Football Features

Why Premier League clubs may regret dropping five-sub rule in 2020/21

By Dr Rajpal Brar

Published: 14:25, 11 September 2020

When football returned from the coronavirus delay, Europe’s top five leagues, including the Premier League, implemented a five substitution rule citing health and fitness concerns.

Unlike numerous other leagues, notably the Bundesliga and La Liga, the Premier League voted to drop that rule for 2020/21, with smaller clubs reportedly wary of the in-game advantages it would provide for those with larger squads. After all, an XI of Manchester City’s substitutes may be able to challenge for a top four slot on its own.

However, although the concerns over squad depth and the advantages gained by two more subs with higher impact players are absolutely valid in-game, that advantage will be overshadowed by multiple others over the course of the season. And in the long-run this will likely end up hurting the smaller clubs more than the larger ones.

To understand why, we have to consider two unique challenges of the upcoming season.

1. An unprecedented 2020/21 Premier League campaign

Typically when players are coming back from the extended summer break and inherent drops in fitness level, there’s an uptick in injury risk and soft tissue injuries at every jump in intensity from summer break to training camp to pre-season and, most notably, to actual match play. These transition points are the high risk points

For the 2020/21 season, the initial jumps in activity level and intensity will likely be less steep than normal because the players have been playing for much of the summer without time for the fitness levels to drop.

So the key concern becomes increased wear and tear as the season progresses, particularly during a campaign that will be more congested than ever before with less time for recovery and proactive injury prevention training.

Accordingly, we could well see a lower initial increase in injuries as the season gets underway but a significant uptick in injuries as the season progresses due to accumulated fatigue.

That accumulation of fatigue is the crux of why I believe clubs who rejected the five subs rule did not think about the long-term situation.

This is because it takes away a key ability to manage fitness and fatigue in games while the larger clubs with more depth possess numerous built-in advantages that enable them to reduce that wear and tear over the course of the season.

Advantages for the bigger clubs:

  • More constant player rotation of the lineup to give players days and games off and recover fully.
  • Less of a drop off from key and star players to substitutes which makes coaches more likely to rotate them and allow recovery. To that point, Manchester City star and PFA Player of the Year Kevin De Bruyne recently urged players to be honest about their mental and physical health and well-being and taking time off as needed. That’s a luxury key players on lesser teams may not feel they have and feel an obligation and responsibility to push through which often results in injury.
  • To the last point, if and when (and it’s more than likely the latter) key players get injured at smaller clubs, there’s a greater negative impact than on a larger club with depth who can make up for the loss – whether it’s due to the higher talent level of the replacement or having more pieces to be flexible in the tactical approach and change strategies as needed.

Due to each of these points, I’d anticipate that the impact of injuries will be disproportionately larger in magnitude at the smaller, less-depth filled teams.

Not having the five subs rule just took away one of their key ways to manage fatigue in games and, even though it would be at the expense of on-field quality for the rest of that match, I reckon you’d much rather have a player healthy to play games consistently rather than potentially missing long spells.

2. The negative impact on all Premier League clubs

Zooming out to even more expansive birds-eye view, not implementing the rule hurts all players within the league when you factor in Copa America & European Championship schedules for next summer.

For a number of players, they’ll have been involved in a congested schedule for essentially a year prior to the start of the tournaments (from beginning of the restart to the end of 2020/21 Premier League season) and then be asked to head back for the 2021/22 campaign with yet another truncated summer recovery period.

That’s asking the players to bear a significant load and will lead to many otherwise avoidable injuries. The five subs rule was created specifically to mitigate those risks and, even though they still exist, it was done away with due to what appears to be short-sighted concerns of team depth and quality of subs in-game.

The Premier League missed the forest for the trees and the players will pay the price for it.

Dr Rajpal Brar, DPT, is a physiotherapist, movement and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA-based wellness and athletic development/performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more) by going here.