The Numbers Game
Cast your mind back to just under twelve months ago and our important 4-2 victory away at Scunthorpe United. Can you remember our subs bench that day? Here it is if you can't: Paul Rachubka, Rob Edwards, Jason Euell, David Vaughan, Barry Bannan, Hameur Bouazza, DJ Campbell.
DJ came off the bench to score twice that day as 'Pool maintained their charge towards the Premier League.
A couple of weeks later when we beat Forest 3-1 at home (with DJ scoring twice again), our subs bench included Rabs, Billy Clarke, Barry Bannan and Stephen Dobbie.
Our subs benches in the playoffs were equally as strong: Rabs, Clarke, Big Ben Burgess (there's always an exception to the rule! ;)), Euell, Edwards, Bannan and Dobbie.
Compare that to our bench from when we dramatically beat Watford 3-2 in January (our only victory that month): Matt Gilks, Edwards, Andy Butler, Al Bangura, Ishmel, Daniel Nardiello and Burgess. Pretty weak by comparison, eh?
What's my point you might be wondering. Well, it's pretty clear to me that our squad depth towards the end of last season was a very important factor in us securing promotion to the Premier League.
You only need to look at the benches from our sticky patch around the turn of the year last season to see how stretched and lacking in options we were at times.
Come the crucial last few weeks of the season though, we had options in every position. This not only meant that we were fielding a strong side week in week out, but that we had positive game-changing players to utilise from the bench (see DJ v Scunthorpe).
Furthermore, the players were playing for their shirts every week. They knew that if they underperformed that there was somebody there waiting to replace them, and that Ian Holloway was not frightened to make changes.
Fast forward to this season, and our squad depth could again prove to be crucial as we battle to retain our Premier League status.
Just like this time last year, our squad has look stretched over the past few weeks as injuries and suspensions have taken their toll on our side (undoubtedly a contributing factor to our bad run of form).
However, as the subs bench against Chelsea proved, players are beginning to hit the comeback trail, and if we can keep everyone fit for the remainder of the season then we actually have a strong squad to utilise, much like last season.
Take the goalkeeping situation. Although Matt Gilks picked up an injury in yesterday's 7-2 reserve hammering at Chelsea, he is expected to be fit for the Fulham game. Meanwhile, Paul Rachubka has also returned to training. All this puts pressure on current number one Richard Kingson and creates geniune competition for places.
At centre half, Chris Basham is nearing full fitness and will look to challenge Ian Evatt, Craig Cathcart and Alex Baptiste for their places in the side before the season is out. You can add Rob Edwards to the mix as well, presuming that he's recalled from his loan at Norwich after 28 days.
On the flanks, we have the likes of Luke Varney, Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Jason Puncheon, Matt Phillips and David Carney all competing for places, whilst up top we have DJ Campbell (once he's completed his suspension), James Beattie, Sergei Kornilenko and Marlon Harewood (presuming that he's recalled from his loan spell at Barnsley) fighting it out for a place in the side.
All in all, over the coming weeks, we should have real competition for places, and just like last season, that could prove to be vital, not only in the sense that we can field strong starting XI, but have strong and game-changing options on the bench as well.
Just like last season as well, the players will be playing for the shirt and their place in the side everytime they enter the field of play. Many of them are playing for new deals as well.
All positive stuff so far, but a word of warning: Ollie's dropped the ball several times of late in regards to his team selections and use of substitutes. There's no point in having a big squad if you don't utilise it correctly.
Hopefully the big man will go back to last season and think just how he managed his squad over the final few weeks and look to recreate that. If he does, then we might just win the most important numbers game of them all - getting enough points to secure Premier League safety.
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