With transfer-happy Chelsea and Nottingham Forest tussling at Stamford Bridge this weekend, we looked at whether having a huge squad is a help or hindrance to Premier League performance.
Over the past year, Todd Boehly and Evangelos Marinakis have been living the dream of many a Football Manager player. With deep pockets and even deeper imaginations, the two ludicrously wealthy individuals set about transforming their respective clubs with the subtlety of a 13-year-old who’d just discovered the ‘Sugar Daddy’ option in the FM editor.
For Boehly and Chelsea, virtually no player has been off limits. For Marinakis and Forest, the options weren’t quite so endless, but with promotion came a lure they’d not been able to count on since the turn of the century: the Premier League factor.
It’s fair to say the two clubs’ respective spending and recruitment strategies has been a major narrative of the 2022-23 Premier League season, a situation that’s certainly – from Chelsea’s perspective, anyway – not been helped by their table position.
And with the two clubs set to tussle at Stamford Bridge this weekend, now’s as good a time as any to ask the question: is a chaotic squad a good or bad thing?
Chelsea set about establishing a new era with youth-driven recruitment, hoping to build a team that could dominate for years.
Forest on the other hand clearly felt their promotion squad wasn’t up to the task of retaining Premier League status and left no stone unturned in their quest to construct a group good enough to keep them up.
Brutally, that meant most of those who helped end Forest’s 23-year top-flight absence were cast aside. Granted, that includes loan players such as James Garner, but still, the squad overhaul was remarkable.
Of the 33 players used in the Championship last season, only nine have made an appearance in the Premier League – and two of those (Cafu and Alex Mighten) featured for just seven (or fewer) minutes this season.
Forest have used 33 players again this season, the most of any Premier League team in 2022-23. Just behind them are Chelsea on 32, which will surprise few.
They swap places when it comes to how many different players have started Premier League matches. Chelsea lead with 31, while Forest have used 30 ahead of this weekend.
Further to that, Chelsea have also made the most starting XI changes (123) in the Premier League this season, which isn’t necessarily a problem in itself. After all, they do have a deep squad.
But the sheer number of changes suggests a significant degree of uncertainty around the best starting XI. It also reflects the upheaval that comes with having three head coaches (Thomas Tuchel, Graham Potter and Frank Lampard – four if you include interim boss Bruno Saltor) in a single campaign.
Nevertheless, in wider historical context, neither Chelsea nor Forest are breaking any records at the moment for their squad depth. If every player Forest use between now and the end of the season has already featured for them this term, then there’ll have been 18 instances of Premier League clubs using more individuals over a single campaign.
Fulham hold the record, but it’s probably not from the season you’re thinking of. Following promotion back to the top-flight for 2018-19, they were deemed to have gone all-out in the transfer window with 15 players signing either permanent deals or on loan. That figure hit 19 over the course of the season, but only 28 different players actually featured for them (one fewer than in 2022-23).
No, it was five years earlier when the Cottagers seemed to give a game to anyone who turned up. In the 2013-14 season they used 39 different players, two more than any other Premier League team has in a single campaign ever. They were relegated.
That same season saw Fulham use 34 different starters, which is also a record they share with Derby County from their memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons campaign of 2007-08, when they only managed to amass an all-time low Premier League points tally of 11.
It is difficult to draw absolute conclusions linking chaotic or large squads with underperformance because, generally, a team’s objective isn’t quantifiable, or it might change throughout a season. Similarly, the reason for failing to reach expectations may not be because the squad is really big, it could have been brought on by bad injuries to three or four vital players, poor management or a myriad of other reasons.
However, if you aren’t one of the league’s biggest clubs, there’s certainly an element of extremely large squads having a detrimental impact. Before this season, there were 72 instances of Premier League teams using 31 or more players over the course of a campaign.
Twenty-one of those were teams who suffered relegation that season, or 29.2%. In a standard 38-game season, 15% of the Premier League gets relegated. Now, obviously, that comparison suggests all 20 teams have an equal probability of finishing in the bottom three, and realistically that isn’t the case. But it does highlight a link between large squads and a lack of cohesion, which can lead to on-pitch issues and, eventually, relegation.
Similarly, of the nine clubs in the Premier League this season to use 28 players or more, only one – Fulham – are currently in the top half of the table. And, excluding this season again for a moment, there have been 15 examples of teams using 31 or more starting players over a campaign, and nine of those were teams who were ultimately relegated, or 60%. That’s a large proportion given only three teams go down every year.
Of course, it’s not an exact science. West Ham have used only 25 players this term, the second-fewest in the division, and yet they’ve struggled. An explanation could be they’ve also had plenty of focus on their European exploits, so domestic issues coupled with a smaller squad suggests fatigue as a potential root cause.
And on top of that, just because a team has finished in the bottom half of the table doesn’t mean they’ve had a bad season. If Forest finish 16th and avoid relegation having used 33 players, some might argue they’ve exceeded expectations, even considering their reported transfer outlay of £165 million.
But plenty of evidence suggests a smaller squad breeds greater coherence, and that would never be considered a negative. Chelsea weren’t ever really seen as genuine relegation candidates, but is it really a coincidence that they’re facing the prospect of their worst league finish this century during a season in which they’ve used their joint-most players ever in a single campaign?
There are plenty of other factors at play, though we can expect whoever their next manager is will be trimming the fat considerably, and a significant improvement will be the likely result.