By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - After Barcelona's shock 2-1 defeat to Leganes on Wednesday, coach Ernesto Valverde was left grappling with a problem that also haunted his predecessor Luis Enrique: how to rotate his squad and keep his best players fresh without dropping points.
Valverde started the game at Leganes without first choice left back Jordi Alba and centre forward Luis Suarez, a move that at first glance appeared to carry few risks given his opponents had taken only one point from five games.
The ploy looked to be paying off when Philippe Coutinho put the visitors ahead with a first half volley, but Barca's lack of spine was soon exposed by the Madrid minnows, who turned the game on its head with two goals in 68 second half seconds.
Valverde's response was to promptly bring on Suarez and Alba for Munir El Haddadi and Thomas Vermaelen, who had been caught out of position when Nabil El Zhar headed in the equaliser.
He also brought on Brazilian Malcom, a summer signing from AS Roma who has yet to make an impact at Barca, but none of the three substitutes could prevent the champions from suffering a first league defeat to Leganes.
Valverde's selection was inevitably cited as a key reason for the unexpected result, which came hot on the heels of a surprise 2-2 draw at home to Girona in which the coach had again left out regular starters.
Barca had also struggled away to Real Sociedad earlier this month when Valverde started without Sergio Busquets, but came from behind to win 2-1 after the coach despatched his midfield anchor on to the pitch.
Valverde was criticised last season for not rotating his squad, particularly towards the end of the campaign when the title was practically sealed, leading to key players being overworked and saw them exit the Champions League to AS Roma.
Now, however, the coach is being questioned in the Spanish media for putting too much faith in fringe squad players, and he looked visibly annoyed when asked about his team selection.
"It's cynical to talk about the changes after the result," Valverde told reporters.
"There were two changes. In the case of Luis (Suarez), I had thought about resting him for one of this week's games. As for Jordi (Alba), it was because he's played every game and I was worried he'd get a problem."
Former coach Luis Enrique was also criticised for rotating the team too much in his final campaign at the Nou Camp, when Barca lost out on the title to Real Madrid, whose rotation policy worked a treat as they also won the Champions League.
The Catalan side's transfer policy certainly looked like an exercise in squad building rather than meddling with the nucleus of players that swept to a domestic double last season, as none of their new arrivals have started more than one league game.
That plan cannot said to be working so far, though, as every time the coach strays from his usual starting 11, his team appear to run into problems.
(Reporting by Richard Martin)