Why Premier League’s shift to five subs per game, like other major leagues, is a bad idea
Somewhere in the slipstream of wider debates about the future of football, a conversation over the use of five substitutes in the Premier League has rumbled on for some time. English football has concerned itself with far-reaching issues involving the possibility of an independent regulator and more robust ownership rules in light of Chelsea’s sale and Newcastle United’s takeover, all underpinned by a desire to preserve the integrity and competitiveness of the game.
The use of five substitutions in this context may feel like a small matter. Initially recommended by FIFA and adopted by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) in June 2020 as a temporary measure to help ease concerns coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, Europe’s top leagues decided to keep the use of five substitutes — except the Premier League stood apart, voting against the measure in 2020-21 and 2021-22 before finally relenting for next season.
By bringing the Premier League in line with other divisions, this alteration is the biggest threat yet to its status as the most compelling division in world football.
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Anyone seeking an example of how this landmark rule change will exacerbate the divide between the elite and the rest should look no further than Norwich City vs. Manchester United in an FA Cup sixth-round tie on June 27, 2020. Football had only restarted in England 10 days earlier after an enforced hiatus due to COVID-19.
At the time, the temporary introduction of five substitutes was a welcome amendment to appease widespread uncertainty about the effects and spread of the virus, then still in its relative infancy. Yet in pure sporting terms, it was an ominous warning for what now lies ahead.
United had been abject at Carrow Road until taking the lead with their first shot on target in the 51st minute through Odion Ighalo, before Norwich deservedly drew level 24 minutes later as Todd Cantwell scored from 25 yards. Without any home support to drive them on due to the match being played behind closed doors, Norwich pushed hard for a winning goal despite a United onslaught that didn’t come from anywhere on the pitch, but from the bench.
They subbed on Brandon Williams, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford at 1-0 up, then Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba three minutes after Cantwell’s equaliser. The game went to extra time — which afforded United an additional change — and with Norwich down to 10 men following Timm Klose’s red card, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer threw on Anthony Martial in another absurd show of squad depth.
For all the attacking talent United now had on the pitch, the irony was that centre-back Harry Maguire scored the winning goal two minutes before the end, a victory secured not through any particular skill or craft, but by the sheer volume of better-quality players Solskjaer had at his disposal.
In March this year, days before the Premier League voted on the expansion, Manchester City got themselves 2-1 up in an FA Cup quarterfinal at Southampton on 62 minutes and responded by bringing on Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, Fernandinho, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Nathan Ake before full-time. Foden and Mahrez scored, City won 4-1.
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We should get used to it. Although any such rule change required 14 of the 20 clubs to vote in favour, as they did in this case back in March, it represents a shift in priorities from safeguarding the league’s competitiveness to aiding the biggest clubs in their pursuit of success on multiple fronts.
The Premier League’s enduring popularity is based in large part on its unpredictability. There is a sense of jeopardy in most fixtures, something not replicated to the same extent in Europe’s other top leagues, and it even extends to the identity of the champions. Although Manchester City have won four of the past five titles, the Premier League has had seven winners in total since its inception in 1992-93 — more than Germany (6), Spain (5) and Italy (5). However, there’s no denying that greater revenues have cemented the status of top clubs across Europe with England being no exception.
West Ham have threatened to redefine the conventional notion of a “Big Six,” but City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal continue to hold greater sway. Allowing the use of two additional substitutes tips the balance further in favour of the big clubs being able to keep more top players happy for longer, threatening to increase stockpiling that’s only partially reduced since the introduction of the 25-man squad rule.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp is perhaps the biggest proponent of introducing the five substitutes rule, and from his point of view, it is easy to see why. Every other major European league has it, UEFA’s three main competitions (Champions League, Europa League and European Championships) have it and there is a strong case for some sort of measure to aid player welfare. The Reds played 63 games in their 2021-22 campaign, though that is still five short of the English record held by Chelsea (69) in 2012-13. Klopp used all five substitutes in seven of Liverpool’s nine league games during Project Restart, the coda to the 2019-20 season delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Only Brighton (8) used more all five more often.
For much of the intervening period — the Premier League voted against retaining five subs in 2020-21 and 2021-22 — fault lines in the debate were drawn largely by the size of the club involved. Klopp used Burnley as a somewhat patronizing comparison in contrasting the high number of players Liverpool had engaged in international football, suggesting smaller teams would have fewer players away with their countries and could therefore use those punctuation points during the season to recover. It is a point with merit, but five substitutes doesn’t solve the real underlying problem that the game’s governing bodies do not want to address: there is too much football.
Sources have told ESPN that one member of the Big Six ran their own data modelling that suggested five substitutes would have had a negligible effect on their results, citing the number of matches as a far bigger factor. And this is the point the game’s organisers do not want to address because it will inevitably affect their bottom line.
While FIFPRO and the Professional Footballers’ Association are among the player representative bodies continuing to voice concerns about the match calendar, FIFA is expanding the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026 and UEFA have introduced a third-tier European club competition, the Europa Conference League, and agreed to enlarge the Champions League from 2024.
The Premier League continues to kick around the idea of a so-called “39th game” — an extra round of matches played overseas to further enhance revenue — as each organisation seeks to capitalise financially on football’s seemingly limitless appeal.
Introducing five substitutes is merely a coping mechanism for the volume of matches, a piecemeal act designed to offset this relentless pursuit of further expansion. Rather than admitting there is too much football, a law change has been implemented to allow more people to play it. As a result, the greater concentration of talent at the top clubs will likely make them harder to beat than ever before.