In recent weeks, prominent Premier League managers Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have renewed calls for the return of the five substitutes rule; it was put in place near the end of last season because of the loss of fitness players suffered due to COVID-19 disruption, and has since returned to three.
There’s a romantic spirit in all of us that might resist the idea of allowing 5 substitutes per game. The Premier League looks particularly open-ended this season, with the likes of Southampton, Aston Villa and Everton all exceeding expectations, whilst Man United and Arsenal continue to be the laughable underachievers we’ve grown used to pitying. Allowing more substitutes stands to benefit stronger teams that can afford greater squad depth, and would probably scupper some of the nice underdog victories and comebacks we’ve seen this season. Indeed, when a vote was put to it, the motion to keep 5 subs going was defeated 11-9, falling short of the required 14 votes. All of the ‘Big Six’ clubs voted in favour whilst smaller teams were opposed.
However, I think once you look at the implications of keeping 5 subs more broadly, it becomes a more compelling idea than we might think at first.
There’s no denying that increasing the number of substitutes per game will reduce the likelihood of injuries. During the first 8 match days of this season, there have been 103 muscle injuries in total, representing a 16% increase from a year earlier. There were only 7 weeks between seasons this year, fewer than the usual 12 which players get for rest and relaxation. Unless you’re a boomer who thinks modern players are nansy pansy divas who should put a sock in it, you’ll appreciate that top players like Aguero, Partey and Alexander-Arnold aren’t out for lack of willpower, but simply lack of time.
Moreover, the introduction of 5 subs could also usher in a more democratic and competitive ethos as well into the game. I’m sure we’ve all seen our teams have an absolute stinker and wish that half (or all!) of them got replaced for the eyesore they’ve subjected us to. Well, this would allow for that, making top players more accountable when they start slacking, and rewarding players who may otherwise have been languishing on the sidelines. We could see more surprise stars like Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy start blossoming, and when they don’t it’s because top players like Pogba and Ndombele are spurred into realising their full potential. A win win.
There’s also the practical reality of looking at where we stand relative to other leagues. Top German, Spanish, French and Italian sides are all profiting off the 5 subs rule, and this is only going to disadvantage English teams when it comes to European competition, and by extension, the profile of the Premier League at large. I do find rival Prem clubs getting destroyed by Bayern Munich to be a fun annual tradition, but I think moving forward it doesn’t mean nearly as much if their players are better rested too.
It’s true that allowing 5 subs plays into the hands of what bigger clubs would want. But if it means that we get healthier players, better football, and can compete on fairer terms with other European clubs, then frankly I think it’s the right way to go.