Ethan Golding tackles the assumptions, advantages and disadvantages of the Premier League re-introducing the ability for managers to make five substitutes during a game.
When trying to decide on a subject for this article my instinct was to write about potential CB options for Liverpool F.C to sign, be it this January or next summer. Let’s be honest it’s an article that practically writes itself.
Jurgen Klopp is one Matip injury away from a centre back pairing of 19-year-old Rhys Williams and loan veteran Nat Philips, with 17 and 18-year-old prospects Billy Koumetio and Sepp Van Den Berg not too far behind them in the pecking order.
Liverpool are in the midst of the injury crisis that pundits and fans alike have been speaking in hushed voices about for the past two and a bit seasons. Virgil van Dijk, the man credited with single-handedly turning Liverpool from runner up trophy chasers to all-conquering football juggernauts, will most likely miss the entire 20/21 season.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is once again sidelined for a prolonged period of time with persistent knee issues, an absence which should in no way be taken lightly, Joel Matip has never managed to put together a run of games long enough for it to be the undisputed defensive partner to van Dijk and likewise, a string of minor injuries have continuously put a dampener on any hot streak Naby Keita has managed to ignite.
Midfield maestros Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho are both expected to be back after the international break, add to this that both Alisson and Jordan Henderson are playing through recurring shoulder and heel issues respectively.
This is to say nothing of the recent injuries to Trent Alexander-Arnold (calf) just before the international break and both Joe Gomez (knee) and Andy Robertson (hamstring) while away with their national teams, Liverpool’s once treble threatening squad now looks like it may struggle to compete for the league let alone on domestic and European fronts.
However, despite the severity of the picture painted above, this is not a scenario unique to Liverpool Football club. A cursory glance on PhysioRoom’s Premier League Injury Table lays bare an issue that needs to be addressed.
West Ham and Wolves both currently have 3 players out for prolonged periods of time, three of these six are explicitly muscular injuries and with one absence a precautionary Covid isolation period.
Other than these two, all other clubs in the Premier League currently have no fewer than 4 players absent, with Brighton, Crystal Palace and Manchester United with 7.
So I’ve decided to not write a list of centre-halves to solve a problem that is only one piece in a much larger and much more problematic puzzle but I suppose if you’re desperate to know.
Upamecano has a £38 million release clause next summer so a £60 odd million bid in January would be the ultimate conclusion with a sprinkling of Dan-Axel Zagadou and Jonathon Tah to keep you interested.
What I’m going to address is the elephant that the FA are unwilling to address, the Premier League needs five substitutes.
The Advantage Myth
Currently, the Premier League is the only one of Europe’s Top 5 leagues to not carry over the five substitute rule from the second half of last season into this season with the general reasoning seeming to be that it gives a distinct advantage to those sides who can afford squads with greater depth and quality.
Something which doesn’t seem to be a sticking point in leagues where the financial chasm between top and bottom teams is as vast if not vaster than in the Premier League.
England is in a unique position where both their first and second division are attractive prospects for players looking to raise their profiles.
While it is fairly common for players who didn’t quite make it in the Premier League to move to mid-level teams on the continent (Florian Thauvin being one that comes to mind from recent times), Englands 2nd Tier has become a viable and consistent source of top quality players looking to garner attention from Europe’s top sides.
In recent years you only have to look at James Maddison, Oliey Watkins, Jude Bellingham, Said Benrahma, Emi Buendia all shining in the Championship and Leeds appointing revered tactician Marcelo Bielsa and being heavily linked with native-born and seemingly generational talent Erling Braut Haaland to see the increasing quality throughout the English football pyramid.
This monetary superiority comes predominantly from TV rights deals which have seen the financial position of Premier League sides drastically improve in recent years.
Reports from the last ten months show that the average wage for a Premier League player is now £61,024 per week (Average annual salary of Premier League players tops £3m for the first time) a figure which was up £10,000 on the previous two years at the time of publication.
A report from Statista (Average sports salaries by league 2019/20) the English Premier League has the highest average income of any of Europe’s top 5 leagues, $1.42 million dollars more than teams in La Liga despite Barcelona’s status as the best paying sports team in the world.
In truth, the argument of advantage is a lazy one. All sport is centred around the ability to be better than your opponent. There will always be teams with better players than others regardless of how many substitutes are allowed.
The truth is that the option of two extra substitutions benefits everyone. By and large, the team picked to start games are usually the best eleven players available to play that game, fit the system and carry out the manager’s tactics. Replacing one of the starting XI is usually for one of three things; a change of system, fresh legs or to offer something different.
