The five substitutions argument: why are clubs calling for more subs but using fewer?

five subs
(Image credit: PA Images)

Pep Guardiola’s career has included a few historic firsts. Another came against Fulham this month: after 416 games in top-flight management, Guardiola completed one without making any substitutions.

Manchester City and Liverpool have spent the last few seasons trying to outdo each other so perhaps it was inevitable what happened next: Jurgen Klopp got through Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Tottenham without taking anyone off.

It did not escape attention that Guardiola and Klopp have been two of the most vocal advocates of using five substitutes in a Premier League game this season; their wish was denied again on Thursday. Perhaps they cost themselves votes. 

Complaints will probably follow. Klopp’s campaign has felt a constant. The German has accused the division’s shareholders of neglecting player welfare and mental health, suggested the vast majority of managers are in favour and highlighted how the other major European leagues are each permitting a quintet of changes.

So it rather felt as though they were defeating their own argument when, in completely different games – a comfortable win against a relegation-threatened side and a match of narrow margins against title rivals – neither turned to any of his permitted trio.

Each can cite mitigating factors. Guardiola reserved his changes for a Champions League game four days later, resting 10 of the men who faced Fulham. Klopp has been denied the services of some of his favoured replacements, whether potential game-changers, like Diogo Jota and Xherdan Shaqiri, or the ultra-versatile James Milner, who can slot into four of the outfield roles in his side, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was on the bench against Spurs, is yet to play this season.

The nature of Liverpool’s injuries this season is that, with notable exceptions like Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, they have affected more of the squad players Klopp might be tempted to turn to. Realistically, barring injuries or a large lead or deficit, the rookies Nat Phillips and Neco Williams were destined to stay unused substitutes against Tottenham. But then the reason why many players are on the bench to begin with is that, either for a certain fixture or in general, they are deemed inferior alternatives to the starters. There are reasons to persist with those on the pitch and Klopp was vindicated by a victory secured by his starters.

In fairness, he had made 34 of the 36 permitted changes in Liverpool’s first 12 games but Guardiola has only made 22 of a possible 36 this season. He seems to be undermining his own case. At least Jose Mourinho has made the maximum 39 out of 39. 

But all three can be accused of fielding needlessly strong sides in European dead rubbers or, in Spurs’ case, qualifiers against far weaker sides. Jota was hurt after playing 87 minutes against Midtjylland; Mohamed Salah lasted the full 90, which was actually around 100. Harry Kane has made six Europa League appearances already, Heung-Min Son and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg seven.  Meanwhile, at each of the top clubs, there are some players with plenty of pedigree who have been marginalised.

It is undeniable some players are being overworked, but the blame may be shared between the authorities and their employers. And while the Premier League has begun a busier period of midweek matches, it is undeniable that 13 of its members have not needed five substitutes so far. Managers who have said they would vote in favour of it, such as David Moyes and Roy Hodgson, have showed solidarity but have a preference for continuity and are often able to field unchanged teams. One who has argued against, in Chris Wilder, has ended up embroiled in a rather needless row with Klopp, even though the Sheffield United boss is actually a huge admirer of the Liverpool manager. The Blades have require more quality and more luck this season, but not more changes. As Wilder deduced, it would benefit the bigger clubs. 

And different arguments have been conflated. Klopp has said the five substitutes is not about tactical changes but preventing injuries. It is about both. But while the use of any replacement, whether a third or a fifth, is an option and not mandatory and while the circumstances change by the match, the debate can feature double standards as well as double substitutions.

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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.