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Premier League’s Smaller Clubs Are More Likely To Use Five Substitutes Under IFAB Rules

Manchester City v Aston Villa - Premier League

Phil Foden replaces Kevin De Bruyne during the Premier League match between Manchester City and … [+] Aston Villa at Etihad Stadium on October 26, 2019. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

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Soccer’s rulemakers are set to extend the rule allowing five substitutes a game until the end of next season.

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) introduced a temporary rule back in May that allows teams to make up to five changes per match. The reasoning behind it is to prevent injuries caused by fatigue as players in the Premier League, Bundesliga, and other leagues around the world have crammed the remaining matches of the season into as short a time as possible in order to finish the 2019-20 season.

However according to the Athletic (paywall), IFAB is set to extend this rule so that it covers all of the 2020-21 season too.

That decision was made with players’ safety in mind, as next season’s schedule is likely to be full of double gameweeks as teams negotiate a late start to the season, possible postponements due to COVID-19 outbreaks, and an end of season deadline so that the 2020 European Championships and other summer competitions can go ahead next summer as planned.

Some fans are skeptical of the move, saying that it will benefit the larger teams in the league who have more squad depth. However, the evidence so far suggests smaller teams are more likely to make use of the new rule.

At the time of writing, the Premier League’s top three teams (Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea) have used a total of 56 substitutes since the restart, whereas the current bottom three (Aston Villa, Bournemouth and Norwich City) have used 61 substitutes. It just happens that each group has played a total of 14 games meaning the bottom three sides used 0.35 more substitutes per game than the top three.

This might be a small sample, but the Bundesliga, which has finished its season, shows the same trend. Top club Bayern Munich only used 3.67 substitutes a game, whereas bottom-dwellers Paderborn used all five substitutes in eight of their nine games since the restart.

On average, the top four teams in the Bundesliga each used 4.03 substitutes per game, while the bottom four teams used 4.59 substitutes per game.

Of course, the raw numbers don’t show the influence of each substitute per game, and the way the results went in those final nine or ten Bundesliga matches didn’t suggest that Paderborn gained much advantage from the extra substitutions they could make as they didn’t manage a single win since the restart.

When Manchester City played Southampton on Sunday, Southampton fans might have been pondering how unfair it is that Manchester City could bring on Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden to try and change the game. But those were the only two players Manchester City did bring on. They didn’t make use of their five substitutes to try to change the game’s results.

This seems to follow how the top Bundesliga teams have also used their extra substitutes. When a game is tight, the number of substitutes is low. Bayern Munich only used one substitute in their 1-0 win over Werder Bremen, and Borussia Dortmund used just two substitutes against Fortuna Dusseldorf in a match that they won in the 95th minute.

By contrast, Dortmund used all five substitutes in their 6-1 hammering of Paderborn. Leipzig also made five changes in their 5-0 win over Mainz, while Borussia Monchengladbach made four of their five changes against Union Berlin once the scoreline was 4-1.

Rather than using the extra substitutions to change games, bigger sides seem to stick with their stronger starting eleven when games are tight, and make the most of the new rule to rest players once a game is comfortably in the bag.

Of course, if this rule were to become permanent, all of that could change. Teams could plan their transfer activity in order to give themselves a stronger bench, knowing that players would be happier to sit on the bench if they knew they would be coming on at some point to change the game. In another timeline where this rule already existed, Manchester City might have kept hold of Jadon Sancho and Manchester United might not have lost Paul Pogba to Juventus.

The long term effect of this rule could well benefit larger teams with the finances to build a super subs’ bench. But so far, there has been little evidence that the rule is benefiting the big boys.

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