In June 2020, when football restarted after the pause for the coronavirus pandemic, football’s lawmakers gave leagues temporary permission to go to five subs. From that point, teams in LaLiga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 (as well as all UEFA competitions) have continued with five subs, but the Premier League reverted back to three as soon as the 2019-20 season was completed.
English clubs repeatedly voted against having five subs, with 14 of the 20 needing to support the rule change. The main argument against five substitutes says it gives clubs with greater resources an unfair advantage. After all, if a team has a better squad of players, surely that means substitutes of a higher-quality to rotate off the bench?
“It’s absolutely not true that it gives us an advantage,” Klopp said in February. “I can’t believe it is still discussed like this. It doesn’t make Bayern 20 points ahead of other teams or in Italy all of a sudden the better teams are running away with it.”
🗣️: “The Premier League has to save their top class players as well.”
Jurgen Klopp has repeated his call for Premier League clubs to be able to use five substitutes, amid Liverpool’s busy fixture schedule. pic.twitter.com/MeCYXtvaaX
— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) March 7, 2022
Guardiola, despite using substitutes on fewer occasions than any other Premier League coach, has always been fully supportive of Klopp. “This is ridiculous,” he said early last season. “This is why there are injuries. Every three days a game, without any prep, no preseason. Maybe one day the big bosses will explain why?”
But from this season, five subs will be used in English football across all competitions. So what changed this summer? The IFAB made it a permanent revision to the laws, meaning English football would be left out of sync with every other major league.
So is there an advantage? ESPN has tested the theory, using data from the other European leagues for 2021-22 — the first post-COVID season with regular playing conditions — to analyse how the bigger clubs have used five substitutes, if they have benefitted more than other clubs, and how the leagues compare.
For the purposes of the analysis, we chose 10 focus clubs. LaLiga’s top three: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. From Italy, the four clubs who qualified for the Champions League with rounds to spare: AC Milan, Internazionale, Napoli and Juventus. The Bundesliga’s established super clubs: Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. And finally, Paris Saint-Germain from Ligue 1.
JUMP TO: How does this translate into points gained? | When are subs made? | Net points for focus clubs | Late goals for focus clubs | Collective performance of focus clubs | How has a fifth sub directly influenced a game? | Chances for young players | What this means for the Premier League
Do focus clubs use five substitutes most often?
Our stats show that the focus clubs use all five subs less often than most other clubs. Of course, the debate comes down to far more than how many times a team uses five substitutes, but if our focus clubs are using all their changes less frequently, does it negate many of the concerns?
In LaLiga, Real Madrid, Barca and Atletico are all towards the bottom of the list of average substitutes per game. Of the seven clubs to use substitutes the most in Spain, only two finished in the top half of the table (Villarreal and Athletic Club). So, using five subs on a regular basis perhaps isn’t a major reason for a club’s success.
In Germany, only a handful of teams used substitutions less than Bayern and Dortmund, who finished in the top two places, though the rest of the clubs who finished in the top half were more prolific.
Remarkably for a team who regularly won games comfortably and had the opportunity to give players a rest, PSG used five subs just eight times across 38 matches (only Lyon, Borussia Monchengladbach and Spezia used subs less frequently across all leagues.) Marseille and Lyon, two of Ligue 1’s other major clubs, are also at the bottom of this list, while relegated teams Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne made more subs than any other team.
It’s a different story in Serie A, with Inter Milan the outlier among our focus clubs and the polar opposite to PSG, with coach Simone Inzaghi clearly embracing it and making all changes in 35 of his club’s 38 Serie A fixtures — marginally more subs than relegated Spezia.
This tells us that the number of subs made doesn’t have any consistent correlation with league position, and in fact in the vast majority of cases the biggest clubs make fewer changes.
How does this translate into points gained?
“In this country we hide behind the fact that: ‘It helps them, I can’t see how it helps us,'” Klopp said.
It’s been the consistent theme, to only consider how the rule change could benefit those with the resources, and not how it could be advantageous to all teams both tactically and in terms of player welfare.
The numbers across the European leagues in 2021-22 paint a picture that, on the whole, teams with the greatest resources have not benefitted more than others.
We looked at how the scoreline changed after each club had made their fifth substitute, calculating total points gained from that point. Atletico Madrid are way out in front in Spain (more on that later), but that isn’t a consistent picture among focus clubs.
The biggest beneficiaries last season were Ligue 1 side Nice, who collected 12 points, followed by fellow French side Reims and Atletico both on 11 points.
In fact, of the 16 teams in the top four positions of this table across the leagues, three qualified for the Champions League, eight finished in the top half, three in the bottom half and two were relegated. Atletico were the only team from our focus group to feature in the 16.
For most clubs, particularly in Germany, using five subs actually made negligible difference to their points total.
When do focus clubs make their fifth substitution?
The biggest clubs aren’t make early tactical changes early to try to turn a game around when not winning.
For instance, PSG didn’t make five subs once across the four games they lost last season; of the eight games the did use all five, they were winning in seven of them. Bayern only used all substitutions once from their five defeats, and Dortmund four times out of nine losses.
It is usually made when a focus club is winning a match (and in the case of several teams by a large scoreline). Take PSG as an example, with Mauricio Pochettino using five subs across eight games where the cumulative score was 27-1. It’s even more impressive for Bayern, with a scoreline of 73-17 across the 20 instances, with only three of the 17 games won being by one goal.
