The Hard Tackle opines on the contentious five substitutes rule and the merits of re-introducing it following backlash from Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.

It has been a topic that has created a barrage of debates in the last couple of months; a major talking point constantly throwing up the age-old “Will they? Won’t they?” questions. The subject has some of the most prominent names in the game constantly giving their opinions about it as well. We are, of course, talking about the oft-discussed five substitutes rule.

The rule first came into prominence all across Europe ahead of the resumption of football following a hiatus of around three months due to the advent of the coronavirus pandemic that continues to ravage the world to this day. With the 2019/20 season coming to a quick end post the restart, it was deemed that the increase in the allowance for substitutes would ease some of the burden on the players.

2019/20 ended and so did the five substitutes rule, as far as the Premier League is concerned. The rest of the major European leagues, though, stuck with the rule, seeing as the later start to the current campaign, caused by the delay in the completion of last season, has led to a compressed schedule.

However, despite two voting calls, Premier League clubs voted against allowing teams to make five substitutions per game in the 2020/21 season. Teams in the English top-flight, therefore, returned to being permitted to make just three substitutes in a game.

Just two months into the new season, though, and the reversion has drawn a lot of backlash from managers; Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, no less. Since drawing the ire of the two managers in the aftermath of the 1-1 draw between Liverpool and Manchester City, which saw Trent Alexander-Arnold go off with an injury, the big debate has opened up yet again.

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The Premier League’s stance has not been helped by Gareth Southgate’s appeal to revert to the five substitutes rule. The England head coach said, “We were able to make five changes against Belgium – we made four in the end – and clubs don’t have that option. What will it take for that to change?”

“There were a couple of less serious injuries against Belgium but what do we do? Wait until we get a load of really nasty ones? I have to be fair to the club managers. They are their players firstly, and they have the right to play them as they see fit. What we have got to do as a collective is to try to help the load.”

Southgate’s comments do hit home with the players as well, with the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) also in favour of the previously temporary regulations. Furthermore, Vincent Gouttebarge, Fifpro’s chief medical officer, branded the decision to restrict substitutions “peculiar” in an interview with The Guardian.

The pressure on the Premier League ought to have increased further following EFL’s ruling to impose the five substitutes rule for the remainder of the 2020/21 season. That leaves the Premier League as the proverbial odd man out. So, should the top-flight also increase the restrictions on the number of subs per team from three to five?

Why smaller clubs do not favour the rule?

It is hard to argue that the five substitutes rule does not favour the bigwigs of the Premier League. After all, we often see world class players remain on the bench for the entirety of the game whereas the less fortunate teams are sometimes unable to make even three quality, game-defining changes.

These teams are not featuring in Europe either, meaning their squads are not quite as stretched as the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham Hostpur, Arsenal and Leicester City.

The fact that several clubs can only afford to introduce two or three decent players off the bench means that they take a step towards creating some semblance of a level playing field. Thereby, the smaller Premier League clubs are increasing their chances of causing an upset and gain some valuable points to help them match their modest objectives for the season.

Indeed, one way to look at the reversion to the five substitutes rule is that the elite get yet another way to boost their advantage over the smaller clubs. Having said that, in a season with an incredibly congested schedule, the games will soon be piling up for everyone unlike ever before.

Player welfare amid a congested schedule… Is everyone essentially in the same boat?

Gareth Southgate did make an important statement when speaking about the big issue. The subject of player welfare is an important one, after all. Further comments made by the England head coach outline exactly why the Premier League needs to start allowing five substitutes in a game per team again.

In the wake of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling picking up injuries, he said, “We could not have prepared physically any better than we did last week. We have given players extra days’ recovery. We have tapered the training appropriately and we have still ended up with a couple of injuries. So that is a worry in the longer term because with no winter break; something has to give.”

Henderson and Sterling are not the only players that have picked up soft tissue injuries that are essentially borne out of fatigue. Currently in the Premier League, there are over a couple dozen players who are suffering from similar problems; and we are only two months into the new season.

The important point to note is that it is not just players representing the bigwigs of the Premier League that are facing the ignominy of facing such issues. After all, the likes of Bertrand Traore, Aaron Connolly, Richarlison and several others do not feature for clubs that are also playing midweek European fixtures.

Many of the players that are currently on the sidelines due to niggles and other major problems also participate in the international break, turning out for their respective national sides. With international teams playing three games during the fortnight-long break instead of the usual two, the workload on such players have become even more intense.

By re-introducing the five substitutes rule in the Premier League, there is certainly no guarantees that players will stop picking up these injuries, but the chances of them going down clutching some part of their body or the other surely decreases. That way, by the time the next international break rolls in by March, players might be in a better physical condition rather dropping like flies, as was the case in the current international break.

Then there is the case of the absence of a winter break in the Premier League this season, due to the compulsion to call curtains on the campaign by the usual end date in May. That means that starting from the imminent festive period till the next international break, most teams will be averaging a game every 4 days, if not less.

So, for a considerable period in the middle third of the season, every club will essentially be in the same boat and with the games set to start piling up, the time might be now to take the right call and think about the welfare of the players. And, as Southgate opined, something has to give.

Yes, teams like Burnley have previously struggled to even name the required number of substitutes on the bench. Yes, the bigger teams will be in a better position than the majority of the Premier League. But, something has to give. After all, in a world impacted so heavily by negative news on a daily basis and in such an unusual season, a bit of compassion does not hurt anybody.

The fact of the matter is that the schedule this season is remorseless and the elite are not the only ones suffering at present. It will be in the best interests of every club – particularly those that have restricted numbers in their squad – to ease the load on the players and give them every chance to participate in as many games as possible. Protecting the players must be of utmost importance.

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