Never change a winning team: Fact or fallacy?

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Last week’s defeat against Tranmere saw the old adage ‘never change a winning team’ rolled out once more. Bringing in captain Lee Frecklington after his suspension was, in some areas, criticised.

After all, we’d won three on the bounce, why would we put our captain back in? everyone knows you should never change a winning team. 

It’s a saying that truly boils my blood and it appears I’m not alone. Twitter user @SincilBanker got in touch and told me he’d done some sums and come up with numbers that proved it was a rubbish. A couple of days later, he sent me a spreadsheet.

I love a spreadsheet.

He’d been through both 2016/17 and 2017/18 to analyse Danny’s record of changing teams. There may be the odd mistake in the numbers, but I’ve looked and they’re pretty solid. What does it prove? Should we change a winning side?

The very first time Danny changed a winning team was after his very first match. Jamie McCombe played as we beat Woking on the opening day of the season in August 2016, but Sean Raggett got a start as we downed North Ferriby 6-1 a couple of days later. Adam Marriott, scorer of the opening goal for us that season, was also dropped. 

Margetts scores against North Ferriby. He was one of two changes from the opening day win against Woking. (Courtesy of Graham Burrell)

Danny won 40 matches in all competitions that season and on 33 occasions he changed the side. We lost two games from changing the side, drew six (including the 0-0 draw with Solihull Moors no doubt, where he was lambasted for bringing in Tom Champion) and we won 25.

We lost nine games in total and only once did Danny not change the side, which resulted in another loss. On the only occasion he stuck by a losing team, we suffered back to back defeats. Is that irony?

In 2017/18, we played 58 games in total, three shy of the 61 we competed in the year before. We won 27 of those matches and on 21 occasions, Danny changed his winning team. The outcome? Nine wins, five losses and seven draws. Bearing in mind the level of opposition increased, we’d expect more losses.

As a barometer of that, Danny changed the losing side on 12 occasions. Once again, changing the side had minimal impact, with five wins, three defeats and four draws. 

What we would expect to see, if the old adage was correct, is very few changes after winning. However, the fact we won 77% of our matches last season when we changed the winning side, does sully the belief that we do better with consistency, does it not?

At the time of the spreadsheet arriving here, we’d played 15 games in all competitions this season. We’ve won ten and on eight occasions we’ve changed the side that won the previous games. 80% of the time Danny changes a winning side but the very obvious fact is we don’t lose 80% of the games, do we? In fact, we’ve won four and drawn 1, although technically we’ve lost 37.5% of the matches we’ve made changes in.

There we three matches in which changes have been made and we’ve lost, one being Mansfield Town and the other Blackburn Rovers. In run of the mill league games, we’ve won eight and changed the line up six times, losing once.

Without changing a winning side, we might not have won at Wembley (courtesy Graham Burrell)

In total, Danny and Nicky Cowley have managed 134 games in league and cup, winning 77, losing 27 and drawing 30. On the 77 winning occasions, they’ve changed the starting XI 62 times, or 80% of matches they’ve won they made changes. They could be enforced, they could be by choice, but that does suggest that they change a winning side more often than you’d realise. Of those 62 occasions a change has been made, we’ve lost ten and won 38. In other words, we lose 16% of matches in which a winning team is changed.

To put that into perspective, we’ve lost twice on the 14 occasions they haven’t changed a winning side, or 14% of the time. So change, don’t change, it makes little difference. On average, we seem to have a 15% chance of losing a game after a win.

What I did find interesting is that Danny and Nicky have only twice kept a losing side together for the next game, both times in the National League. It may be fairly obvious to change a side that has lost, but I expected them to have kept faith a little more. It may be a testament to our squad strength, or it may be their ruthlessness coming through. When they’ve lost and we make changes, there’s a 25% chance of us losing again (6 defeats from 24 occasions we’ve lost and swapped it about).

The next time someone is on social media bemoaning us changing a winning side, you can now point out that in fact, it doesn’t make much difference. Change or not, we’re only likely to lose 15% of the time in the game following a win, 14% without changes and 16% with. The fact is there is no rule to follow, never changing a winning side in an old wives tale, or something the keyboard warrior hides behind when he feels his favourite punch bag shouldn’t be playing.

My milk was off earlier and I guarantee that half of the crowd would blame this man for it.

I do find it amusing (without mentioning names) that one person who was calling for us to not put Freck in because we’d won the previous game was spotted on one of the social media sites last night saying we should drop Akinde for Green, after beating Crewe 1-0.

These numbers, painstakingly put together for me to write about, are intended to illustrate a point. There is no telling why the team was changed on any of the occasions, be it injury, suspension, or the changes in competition (Lincoln Lizards in the FA Trophy, EFL rotation etc). Football doesn’t follow a set of rules, it is complete fallacy and changing or not, we’re just as likely to win or lose the next match. every game and every opponent are different and the approach we take one week may not suit the next.

If we lose after winning, it doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault, certainly not a great player like Lee Frecklington or even a big money buy such as John Akinde. These players are not your enemy.



  1. Overall I agree that win lose or draw you can always improve, which means you should change a winning team. But… I’d love to crunch the numbers more… Changing 1 winger is not the same as changing your centre mid or centre back. 1 change is not the same as 4 or 5. A change of formation also adds a variable. Because although I would agree that you can change a winning side, I would beg to say that a championship winning team keeps a starting core of 7 or 8 players each and every game. And it those 7 or 8 that would always come back into an XI after injury or suspension, as Freck did. As Bostwick, Eardley,Shackell,Akinde,Andrade, Toffolo all (My opinion) would too. Our biggest difference from last season is we have found our formation and starting 7/8 a lot sooner. And it is that I would not change without good reason.

Comments are closed.