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ᑕ❶ᑐ New Premier League season: How will the introduction of the five-substitute rule affect the top flight?

Premier League clubs have voted to increase their allocation this season to five substitutions out of nine available players

Football managers have often bemoaned the number of games played in England’s top flight, so the change in the law allowing them to make five substitutions in a game this season should be welcomed by many clubs.

Last season Liverpool played the maximum number of matches possible for them, 63 in total, as they reached three cup finals.

Their manager Jurgen Klopp was one of many powerful voices asking for a raise from three to five substitutes, as he and Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola have both said the Premier League’s failure to match Europe’s other top leagues has led to a series of muscle injuries.

The Premier League allowed five changes when the 2019-20 season resumed following its Covid-19 suspension, but returned after complaints were raised that the change favored clubs with greater squad depth.

The permanent move to five substitutes is just the latest adjustment to this particular part of the Laws of the Game, which has been subject to continuous change in recent years.

Seasons Subtitles allowed
1888-1965 None
1965-87 A
1987-92 Of them
1992-94 Choose two out of three
1994-96 Three
1996-2019 Choose three out of five
2019-20 Choose three from seven (August to March)
2019-20 Choose five of nine (June to July)
2020-22 Pick three out of seven (out of nine as of December 2020)
2022-23 Choose five from nine

The impact of allowing more substitutes to be used has been hotly debated, but does it really give wealthier teams who potentially have stronger squads an advantage?

The fact that the new system was briefly in place when the project restarted in 2020 gives some insight into how different managers might operate.

First, how often do teams use all three substitutes and how many have used all five during this period?

Crew Play Points Number of times five submarines have been created % of available subscriptions used
City of Man ten 24 5 82
Man Utd 9 21 5 82
chelsea 9 18 2 80
Southampton 9 18 1 62
liverpool 9 17 seven 93
wolves 9 16 1 62
Arsenal ten 16 5 90
Burnley 9 15 0 36
Leicester 9 14 3 76
Tottenham 9 12 0 67
Everton ten 12 4 80
Brighton 9 12 8 96
West Ham 9 12 1 60
Sheff United ten 11 0 64
AstonVilla 9 ten 1 76
Newcastle United 9 9 4 84
watford 9 seven 1 71
Bournemouth 9 seven 6 84
crystal palace 9 4 0 60
Norwich 9 0 6 91

The first thing to notice is that the number of subs used has little bearing on performance, at least over this relatively short sample period.

Southampton performed better than Liverpool despite using just 28 subs to Liverpool’s 42. Only five teams (Manchester United, Liverpool, Brighton, Bournemouth and Norwich) have used five subs in the majority of their matches, while nine clubs have done so once or not at all.

Here is a comparison of the substitutions made before (three out of five subs) and during (five out of nine subs) the project restart:

Bournemouth 80 84 +4
Brighton 98 96 -2
Arsenal 93 90 -3
liverpool 98 93 -5
Norwich 97 91 -6
Newcastle 92 84 -8
City of Man 94 82 -12
Man Utd 94 82 -12
AstonVilla 89 76 -13
chelsea 93 80 -13
Leicester 90 76 -14
Everton 97 80 -17
wolves 79 62 -17
crystal palace 80 60 -20
watford 93 71 -22
Tottenham 95 67 -28
Sheff United 93 64 -29
Burnley 67 36 -31
West Ham 92 60 -32
Southampton 95 62 -33

As can be seen, although there were more players to choose from, many teams were still only using a fraction of the available players.

Some managers simply didn’t have enough players of the quality they wanted to make five changes and some, like Sheffield United, failed to even name nine on the bench for some games, such was the nature exhausted from their team.

Burnley even managed to use fewer subs per game (2.01 when three were allowed, 1.8 when five were available).

If the amount of submarines has little impact, what else matters? What about when substitutes are used or what is the score at that time?

Substitutions were made 35% of the time with a team ahead, 37% with a team behind, and only 28% of the time when the scores were tied.

This indicates a generally cautious approach: some managers want to protect a lead, slightly more willing to make a change when chasing a game, and managers are less likely to make a change when a game is finely balanced.

For some teams though, it didn’t matter. Norwich City were losing every game when they made the first substitution. It made no difference, they lost all nine matches anyway.

As for the average first substitution time, in the 92 games of Project Restart, a substitution was made 19 times before half-time, with a substitution made at half-time a further 30 times. This makes a total of 49 teams changed before the start of the second half.

The average first substitution time varied wildly between 48 minutes for Everton (largely due to four injuries in the first half) and 70 minutes for West Ham. When only three replacements were available, managers were less likely to make an early change, sometimes waiting until it was too late to make a difference.

What about team strength? The quality of the players on the bench is more difficult to define. Transfer fees alone don’t tell the whole story, but a look at the ‘best’ 20 players from Liverpool or Manchester City versus the ‘best’ 20 from, say, Crystal Palace or Brentford shows the difference in power between purchase.

It’s uncontroversial to expect Liverpool and Manchester City to beat most of the lower-ranked sides anyway, so having an even stronger bench won’t make much of a difference to the outcome. What will be fascinating is how the extra substitutes are used when teams play against those of a similar ranking, whether bottom or top of the table.

While Klopp makes plenty of changes, often with 30 minutes left to play, Guardiola tends to make more changes to his starting line-up from game to game and fewer substitutions during games.

Managers will now be able to substitute 50% of their outfield players in a game. It could be seen as shrewd man management or an admission that they got it wrong at kickoff.

However it plays out, the change will give fans across the country more debate and with a mid-season World Cup to contend with, it will give some players more rest than they have. had in the past.


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