For the welfare of players and to get the game running amid the Covid-19 crisis, football’s lawmakers have allowed clubs to make five substitutions, rather than three, in each match. In June, 10 days before the start of La Liga, Barcelona manager Quique Setien expressed his concerns over the temporary five-substitute rule. “It will harm us,” Setien told Las Palmas Inter-Island Football Federation in an interview.
A critical and less talked about element of Barcelona’s way of playing – take the ball, pass the ball – in Pep Guardiola’s immortal words is the fitness of the players and their ability to tire out opponents while not getting worn out themselves. According to Spanish sports newspaper Marca, the Catalans had salvaged more points than any other team last year by scoring goals in the last 15 minutes of the match.
With two extra substitutes allowed, Barcelona will lose their advantage, Setien felt. “We solve many games in the final minutes. If you give opponents the option of fresh players coming on in that time, the weakness that is generated with tired players will not occur,” he said.
FIFA recently extended the temporary rule until next August, a move that experts felt could change the way the game is played in the short term, and is being seen as a hint towards a larger evolution in the long term.
How did the substitution rule come into football?
Football has historically been cold to substitution rule changes but it has evolved every two decades. The concept was first introduced in international matches during the qualifiers for the 1954 World Cup. Domestic leagues in many countries, too, introduced substitutions in the 50s but initially it was just to replace injured players.
1970 World Cup was the first time when the use of substitutes for tactical reasons was legitimised, according to the Guardian, and in the following years it gradually became a norm in rest of the football-playing world. It was only in the 1990s that the teams were allowed to make a maximum of three substitutions and now, another two decades later, that has been increased to five, albeit temporarily.
Apart from contentions that the latest rule change will fuel disparity between teams and favour those who can afford bigger, stronger squads, it is held that allowing five substitutes can have a profound impact on the game.
Will the rule advantage ‘gegenpress’?
As Setien feared, Barcelona and other teams that profess a similar philosophy would be at a disadvantage while, at the same time, counter-pressing sides could benefit from employing more fresh legs. A case in point here is the 2011 La Liga thriller between Barcelona and Marcelo Bielsa’s ‘gegenpressing’ Bilbao, a match that Pep Guardiola described as ‘un canto al fútbol‘, an ode to football.
Bielsa’s ‘beasts’ – as Guardiola called his guru’s players – played with such intensity that for 90 minutes they denied Barca stars space and time on the ball, taking the players one-on-one all over the pitch to remain 2-1 up. By the end of regulation time, they ran out of steam – and substitutes. Then, in stoppage time, Messi took advantage of the tired legs and scored to rescue Barca.
It was physically impossible for the Bilbao players to play with the same intensity throughout with just three substitutions. With five, who knows what would have happened?
How will the five-substitute rule benefit bigger, stronger squads?
Typically, a team makes the first substitution around the one hour-mark, second after approximately 75 minutes and the third in the dying minutes of the match. But with two additional options at their disposal, managers would not hesitate to make tactical changes much early in the game. Imagine an underdog team scoring a goal and immediately making defensive subs, while the favourites introducing more attackers.
Or, the other extreme could be, what they call in basketball, clearing out the bench – introducing all substitutes at one go. Manchester United did that after going 3-0 up against Sheffield United in the Premier League, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer making all five substitutions in the 80th minute.
That was harmless in the overall scheme of things in that match but changing half of the outfield players at one go will have severe impact on the tempo and outcome of a game, with players being given more defining roles for a limited duration before they are taken off.
Critics say this will benefit teams with deeper pockets as they will be able to afford a more potent bench compared to the less affluent sides.
Rolling substitutions next?
Even as the frenzied debate over five-substitute rule continues, there are speculations that FIFA is looking at rolling substitutions as an option in the long term.
According to Dutch public broadcaster NOS, FIFA gave the Royal Dutch Football Association the green signal to experiment with five new rules at the junior level. These include rolling substitutions, self pass (a player restarting play himself from free-kicks), kick-ins (self-start from a throw-in), sin bins and stop-clock.
Footballer-turned-pundit Gary Lineker also mooted the self-pass rule during his recent meeting with FIFA. The NOS report said the new rules would be tried at the highest level of youth football, followed by an experiment in the Cup. “If they appeal, (the rules) should eventually end up in the Premier League,” the report added.