The fifth change also tends to come late in the game, usually well into the last 10 minutes which leaves far less time for the subs to have an impact. It suggests that five substitutes are used more as a player welfare tool, allowing players to rest who may be suffering from fatigue, rather than as tactical game-changers.
Does making five subs get focus clubs more net points?
We take the points that a focus club has gained after making five subs, and then subtract points lost after making five subs.
Something very different is happening in LaLiga, where the three biggest teams all benefit, and by a combined net of 16 points.
Atletico have been by far the most successful, with coach Diego Simeone tending to make his additional changes slightly earlier than the other focus clubs (that trend applies to all three LaLiga focus clubs), and far more often when not in a winning position. In fact, of the 24 times Atletico made five subs, 14 of those came when drawing or losing (of the 10 focus clubs, only Juve made more total changes when dropping points than when winning.) It paid off hugely, with a net gain of eight points.
That wasn’t the case for Juve, with coach Massimiliano Allegri only picking up one additional point despite using five changes on 10 occasions when not winning. Even worse for Allegri, he dropped five points from winning positions after making five subs. Atletico (three points) and Napoli (four points) were the only other focus clubs to drop any points when winning.
With Atletico, Barca and Real Madrid all gaining more points than any other of the focus clubs, does that tell us more about the competitive balance in LaLiga? Will this be replicated in the Premier League? In the case of Liverpool and Man City, they may follow the examples of Bayern and PSG, with more subs used when in a strong winning position. That said, last season Guardiola used fewer substitutes than any other manager (averaging only 2.1 per game). Most other Premier League clubs were close to the maximum average of three per game, with Klopp using 2.9.
What about late goals for focus clubs?
With the fifth substitution generally being made late in the game, has that led to more goals for the focus clubs towards the end of a match?
Once again, Atletico have been the most prolific, with 10 points won after the 85th minute when making a fifth sub. They won a further 6 points when making fewer than five subs, which indicates the tally could be down to fitness and tactics rather than the number of changes made — especially as the most points any other club won with five subs over the last two season was the 4 Barcelona picked up in each of the last two campaigns.
Added to that, PSG won 12 points through late goals last season, but only two came after five substitutions, while Barcelona won 17 points in 2018-19 when only three substitutions were possible.
On goals and points, Atletico, Real Madrid, Juve, Milan and PSG have all scored more of both in both of the last two seasons, compared to 2018-19. While that doesn’t apply to Barcelona, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund, all three reached double figures for late goals in 2018-19, so hard tallies to beat.
It does provide some evidence that bigger clubs may score more late goals after making five subs, with fresher players of a higher quality, but that of course doesn’t mean those goals are result-changing.
OK, but have the focus clubs got stronger collectively?
Guardiola said that “it doesn’t make Bayern 20 points ahead of other teams,” and that has certainly been the case. In the seasons shown, Bayern scored 78 points in the last campaign with 3 subs, then 78 and 77 in the following two seasons with five subs.
For Bayern and Dortmund combined, 2018-19 was a higher points tally than either of the two campaigns with five subs, and the same goes for PSG.
In Spain, Real Madrid’s points totals have climbed each season, while Barcelona’s has declined. Overall, 2021-22 was the lowest average points for the three clubs.
In fact it’s only the four Serie A clubs that have recorded a higher average score in both seasons with five subs.
So the suggestion that five subs will make clubs with more resources stronger than those with fewer isn’t proven.
How has a fifth sub directly influenced a game?
Across the 21 times a focus club gained points, the fifth substitute had a direct influence on a result on six occasions. Of course, that fifth substitute could still be involved in how the balance of play may change despite not recording a goal or an assist.
Brahim Diaz goal in win vs. Spezia
Does five subs lead to more chances for younger players?
This has been one of the arguments in favour, though there’s little evidence it has made a great deal of difference to chances given to younger players.
In LaLiga, the average age of a used substitute has jumped markedly since the last full season pre-COVID, from 26 years and 195 days (with three substitutes) to 27 years and 41 days (with five) — it’s easily the highest number across the Big Five leagues.
Compare that to the Premier League still using three subs, where there has been a small drop in average age. Ligue 1 is the only league which has seen a clear reduction, and even before the pandemic it had the lowest.
Giving opportunities to players aged 22 and under differs greatly across clubs and within leagues. Remarkably, Inter only gave 5.7% of the additional sub slots to younger players, and had by far the highest average age used — regularly using players well into their 30s. Compare that to Juve, who were bringing on younger players as the fifth sub more than any other focus club at 68.42%. Dortmund (64.29%), PSG (62.5%) and AC Milan (52.17%) also gave over half of slots to U22 players.
That said, more substitutes does mean an increased size of substitutes’ bench, and the chance for younger players to be involved in the squad.
How will this play out in the Premier League?
The evidence doesn’t back the argument that five subs will be an advantage to the Premier League’s biggest clubs, with the stats across Europe showing there were very few occasions when the focus clubs gained points when drawing or losing.
In fact, many clubs don’t even bother to use five subs when not in a strong winning position.
Atletico Madrid have shown, however, that it is possible to use the new law to their advantage, making changes earlier and more often when not winning a game.
But if we look back at the table of points gained by all clubs, it’s an even spread and certainly not concentrated on the bigger teams.
It’s appears unlikely that the additional subs will lead to greater opportunities for youngers players, though Premier League Academies are perhaps deeper than some of those in Europe.