How much time has each club’s most-used 11 players spent on the pitch together?
The short answer is a lot less than you might think.
When Leicester and Burnley won the Premier League and Championship titles last season using a small core group of players, I wrote some code to work out how long their most-used combination of 11 players had been on the pitch together, expecting a ridiculously high number.
While no club in the top four English divisions had a combination whose league playing minutes came close to these two, they were still shy of 1,000 each: Burnley’s most-deployed eleven players accrued just 953 minutes (out of a possible 4,427) between them and Leicester’s 884 (out of 3,672). Both tallies represent under 25% of what an ever-present line-up would have managed, and the average across all four divisions last season was far lower: just a shade over 6% of the average club’s total league playing minutes were clocked up by their most-used XI.
I’ve done several spot checks – manually trawling through the data for various teams – just to check that there weren’t any bugs in the code, but while doing so I noticed just how rare it is for the same group of players to start together week in, week out. Invariably someone gets injured or loses their place partway through a season, or a January transfer mixes things up.
Anyway, as we’re at the halfway-ish point of the season, I thought I’d re-run it and see how the data looks this time around. There are four graphics below – one for each of the top four divisions – with clubs sorted in descending order of how long their most-used XI has been on the pitch in league games this season. I’ve extracted each set of players, sorted in position and then alphabetical order.
Chelsea have the most-used XI of any club in the top four divisions, which is even more impressive given that Premier League clubs have played fewer games. It’s Antonio Conte’s much-discussed 3-4-3, which took a little while to appear and has occasionally been disrupted by the likes of Willian and Cesc Fabregas. Perhaps the Blues’ lack of involvement in Europe has allowed Conte to avoid squad rotation.
At the other end of the scale, neither Man City and Tottenham have kept a single combination of players on the pitch for 90 minutes so far this season. As far as I can tell, neither manager has named the same starting line-up twice.
Barnsley lead the way in the second tier, having kept the same group of 11 players on the pitch for 138 minutes longer than anyone else so far. It’s encouraging to see the likes of Andy Yiadom and Tom Bradshaw in there, as both were plying their trade further down the divisions until recently.
It’s not surprising to see Nottingham Forest at the foot of this list, given that they’ve used more players than anyone else in the top four English divisions this season: 33, with 31 of them starting at least one match (the next highest totals are 29 and 27 respectively).
Oxford lead the way here, although by far less of a margin than the most-used XIs in either of the divisions above.
Many of the sides towards the foot of the list are those also struggling at the wrong end of the table – the bottom five here are all in the bottom eight – so perhaps there’s a bit of panicky trial and error going on as managers search for a winning combination.
Blackpool are one of three teams to have stuck with a specific combination of players far more regularly than the rest of the division, which is mildly surprising for a club that has experienced more than its fair share of chaos in recent years. They and Crewe are the only clubs apart from Chelsea to have deployed the same group of 11 players for more than 400 minutes of league football so far this season.
At the bottom we have underachieving Accrington – perhaps the lack of familiarity between their players is contributing to their disappointing campaign?