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Two more subs

After the International Football Association Board’s decision last week, leagues can now allow up to five substitutions per game rather than the usual three. We look at some of the potential consequences should leagues implement the new rule.

Which teams would benefit the most?

Squads with the greatest strength in depth are the most obvious beneficiaries. This isn’t defined by how good their bench is in absolute terms (the best teams tend to also have the best benches) but by the relative quality of their substitutes compared to the first team. Using this measure, West Ham come out as the biggest winners in the Premier League from the new rule. The relative strength of their bench vs their first team is comparable to Manchester City’s. While none of their attacking signings have had a standout impact over recent seasons, they have produced a squad with considerably more options off the bench than some of their relegation rivals.

Closer to the top of the table, Wolves, Sheffield United and Leicester are all competing for European spots with the traditional “top six”. Their concentration of talent in the first team has contributed to their success in overcoming resource limitations to compete with teams on far greater budgets. But as a consequence, their benches are some of the weakest in the league relative to their starting eleven, likely giving them a disadvantage in the run-in compared to their richer competitors. Teams that have, by accident or design, spread their resources more widely throughout their squads are the ones who stand to benefit.

Which leagues would be most impacted?

Average squad depth varies across leagues and is generally correlated with revenues: richer leagues have stronger benches relative to their first teams. But looking at the ranking of leagues perhaps also tells us something interesting about how clubs in those leagues allocate their resources. As expected, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Premier League sides have the greatest strength in depth. But sandwiched between those four and Ligue 1, the other “Big Five” league, is the Championship. Perhaps Championship clubs allocate disproportionate resources to their benches during normal times?

There is a steep drop-off in teams’ strength in depth for leagues below a certain level, and often greater inequality between teams within those leagues. In MLS for example, we rate DC United and RBNY’s benches at over 85% of the quality of their starters. By contrast, Chicago Fire, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps have benches that are only ~55-60% of the first team’s quality. The impact of the rule change may be greatest for leagues outside of Europe’s top competitions, where there are fewer resources available for improving bench options.

Would it increase young players playing time?

With more substitute spots available, playing time opportunities could increase for young, fringe players. By assessing the players likely to be in contention for the 4th and 5th substitute spots, we can identify clubs that are particularly likely to give increased minutes to young players while the rule is in place. Towards the top of the Premier League, Manchester United, Wolves, Arsenal and Chelsea all have young players sitting around the 4th-5th slot on their bench: youngsters such as Callum Hudson-Odoi, Morgan Gibbs-White and Mason Greenwood may consequently find minutes easier to accrue when the season restarts.

Given the uncertainty over the timing of the next transfer window and the reduced budgets likely to be available, going into next season with our young players a step further on in their development could be a big advantage over our rivals. And we’ve written before about the misconception that playing younger players necessarily poses a risk to results. Perhaps now is the perfect time to give the kids a chance.

About Sophie Tomlinson

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