heads.
The three youngest sides in the division make up the current bottom three in the table: Crewe, Swindon and Barnsley have put out line-ups around 23 years old this season – could they lacking sufficient experience to handle a relegation battle?
There’s a Westcountry club at each extreme here: Exeter have named the division’s – and indeed the Football League’s – oldest line-up sp far and League 2’s oldest average starting eleven, while struggling Yeovil have fielded the youngest side on average and are the only team to have started a match with a group of players averaging under 23 years of age.
Accrington‘s successful season is being driven by a very young group of players: not only do they have the second youngest starting line-up on average, but even the oldest side they’ve named has had an average age of under 25. This means that the oldest side they’ve put out is still younger than the most youthful line-up that most other teams in the division have fielded so far.
For those who are curious, here’s the Premier League age graphic we did at PA for comparison: