Small squad or big squad: what works best (part 2)

By Tony Attwood

In our previous article on the men’s game we opened with an examination of the argument that having a small squad in the Premier League is not a clever idea since clubs need a lot of players to be able to maintain a high standard, and indeed to have cover in case anyone gets injured.

So it is interesting to look not just at the squad size across the league, but also the number of players actually used.  And while we are at it, the average age of both the squad and the starting XI across the games.  As before our figures come from Transfermarkt.

This table is in the order of the number of players in the first team squad.


Club Squad number Players used Average age squad Average age Starting XI Lge pos
31 21 25.7 25.9 5
31 23 26.4 25.0 19
27 22 26.0 25.7 13
27 21 27.0 25.0 16
27 20 24.9 24.7 9
27 21 26.7 27.3 7
27 21 27.3 27.1 11
26 18 27.1 26.1 17
26 18 27.2 26.7 20
25 20 26.5 27.3 6
25 23 27.5 27.5 10
25 19 26.2 27.2 3
24 21 25.7 25.7 8
24 19 24.9 27.3 4
24 18 26.8 27.0 15
24 23 24.8 23.9 12
24 21 27.7 27.9 18
23 19 24.3 24.0 1
23 19 27.2 27.1 2
23 19 25.3 25.6 14


It is interesting that six of the ten of the smallest squad sizes come from clubs currently in the top ten places in the league table.  In other words, having a bigger squad does not generally mean being higher up the league. At least so far this season.

But what about players used?  Do the teams near the top of the league use more or fewer players than those at the bottom?  Here’s the top ten clubs in the league, showing the number of players used so far and the average age of the starting XI, in the last two columns.

Pos Team GD Pts Players used av age of starting XI
1 Arsenal 7 15 19 24.0
2 Manchester City 14 14 19 27.1
3 Tottenham Hotspur 7 14 19 27.2
4 Brighton and Hove Albion 6 13 19 24.9
5 Manchester United 0 12 21 25.9
6 Chelsea -1 10 20 27.3
7 Liverpool 9 9 21 27.3
8 Brentford 6 9 21 25.7
9 Leeds United 0 8 25 24.7
10 Fulham 0 8 27 27.5


Here we can see that the clubs at the top are using smaller squads, and as we go down the league we find that clubs that we might not expect to be in the mix by the end of the season, such as Leeds and Fulham are using more players.

However, where Arsenal is really out of sync with the other top clubs is with the average age of its starting XI.  Indeed only Southampton has a younger set of players used so far.

So the argument in the media is that having a small squad in the Premier League is not a clever idea, at least at this early point of this stop-start season, since clubs need a lot of players to be able to maintain a high standard.  They have so far made less noise about the virtues of having an older squad.

And, at least according to the data that we have, they are getting it wrong. 

This leads me to wonder if this isn’t another example of the media twisting reality in order to give themselves more chance to talk about fantasy transfers, which of course cost no money in research or indeed in paying proper journalists to cover the story. 

For it does seem that by refusing to talk about the organisation and standards of refereeing (for example) or the issue of squad ages, costs and size, the media has removed from itself the major topics of debate.  Indeed, if they were also to recognise that smaller squads work better, they would be truly screwed when it comes to having something to write about all the way through the summer and January transfer windows.

And of course, as I noted before, a bigger squad is one of those ideas which at first sounds as if it has an element of logic within it – more players means more cover for anyone who gets injured or loses his form.

However, there is a worrying point here.   We’ve shown over and over that the media will write and talk incessantly about player transfers, not because the transfers will happen, but because it keeps up excitement and no one other than Untold keeps track of the number of stories that turn out to be false. 

And here again, the same thing is happening.   Bigger squads are thought to be good not because they win the league but because big squads allow chit-chat about transfers in the media.

In short, if it is about fantasy transfers it becomes news because that is easy to make up, and easy to convince readers and viewers it is something that matters.  Anything else goes out the window.

One Reply to “Small squad or big squad: what works best (part 2)”

  1. Whilst there may be some logic to your assertions, I’m unconvinced that they are supported by your data. The argument that squad size is important is, as you suggest, based upon “more cover for anyone who gets injured or loses his form”. To then use data from just the first six games of the season barely allows for any injuries or loss of form to have occurred. Similarly, allowing for giving players a break is unlikely to be an issue so early in the season, nor have we yet reached the point where the top clubs have had their players abused and crocked on the international stage.

    It might also be reasonable to assume that the clubs higher up the league are more likely to use fewer players since they will prefer to tamper less with a winning combination whereas teams which find themselves with a less successful combination are likely to experiment more in order to achieve success on a more regular basis. Or, indeed, those who are winning are doing so partly because they have yet to suffer injuries and hence don’t need to make changes because their best players are all available. I don’t claim that any of my thinking is definitive but I would suggest that it should certainly be taken into consideration.

    Perhaps it would have been a more compelling argument had you produced the same figures showing the number of players used (and squad sizes) for an entire season.

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