Premier League is in an imaginary war with itself over substitutes – and players are the casualties

Every other major division has taken expert advice and the evidence of injury risks on board, but England's top flight in a self-made tangle

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Reporter
Friday 18 December 2020 12:52
Klopp pays heartwarming tribute to Gérard Houllier

It is always those from the outside looking in who manage to perfectly phrase the mess the Premier League tends to roll itself in.

On Thursday, a meeting of the top-flight’s 20 shareholders clubs hit a hat-trick of blocking the introduction of five substitutes on account of player welfare in the most intense season imaginable.

The vote was split down the middle, Aston Villa, Burnley, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Leeds, Leicester, Newcastle, Sheffield United, West Ham and Wolves vetoing the move, believing it would  offer a competitive advantage for clubs with deeper squads.

This despite some of their own managers - Brendan Rodgers and David Moyes are two - feeling it would be of great benefit to those taking to the pitch.

“Why does the Premier League like to be special, even if it is stupid?,” came a text from a high-ranking official of a well run European club. “Is the evidence of the injuries not strong enough?”

England’s main division has seen the most time lost to injuries, sharpest spike in muscle injuries, significant injuries and total injuries in this campaign.

The late end to 2019-20, lack of proper pre-season, disruptions due to positive Covid tests, having three internationals crammed into 10 days during FIFA breaks and fitting in European fixtures every week have eaten into recovery time, affected rhythm and enhanced the risk of players breaking down.

All of this is borne out by the injury figures. And the impact of the December schedule, with clubs that haven’t been involved in European competition having to adjust to triple fixtures a week, will still take its toll.

Medical and conditioning experts across the continent have stressed the need for allowing five substitutes as a plaster in lieu of being able to lighten the load on players in any other way.

All of Europe’s major divisions adopted the welfare advice without fuss, with the EFL and FA Cup following suit.

The Premier League is on its own, being special in its stupidity to paraphrase the senior European executive.

There has been no proof to back up claims of competitive advantage and the notion that five changes aren’t needed because the big clubs pushing for it don’t always use their allotment of three is daft.

It ignores the reality of accumulation and that fatigue will properly materialise in the second half of the campaign after the gruel of the opening months.

It disregards the current state of the squads and the game state. As an example, Jurgen Klopp did not make any substitutions during Liverpool’s 2-1 victory over Tottenham on Wednesday night.

The German had eight first-team players unavailable through injury and his bench consisted of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, back from a long layoff, Naby Keita who has just shaken off his latest niggle, two inexperienced young defenders, two attacking players with no rhythm and a goalkeeper.

Not every match will require five subs. Not every match requires three of them. But every league should be prioritising player welfare. And every major one in Europe has with the exception of, naturally, the Premier League.

It is insane that in an effort to stick it to the big boys, clubs are happy going against the wishes of their managers and gambling with the welfare of their own players.

The truth is that the teams with deeper squads will actually be able to better weather a lengthy absentee list in the long run. Voting against this most hurts the sides with a limited roster, but ultimately it is the players that end up suffering.

For all the talk of Liverpool, both Manchester clubs and co wanting to push five subs through due to self-interest, keeping it at three is a matter of self-interest for those against it.

There will always be an element of that, so the simple solution is to follow the expert advice, the evidence and the right thing to do like every other major league: put the welfare of the footballers first.

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