How the five-sub rule could further impact football

With the IFAB deciding that domestic competitions can choose to continue having an extra two substitutes on the bench next season, a number of arguments have been raised as to why it’s a bad idea. Jack Donnelly looks at both sides of the ruling to see how the five-sub rule could affect football next season.

united five subs

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has taken full advantage of Project Restart’s five-sub rule, electing to make all five substitutions in one fell swoop in Manchester United’s 3-0 win over Sheffield United in June.

On Wednesday afternoon, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) passed a motion that would allow clubs around the globe to continue to use a maximum of five substitutes (from a bench of nine) in games next season. The five-sub rule came into place after the resumption of football following the coronavirus pandemic, in order to allow managers to be able to balance out fitness and match sharpness with more players at their disposal throughout 90 minutes. However, the IFAB have expressed in their statement that the five-sub rule is not mandatory, and it comes down to the footballing powers behind the leagues to decide whether or not the rule change is carried over into next season. 

As of yet, there has been no decision made across the various leagues and cup competitions in the United Kingdom and the news has not broken very kindly to a high number of fans and pundits alike. One tweet labelled the decision as an “absolute farce,” while Sky Sports pundit and commentator Jamie Carragher tweeting: “This is ridiculous! @premierleague stay with 3 subs please!” 

While the EFL will wait until the end of the season before discussing the rule change, Premier League clubs are meeting to discuss things on the 24th of July, with the SFA’s Annual General Meeting taking place just two days beforehand on the 22nd. This lets the news settle for at least a week, allowing us to take stock of what two extra subs could mean for football going forward. While I don’t necessarily think that it’s a positive change, I can certainly see a number of pros that will come as a result.

Of course, a positive aspect of the five-sub rule being kept in place for next season is one of the same reasons that the rule was brought in after football’s resumption in May. With an extra two players on the bench, managers can incorporate greater squad rotation and reduce the risk of player fatigue. This would certainly benefit teams competing in European competitions and those with extended cup runs, as managers have seen their squads stretched thin across 50+ game seasons in years gone by. 

Furthermore, greater rotation would allow for players to be more readily available for selection, due to their match fitness being increased after more involvement from the bench. As Football Manager tends to make blatantly obvious, match sharpness is a very important part of a player’s game and their ability to make a difference off the bench – with more options available, managers can put more faith in their substitutes to impact the match than before.

A greater number of spaces on the bench lends a favour to every club’s youth academy, with it being more possible for young prospects to break through into the first team set-up and earn a place on the bench. A number of Premier League clubs have already adopted this approach, with players like Anthony Gordon and Jarrad Branthwaite at Everton getting their first look-in at Premier League football, while youngsters like Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden have been permitted more playing time as a result of the increased size of the bench. With a number of squads lacking in senior personnel, their various young talents could seize the opportunity to prove that they deserve to at least have some inclusion in a matchday squad.

Manchester City v Newcastle United - Premier League

While an extra two substitutes greatly benefits the rich clubs, like Manchester City, with a deep pool of talent available to them, clubs like Burnley, Watford and Brighton would struggle to even complete their extended bench.

However, that brings up a very obvious counterpoint in that the five-sub rule greatly benefits those clubs with plentiful squads and deep pockets. Take Manchester City, for example. Phil Foden starts the match and has a poor game? Pep Guardiola can bring on Kevin de Bruyne. Raheem Sterling goes down injured? Bernardo Silva is a ready-made replacement. These same examples could be made without the additional two subs, but when clubs have room for more players, why would the bigger teams not fill their bench with quality players that cost several million pounds?

Sadly, not everyone has the luxury of having access to City’s mountains of cash and we have already seen instances of clubs being unable to complete their now-extended benches. In their first match after lockdown, Burnley could only manage to put seven subs on their bench, two of which being youth academy goalkeepers. They went on to lose 5-0 to, ironically, Manchester City, who boasted a nine-man bench with a combined value of around £381 million* – for context, Burnley’s starting line-up cost around £44 million*, with their most expensive starter in Matej Vydra costing only £11 million*. With a new season on the horizon in which many clubs will be spending very minimally as a result of the financial implications brought on by the pandemic, the gap between the top of the table and the rest of the league could increase even further, leading to a lack of competition across the division.

Additionally, while managers may turn to youth players as a result of their increased bench capacity, many will feel as though that first call-up to the bench will lose its value to those players as a result. Youth prospects will train as hard as possible and grind their way through the various age groups at the club in order to catch a manager’s attention, in the hope of being considered for some time with the first team. The first appearance on the bench felt earned, with fans being happy to see their manager having faith in their academy. Now, managers will likely turn to their youngsters as a way of filling an empty seat left by an injured player, for example. The player will be there to fill a gap, rather than have a chance of making any contribution to the game whatsoever. The increased bench size would take away from the first match day experience for a number of young players which, in thin squads without much cover, could prove problematic in the long run.

In a season with numerous instances of controversy, the option to re-implement the five-sub rule next season is just another reason for fans to express their anger against the governing bodies of the sport. Whether or not the rule will return in the UK is yet to be decided but, like VAR, I could see any decision made being one that causes argument and controversy among all those involved with football in the country. Although, I suppose that’s nothing new.


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