Why Premier League should revert back to five subs

Stuart Barker looks at the debate around the Premier League reverting back to allowing five substitutes in a match, and why it would be sensible to do so.

Many of the country’s top managers haven’t been shy in voicing their displeasure at the current state of their team’s fixtures and the effect it’s having on their players. Both Jurgen Klopp and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have both been sharing their frustration at being handed the 12.30pm Premier League kick-offs on the Saturday after playing in the Champions League on the Wednesday night.

Solskjaer said the short turnaround from their trip to Istanbul meant his side were “set up to fail”, and added: “It’s an absolute shambles.”

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While Klopp explained: “These boys need rest. It’s a difficult time. We want to play, obviously, but I heard Ole (Gunnar Solskjaer) yesterday as well and I understand him 100 per cent. We are in the situation quite frequently.”

When football returned amid the coronavirus pandemic in June, the rules were changed to allow an increase in the number of subs allowed during a match and also expand the number of players in the matchday squad. This was to tackle the issue of player welfare and the very real concerns over their fitness and the increased risk of injury.

Many of the managers argue that this needs to return and will go some way to easing the physical demands on players. Klopp further explained: “I spoke to the Premier League already and spoke to Pep before the game about the five substitutions. Everyone watching is like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. But we have to change things and help the players.”

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The Premier League voted in early August as to whether this should continue into the 2020/21 season. In the vote, member clubs then decided against continuing this practice. There was a clear divide between those clubs expecting to complete in multiple competitions and those clubs who’re battling to retain their Premier League place.

In September, the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham again tried to push it through during a meeting between clubs but again they failed to receive the 14-vote majority required.

Many who were against its return cited a perceived advantage being given to the aforementioned clubs with their rich depth of talent within their squads. Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola refuted those claims, stating: “It is not about taking advantage, it is about protecting the players. The situation today is exceptional and all the leagues around the world understand the situation. Except here.”

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I understand the view that it might be an advantage to those ‘elite clubs’ but I think it is vital that players physical and mental welfare is prioritised during these challenging times.

We should absolutely reintroduce the five substitution rule to ease the demand on players. During the first eight matchweeks of this season, there have been 103 muscle injuries in total, which is a 16 per cent increase from the previous season. The Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) and English Football League (EFL) clubs have been sensible enough to vote to continue with five subs per game. 

While I do have sympathy with these managers, their squads are filled with international players, experienced Premier League players and the best young players in the country. I have always believed that football is a squad game and the best squad should be crowned champions, not just the best 11 or 14 players.

Sadly, as a manager, you’re rarely afforded empathy or understanding from your fanbase if you rest a big player and subsequently drop points but the managers must show trust in their whole squad this season.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s ability to rotate and plan for the longer term was a key factor in securing the Treble in the 1998/99 season. I’d suggest that Solskjaer’s failure to understand this led to his side falling at the semi-final stage of the FA Cup and Europa League last season. United were poor and looked tired during their defeats to Chelsea and Sevilla.

Before their Champions League tie with Ajax, Klopp told the press: “I don’t have enough players to prioritise. It’s not a perfect situation but obviously not enough people want to offer us any kind of help [with the fixture scheduling], not only for us but for [all] football people. We just have to deal with it.”

Klopp and Guardiola both favour relatively settled line-ups and place huge physical demands on their players with the gegenpress.

Roberto Firmino played 52 games last year and 13 of the squad played at least 37 games, so it’s no wonder many of them are currently falling to injuries. Liverpool were simply brilliant and a joy to watch, and potentially with a proper summer break Klopp and Liverpool could have picked up where they left off.

No club in the country had the luxury of a pre-season and, therefore, managers have to react accordingly, whether that is with a larger squad or being able to change styles for different games. One thing is for sure, that high intensity football is unsustainable without adequate recovery in between games. 

Jose Mourinho’s teams are famed for getting ahead in games but then shutting up shop and making sure that players expend as little energy as possible — something that might help Tottenham Hotspur maintain this early season form and get them involved in the title race.

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Reintroducing the five-subs rule seems like a sensible move that will benefit everyone. I can see it being reintroduced in the new year, especially when those who initially opposed it start to lose players to injury or they find themselves progressing into the latter stages of the FA Cup run.

Follow Stuart Barker on Twitter at @ChuBarker

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