Five Subs – Another Unnecessary Change

Courtesy Lincoln City

Every year we hear of possible changes coming into football which could severely change the fabric of the game.

The most recent one we’ve seen implemented, at least at a higher level, is VAR. Personally, I believe VAR has made top-flight football unwatchable. I haven’t taken in a game since it started, not fully, and I cannot begin to fathom how waiting after every single goal to see whether it is given is in the interest of the game. For me, VAR is like a filter you get on Instagram which is meant to be used for the odd photo, but that some people just slap on everything. Eventually, the account becomes not about photography, but about the bloody filter and that is what football in the Premier League has become; an over-used filter.

Used sparingly, and I do not even mean once per game, VAR does have a place in football. In its current format, it leads to breaks in play, long waits and less actual action. I feel the same about the five subs ruling which FIFA has put in place to protect players welfare. I can partly understand why it was implemented, but to hear it could be used throughout the next season makes me fearful for the future of the game I love. I’m not being over-dramatic here either; I’ve seen a worrying trend over the last few weeks that I hope is not a precedent.

I understand this is the summer, but why are five subs and water breaks necessary in a country like ours, where July feels like September right now? We didn’t see such fanciful rules come into play in the European Championship, played over a summer, did we? The rule changes are, in my opinion, a knee-jerk reaction to the nanny-state society in which we currently live. Had we gone into Euro 2020 without the recent pandemic, would we have suffered five subs, water breaks and all the other stoppages we’ve been seeing? No, of course not. The games would still have been played in the summer, schedules would still have been tight, but we wouldn’t have just been through (or still be in) a pandemic. Instead, because health is paramount right now, every aspect of our game is being examined for possible ways it might affect players. Coronavirus won’t be held back because a team can make five subs, nor so players can share water bottles, but we’ll bring it in any way because it looks good.

Besides, if FIFA were so worried about player welfare, why would they take the World Cup to Qatar?

At least breaks in play like this excite fans, not like players wandering off at their own pace – Courtesy of Graham Burrell

Maybe I’m being harsh, but I’ve seen a trend towards American sports of late and I’m not the only one. Roy Thomson, who has contributed to the site before, asked me how long before the water break brings an advert on TV? How long before we hear ‘this 5-minute water break is sponsored by Hamilton’s Water Breaks’ boomed over a tannoy system? How long before a water break becomes a timeout, or fans are in stadiums for three hours because every time the ball goes out, someone makes a change? I might be exaggerating to a degree, but that seems to be the direction in which we’re heading.

I know the arguments for having five subs; fewer injuries, more chances for young players and all that, but I don’t buy them. Look at Ellis Chapman for instance. He was used as a late sub often by DC, did it do him any good? Judging by recent events, no. He wanted regular football and I’m afraid being able to spend more time on the field through increased numbers of subs won’t help, not if they’re only five or ten-minute bursts. I feel that the maligned Trophy is a better way to give those players games, starting from the off and getting an hour or so under their belt. I just don’t buy the fact five subs means better exposure to meaningful football, because the dying stages of a game are not meaningful football.

Just think about how those final stages might go; heading into 85 minutes of a tight clash between us and Gillingham, Steve Evans makes two subs and we make two subs, all separately. That’s six or seven minutes gone of the 85 and although we then talk about time added on, is it ever enough? Do we really want to move into that uncertain period where nobody really knows how long the referee will add? Not for me. We’ve seen our fair share of late spoiling tactics, both from our previous manager and opposition managers too, the last thing I want is scope for more of it. Hell, if it happened, we could nearly leave on 75 minutes knowing the last fifteen or so would just be scrappy, punctuated by stoppages and changes. That benefits nobody.

Young players need proper game time, not ten minutes here and there – Courtesy Graham Burrell

I get the argument that it would stop teams having to finish a man down through injury, but honestly, how many times has that happened in the last five years to us? I can’t recall one that has adversely affected the outcome of a game. That isn’t an argument for having five subs, nor is it a motivator in FIFA’s ruling. I’m not even going to use the excuse that more subs favour teams with bigger, deeper squads because I don’t believe making five changes is of huge benefit in terms of consistency of approach. Last season I recall Blackpool having a decent bench against us, but every change made them look more disjointed and confused. In my humble opinion, substitutions should only be used for injuries, when a drastic change is needed or when Ollie Palmer is in your starting XI.

If (and it is a big if) the EFL must bring the change in, I would implore them to limit the number of switches you can make after 80 minutes to one so that as fans we still get something of a game as the afternoon winds down. I would urge them to insist one of the changes must be a player under a certain age, just to promote the youth angle (even though I don’t fully believe in it). I would also urge much stricter punishments for players who do not sprint off, or who ensure they waste maximum time leaving the field. Rules came in last year about leaving the pitch from the nearest point, but how many refs were actually told about it? 5%?

At least with these rules in place, if we really must endure unnecessary changes to our beautiful game, at least the most important people (the fans) still get something akin to a fast-paced game of football, rather than an American-style chess game punctuated by adverts, tactical breaks and tedium.



  1. It’s an interesting – and scary – thought about increased substitutions being one of the tendencies leading to a similarity with American Football, especially if the time ever comes when a replaced player can come back on again. You can imagine something like their ‘special team’ players, e.g. having an expert penalty taker like John Akinde who would come onto the pitch just to take a penalty then go off again. To an extent that’s already a legitimate ploy if a cup game is heading towards a penalty shoot-out and a side will substitute a player who they know is rubbish at penalties with one who they know is good at them.

    Likewise, you can imagine a player who is particularly dangerous with free kicks at goal from just outside the penalty area being brought on to take them then going off again. Or a corner-kick specialist. Imagine Wycombe bringing on Joe Jacobson only to take in-swinging corners. Or, to carry the American analogy even further, having a set of eleven players who specialised in corner kicks, attacking and defending, being brought on when a corner was awarded and then at the next break in play being replaced again by what the Americans would call the ‘regular’ players.

  2. The game has changed beyond recognition, it used to be a simple game, and it was left alone for nearly a hundred years..but now with so many rule changes it hard to keep up for the ordinary fan.

  3. Sad times for many reasons. But professional football across the board is losing me. I love football. Massive part of my life. Imps season ticket holder. Ex semi pro and still amateur player. England follower. Used to love the top flight too, but not now. At 44 years old, during this lock down i’ve got fitter. Been training at my local football club, I’ve played for on and off the past 9 years. Grassroots football at its purist in York league Division 4. This may be my future every Saturday. I love Lincoln and Sincil Bank but am becoming ever more disillusioned with the professional game. The commercilastion I have dealt with. But the rule changes are becoming ridiculous and totally unnecessary. The game we love is slowly disappearing, but it is still there at grassroots. Some hard decisions to make.

  4. Completely agree with the above – football is no no longer “the beautiful game”. Greed, cynicism, gamesmanship, commercialisation, tinkering with perfectly satisfactory laws……………………I could go on. And, sadly, I’m not missing it at all. Strange times.

  5. Agree with all the comments. May I add – why does the 4th official make a sub wait.? Simple rule change. Sub can`t enter play till the subbed player leaves the pitch. Why hold the game up? Indeed don’t wait till he leaves field of play. Sub comes on and if subbed player plays the ball and/or interferes in play they both get sent off. But footballers who earn a living playing the game (they are NOT professionals) will find a way to cheat. They always do as a ref friend of mine says

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