Only one of these three reasons requires a player on the bench to be technically better than the player they’re replacing.
Another flaw in the logic is that this argument doesn’t take into consideration that the significance of fixtures varies throughout the league. Games between the bottom six are more important to them than the games where the bottom six sides face the top six. In relegation deciders, five substitutes will benefit both sides equally.
The idea that Man City being allowed to bring on two extra substitutes against West Brom is somehow an advantage ignores the glaringly obvious advantage already inherent in playing for Manchester City. It also ignores the reality that the hardest thing to do against a top-six side is to defend a lead for a prolonged period.
Teams like Liverpool and Manchester City in recent years, as well Manchester United et al have won leagues by being able to score late on in games when teams have been worn down and be more disciplined in defence for longer periods of time.
Extra substitutes would provide a potential lifeline to bottom half teams trying to defend a lead late on in games while running on empty.
Does this sound arbitrary? Maybe. More arbitrary than the idea that Liverpool would have an advantage over Fulham because their two extra substitutes are better than Fulhams, as if the first three weren’t already? No.
The advantages of having the option of two more substitutes during 20/21’s particularly congested fixture schedule should be self-evident. It’s no coincidence that injury numbers are so high already.
The recovery time for every team is drastically reduced. While this is especially true for teams playing in Europe, it is also true for teams outside of European places with the other thirteen teams in the league still facing extra fixtures in the form of the Carabao and FA Cup, as well as untimely international breaks.
Every team in the Premier League currently has players involved with their national side. While teams such as Newcastle and Crystal Palace may only have two, even teams who have only recently been promoted such as Sheffield and Leeds United will lose seven and six respectfully.
Allowing for added substitutes will only increase protection for players during a year when the number of minutes being played by first team players is higher, recovery time is down and there are added risks in the form of Covid-19.
The managers who have been most vocal about the extra substitutes in recent weeks have been Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Ole Gunnar Solskaer. This naturally plays into the narrative of top teams looking to increase the already substantial gap between themselves and the rest of the league.
But the reality of it is that it makes the most sense for these managers to be the most vocal about the issue, these are the teams who will be playing 2 games a week every week for the majority of the season.
Manchester United had a 10 day preseason this year with an extended run in the Europa League meaning they played competitive matches as late as August 16. Something which has proven to be a distinct disadvantage with Manchester United’s squad visibly struggling for match fitness in the early stages of the season.
To be completely honest, the biggest barrier to the introduction of five substitutes for this season seems to be the FA’s reluctance to come up with solutions, and with the calamitous introduction VAR (an introduction I am still very much in favour of) it’s hard to blame them for shying away from introducing more changes that could shine a spotlight on them should it go badly.
But at the end of the day, they are The Football Association.It is their job and responsibility to govern, regulate, protect players and ensure that the game is as fair as possible.
For years now the FA have been looking for ways to protect the future of homegrown talent in English Football, introducing quotas and caps on the ratio of Homegrown to Imported talent.
This intention has always been sincere and an ethos which genuinely seems to be backed by supporters throughout the league.
You need only look at the reverie players like Trent Alexander-Arnold, Curtis Jones, Mason Mount, Reece James, Bukayo Saka, Mason Greenwood, and Phil Foden are held in to see it, to say nothing of Mark Noble’s condemnation of West Ham for selling starlet Grady Diangana.
However, it is all too easy for teams to sidestep these regulations with many teams signing English third-choice goalkeeper options.
The likes of Scott Carson (Man City), Lee Grant (Man Utd), Rob Green (Chelsea) and Joe Hart (Spurs) all being signed as backups in recent seasons.
And while Joe Hart may still be a useful option, how many of you could have told me that John Ruddy was Wolves number 2?
A simple solution to the question of limiting distinct advantages as well as providing more significant game time for academy players could be as simple as introducing the five substitution rule with the caveat that the added two players named must be homegrown and if all five changes are made in-game, 2 of those 5 players must be homegrown/from the academy.
Football is not a complicated game, that’s what makes it so hard to understand sometimes. It’s also what makes it difficult to change. It’s a sport that needs to have fluidity but it must also be fair, but for it to be fair it can’t dismiss the valid concerns of certain teams just because they have more money.
Just because it at times feels as though clubs view their players and staff as assets and are looking to protect them for financial reasons, doesn’t justify ignoring the fact that these athletes are people whose careers hinge on their being able to perform at the top level for as long as possible.
And if the number of injuries in the first 8 games of the season are anything to go by, there’s a risk that we could be considerably shortening the careers of these players.