The 1958 Cleveland Indians baseball team used two players at First Base. Mickey Vernon, a good left-hander who was adept at getting on base, and Vic Power, a right handed hitter and flashy defensive player who once, having been informed that the restaurant he was in did not serve coloured people, replied: “That’s OK, I don’t eat coloured people. I just want rice and beans.”
The trick here is that in baseball it’s really, really hard for a left handed hitter to hit the ball thrown by a left handed pitcher, and it’s really, really hard for a right handed hitter to hit the ball from a right handed pitcher. This is almost universal: almost everyone is much worse against a ‘same-side’ pitcher.
There are more right handed pitchers than left handed pitchers, so left handed hitters tend to have an advantage. Teams know this, though, so stock up on left handed pitchers to counter opponents’ left handed hitters. Over a season you see quite a mixture. Over a game these days, too.
Which is why the Vernon-Power platoon was so good. Most of the time, against righties, Vernon would start. He was a better hitter than Power so this made sense. Power was a better defender so made an ideal defensive substitute. When the opposition started a lefty the Indians started Power, a lesser hitter than Vernon but a better hitter against left handers.
By creating this sort of job-share the Indians got the best out of their resources, masking the weaknesses of their hitters and winning more games as a result.
I only mention this because Fulham currently have a problem. You have to play Damien Duff when he’s fit. You have to play Simon Davies when he’s fit. You have to play Clint Dempsey. You have to play Moussa Dembele. You have to play Bobby Zamora. You haven’t got enough places in the team to play them all….
The most obvious thing to me is to platoon, to use your players when the opposition or situation suits them best. But how would this work in football? Are there certain types of opponents against whom you’d back Duff? Maybe this would be teams that have a left-back who’s not good at covering his inside and a centre-back who’s not good at covering the left-back. Maybe Duff’s the default selection. Davies? Maybe when possession’s important, when you think big away swinging crosses will work well.
Baird/Davies (Davies when you don’t expect much threat down the right flank)
Salcido/Duff (as above, allows you to play Davies on the right)
Davies/Duff (some circumstance that I can’t really think of)
Zamora/Johnson (it could be that against certain opponents you might feel that Johnson’s zip will better work the opponents’ centre-backs)
Murphy/Etuhu (anyone keeping track (as Fulham should be) may have noticed that against certain opponents our skipper can be nullified. In these games you may be better off with a Sidwell/Etuhu combo)
I don’t know. Football doesn’t lend itself to absolutes like baseball, but there must be something to cling onto, something that says “play player X here because.” Maybe football teams should be a bit bolder on this kind of thing (United seem to be very strong at this, and while of course it’s easier with a big and talented squad, we’re still working from the same premise: having more good players than you can play at once).