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Five substitutes in the Premier League: Would it only benefit clubs like Liverpool and Manchester City?

Klopp five substitutes
(Image credit: Getty)

The debate over whether or not the Premier League should allow teams to make five substitutes has been raging again this week, with Jurgen Klopp at the heart of the campaign to change the rule.

The Premier League joined most European divisions in allowing five substitutions when the 2019/20 season resumed after the long pause due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

But clubs voted against keeping the rule change for the 2020/21 campaign, even though the virus continued to cause havoc among squads and led to a number of matches being postponed.

Why is the substitutes rule back in the news?

Liverpool managed to beat Inter Milan 2-0 in the Champions League on Wednesday after making four changes in the second half, with Jordan Henderson, the fourth player to come on in the San Siro, proving particularly important to securing the victory.

And that led to several articles arguing that allowing five substitutes in the Premier League would merely play to the advantage of the bigger sides such as Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea, who have far more quality on their benches.

Klopp, however, angrily rejected that claim on Friday.

"It’s absolutely not true that it gives us an advantage. I can’t believe it is still discussed like this," he said.

"It is the reason why in this country it is still not five subs. 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. They are not. It is a very tight competition. I can’t see how it helps us."

Which leagues allow five substitutes?

A better question would be which leagues do not. Klopp was correct when he said "pretty much all the other countries" now allow five substitutions.

The rest of Europe's top five leagues - Germany, Spain, France and Italy - all took advantage of the IFAB extending the number of substitutes to five beyond 2020.

And it's not just the other top leagues where the rule change was made permanent.

Five substitutes are allowed in the second divisions of Spain, Germany, Italy and France, and in the less-powerful footballing nations in Europe such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey.

And did it make those leagues less competitive?

Not really. If anything, having five substitutions helped the less powerful teams.

In Italy, Juventus' nine-year stranglehold on the title came to an end, with Inter Milan lifting the title.

In Spain, Atletico Madrid won LaLiga for the first time in seven years.

And most remarkably, Lille pipped the almighty Paris St Germain to the Ligue 1 title.

This year, normal service has generally been resumed.

PSG are on course to regain their crown, as are Bayern Munich, but that's no different to most seasons in those leagues.

Real Madrid are top of La Liga, although Sevilla, who have not won the title since 1946, are their closest challengers.

And Italy is perhaps the most-exciting title race on the continent, with AC Milan, Inter Milan and Napoli locked in a close-run battle. Juventus, still the richest club in the country even with their financial problems, are lagging behind in fourth.

Who in the Premier League is in favour of five subs?

It is true that the biggest teams are leading the calls for change.

While Klopp gave his impassioned speech last week, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has also been outspoken on the issue.

"We want to protect the players, so bring five substitutions," he said in December, when a slew matches were postponed due to Covid outbreaks. 

"It's much better for the amount of games, but the Premier League and clubs decided 'no'."

Manchester United coach Ralf Rangnick agreed, saying: "It would be of great help to have five subs. I think we should seriously think about that again."

Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta also wants five substitutions to back, saying he "cannot understand" why England hasn't reintroduced the rule.

But it's not just coaches from the traditional 'Big Six' who would like to see five substitutions allowed. 

Brighton boss Graham Potter said the five changes should be reintroduced to cope with the continued impact of Covid, calling it "a sensible consideration".

West Ham manager David Moyes initially voted against making the change permanent but in November 2020 he said he had changed his mind on the matter and wanted to see five substitutions introduced again.

So who is against it?

The fact that the change was rejected in the vote tells us that, despite the protesting voices of Klopp, Arteta, Guardiola and Rangnick, the majority of the league's clubs want to stick with three substitutions.

But some coaches have made their voices heard more than others.

Burnley boss Sean Dyche has made his views on the matter very clear. Even at the height of the pandemic, he expressed his opposition to five substitutes. 

"It quite obviously favours the big clubs because they can keep more players happy and more players involved by making more changes," he said in July 2020.

And in December, when the calls to bring back five subs were getting louder, he said the issue of player welfare was being overblown.

"There has to be a bit of balance to the bigger picture of comments about five subs, three subs, all the rest of it - and just be careful which road we're going down," he said.

Norwich City manager Dean Smith also expressed his disagreement when the change was made in 2020, when he was in charge of Aston Villa.  "It helps the clubs with the bigger squads," he said.

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Richard Martin is an experienced football writer, editor and social media producer. Before returning to London, he spent 10 years in Spain as a football correspondent and has attended over 600 games across 16 countries, his favourite being Argentina. He has also worked for Reuters, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Times and AS.