It was early November and Almeria head coach Jose Gomes had a decision to make. Five weeks and already seven game into the season in Spain’s second division and results had been middling with three wins, one draw and three defeats. His players were fit but they were heading into a hectic period that would bring a further 12 games in just 44 days.
“I knew I could not use the same team,” Gomes tells Sky Sports.
He considered his options before the midweek trip to Sabadell. Maybe he could change three players and then another three for the game against Rayo Vallecano at the weekend.
Instead, he went with something more radical.
He changed the entire 11.
“My decision was clear,” he explains.
“I knew sooner or later the problems would come. There would be injuries, there would be fatigue and the performances would suffer. I had said from the beginning that I trusted them all. Now was not the time to just say the words, it was the time to show it.”
Gomes explicitly told his team that he was putting his neck on the line. “It was amazing because the players really understood it and they took on the responsibility.”
Almeria won 2-1 at Sabadell that Thursday. Gomes made 11 more changes at Vallecano for the Sunday game – reverting back to the team that had drawn with Girona on the previous weekend – and his refreshed players won that one too. He had hit upon a new strategy.
“I did not read this in any book. I did not learn it at university. But we got good results and it carried on from there. I discovered that the more I trusted them, the more they gave me.”
The pattern has repeated ever since. Faced with a midweek game against Tenerife just three days after going to Albacete, he made 10 changes to the line-up, retaining only Jorge Cuenca. The centre-back was also the only man to keep his place for the long weekend trip north to Oviedo as a further 10 changes were made.
Almeria won all three matches.
In December, Gomes changed the entire team again away to Alcorcon on the Sunday before switching to the previous line-up for the home game against Zaragoza on the Wednesday.
Once again, Almeria won both matches.
With 16 wins from 19 games, they are the form team in Spain and recently gained nationwide acclaim following their emphatic 5-0 win over Alaves in the Copa de Rey.
These are strange times given the ongoing Covid-19 crisis and it is not the easiest time to forge a team spirit. The Almeria players cannot even share a dressing room – changing in a corridor at the training ground where they are kept five metres apart from one another.
But Gomes’ brand of extreme rotation is helping to foster a unity and an intensity to their work that even he had not anticipated when first venturing down this route.
“The energy that it has given the group is amazing. That group dynamic has been maybe the most important thing because all of the players feel like they are part of the solution.
“They all feel part of it because they are all playing. If you always play with the same team then those not playing will not feel part of the group and they will lose energy.
“If the players that are playing can see that the players who are not playing are no longer at their maximum they will feel comfortable because they know their places are safe. With everybody at their maximum, there is a fight for places. This is what all coaches want.”
His rotation policy is effectively buying him more time to coach too. “I am training two teams at the same time. One is recovering, while the other is preparing for the next game.”
Does it not cause problems too? What about the star men such as top scorer Umar Sadiq? “Sometimes it is a problem because a lot of players want to play every game and they think they deserve it. They are not expecting to be on the bench because of their status.
“There are a lot of little situations for me to manage but what is behind my decision – what is really most important – is that my only thought is what is best for the team.”
Gomes has an example to perfectly illustrate the thinking.
“One right-back that I have is a nine out of ten right-back. The other is a seven out of ten right-back. But the right-back who is a nine just played on Sunday and needs two or three days to recover. If he has not recovered fully for the game on Wednesday then he is a six.
“But I have a seven out of ten in my squad who I can use instead. I use the seven and I give the nine player an extra few days to recover so that he will still be a nine next time.
“This is the main idea.”
Gomes credits the work of the support staff. In particular, he highlights the physiologists who are tracking the eating and sleeping patterns of his players to ensure that he always knows which of his squad are best prepared for each forthcoming game. “The prevention work that our physios, together with our nutritionists, are doing is incredible,” he says.
But the truth is that such is his commitment to this rotation policy that it is not only issues of fitness that dictate his thinking. Almeria even change their goalkeeper, with Georgia international Giorgi Makaridze regularly making way for ostensible deputy Fernando.
“Imagine if you are the second goalkeeper and I change ten players but I keep the same goalkeeper,” he explains. “The message that I am sending out is that I don’t trust him. I trust all the other players but I do not trust the second goalkeeper? No, that does not work.
“I wanted to really show them that I trusted all of them so I decided to change all of them, including the goalkeeper. If I do not change the goalkeeper too then it is not complete because I am not sending out the full message to the team. In the end, the person is more important than any small advantages or differences in technique and tactics.
“We cannot forget that behind every football player is a human being with emotions and feelings. If they are part of our squad it is because they have the quality to be here. If they have the quality to be here then we have to show them that we trust in their ability.”
At the halfway stage of the season, the results speak for themselves. Almeria appear locked in a battle with Espanyol and Mallorca for the two automatic promotion places but have made many more changes than both. While leaders Espanyol have made 39 changed to their starting line-up so far this season, Almeria have already made 118.
“We are happy with the results. Promotion is our target and we are in a position to fight for it, but we need to play the second half of the season so we cannot celebrate yet. We still have a long way to go but I really believe we will be there at the end of the season.
“With this rotation decision, we have protected the players from fatigue. With more fatigue, we increase the possibility of getting injured, so we have been able to reduce that risk.
“It has also given us an advantage because I have more players with minutes in their legs. I know if the moment comes when I need any of them they will be ready to perform. When we reach the decisive point of the season, hopefully we can take advantage of that.”