While star players and influential managers are so often the difference makers in the Premier League, success is always a team effort. In the modern game, having a good squad of players, rather than just the same XI week in and week out, is essential. The reason for this is multi-varied, but with more games than ever before, and therefore more injuries, managers need deep squads that they can implicitly rely on.
But how many players do most Premier League clubs use throughout an average campaign, and is there a magic number for success? After all, squads that are too bloated often become fractured, as many first-teamers won’t be given much – if any playing time. Here, we attempt to answer these questions, as well as compare how trends have changed through the ages.
Why Teams Need Big Squads
As was outlined in the introduction, the demands of the modern football calendar necessitate ever bigger squads. In England alone, top-flight clubs could be playing in as many as seven different competitions per season, with European tournaments being both a blessing and a curse for the most successful. For instance, last season, Liverpool played 63 matches in all competitions, as Jurgen Klopp’s men reached the final of the FA Cup, Champions League and the Carabao Cup.
Achieving this feat would have been near impossible with just 18 or so players, mainly due to injuries and fatigue. The relentless schedule saw Liverpool playing on average every three days, giving star players like Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk very little time to recover. Therefore, other players had to step up when called upon – players who generally don’t feature regularly for the club.
In the two domestic cup competitions, fringe players like Takumi Minamino and Divock Origi were vitally important to Liverpool’s eventual triumphs, showing the value of big squads in terms of challenging for multiple honours. The need for this is naturally exacerbated by the busier international calendar. New competitions like the UEFA Nations League mean that players often don’t get the breaks they need when club football comes to a halt, much to the frustration of Premier League managers. The solution is to have adequate replacements who can come in for a game or two when regular starters are overexerted – hence the need for bigger squads on the whole.
Which Teams Used The Most Players 2021/22 Season?
When assessing how many players each club used in the 2021/22 Premier League season, it’s interesting to note how broadly similar the numbers are up and down the division. Historically, a top-flight club wouldn’t exceed more than 18 or so players throughout a campaign, with a core XI of first-team starters and subs to come in when required. However, the demands of the modern game have seen that number balloon over time. In the Premier League, clubs must now register 25 players for the upcoming campaign, a rule which was introduced to try and prevent the league’s bigger clubs from hoovering up too much talent – and thus having a bloated squad.
As you can see from the table below, this now means that most teams end up using around 25 or so players in a Premier League season, with some clubs using a few more on account of the homegrown rule (which allows footballers who are under 21 and from the club’s academy system to play without having to be registered before the season).
Number Of Players Used By Each Club In The 2021/22 Premier League Season:
|Brighton & Hove Albion||2||26|
|West Ham United||1||25|
In the 21/22 season, just under half of Premier League clubs used 26 players or less, while only three used more than 30. They were Everton (33), Aston Villa (30) and Watford (29), all of whom ended up struggling and finishing in the bottom third of the table. What this speaks to, from the outside looking in, is the desperation of all three clubs to try and turn things around, chiefly by testing out different players and systems. In the case of all three, a change in manager also appears to be the reason for the high number of players used, as Everton, Villa, and Watford were all very active in the January transfer market.
Conversely, the exact opposite approach can also lead to poor results in the Premier League – as Burnley recently showed. Last season, Burnley used ten fewer players than Everton, which was the lowest total of any top-flight side. Remarkably, the two sides at the opposite ends of the squad depth scale ended up fighting for Premier League survival heading into the final weeks of the 2021/22 season, with Burnley eventually finishing in the drop zone.
In the case of The Clarets, the main issue appeared to be a severe lack of depth, primarily due to financial constraints. The club has consistently had one of the lowest wage bills in the league, a reality which finally appeared to catch up with them last season. Even the mid-season arrivals of Maxwel Cornet and Wout Weghorst from Lyon and Wolfsburg, respectively, couldn’t stop the rot.
What Is The Premier League Average?
The average number of players used last season across all clubs was 27, which Liverpool and Arsenal both hit exactly, while Premier League champions Manchester City used just 26. For the most part, between 25 and 28 players seems to be ideal when it comes to an EPL squad side.
It means that for every position, you generally have ample cover while still being able to provide opportunities to youngsters from the academy and U23 side.
Squad Sizes Over Time
When looking at squad sizes from the very first Premier League season, Manchester United immediately jumps out, as they used just 20 players that season. The Red Devils would go on to win their first ever EPL title that season, sealing it in style with a 10-point cushion.
Number Of Players Used By Each Club In The 1992/93 Inaugural Premier League Season:
|Milton Keynes Dons||1||28|
|Queens Park Rangers||1||23|
The fact that they did so with just 20 players demonstrates how times have changed in domestic football. For the elite clubs today, the standard number of players used ranges between 25 and 28, with midweek European games allowing some fringe and younger players to get more opportunities in the Premier League. However, that wasn’t an issue for Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man United, as they hadn’t qualified for Europe in the 92/93 season.
The average number per club for the 1992/93 campaign is precisely 25, once again showing why the league agreed upon that as the limit in the years to come. A decade later, in 2002/03, we see how the champions – Man United once again – used 26 players in total. More pertinently, Sunderland, who finished bottom of the league with just 19 points, used more players than any club – at 34.
Did The 25-man Squad Limit Have An Impact?
The EPL’s 25-man squad rule was introduced for the 2010/11 season, but what’s interesting to note is how little it appeared to change things. Thanks to the homegrown rule, West Ham were able to use 35 players on their way to finishing rock bottom in 2011, while six other clubs also reached a total of 30.
At the other end of the scale, Chelsea and Bolton (who finished 2nd and 14th respectively) used just 24 players. Despite what many speculated, the 25-man rule didn’t reduce the number of players a club used. Instead, it merely changed the makeup of a squad. Out went foreign talents who were on the fringes of squads, and in came youngsters from the academy who – in turn – filled up the ‘homegrown’ quota.
How Do Other European Leagues Differ?
|League||Matches / Season||Squad Limit||Homegrown Rule||Most Players Used / Season (21/22)|
|Serie A||38||25||8 Italian players /from club’s academy||Salernitana – 42|
|Ligue 1||38||35||8 French players/from club’s academy||Bordeaux/Saint Etienne – 39|
|La Liga||38||25||8 Spanish players/from club’s academy||Barcelona – 38|
|Bundesliga||34||–||At least 12 German players required||Hertha Berlin – 36|
|Premier League||38||25||Unlimited||Everton – 33|
It’s important to note that variations of the EPL’s homegrown rule, and caps on squad sizes in general, have existed in Europe for decades. Indeed, even in the Champions League, clubs are only able to register 25 players before the first matchday – with three changes permitted at the mid-way point.
While the Bundesliga doesn’t have an exact limit on player numbers, the DFB do specify that at least 12 squad members must be German – in a bid to safeguard the future of the national team. La Liga, meanwhile, has a 25-player limit, as does Serie A, with an additional four homegrown footballers permitted by the latter. But how does this actually play out in reality?
For Germany, where there is no concrete limit placed on squads, this leads to more players being used across the board. In 2021/22, Hertha Berlin used the most at 36, while the fewest was 26 – three more than Burnley in the same season. Champions Bayern Munich, meanwhile, used 30, four more than Man City in the same time period.
In Spain, in spite of the technical ‘limit’ of 25, numerous clubs utilise the homegrown loophole to great effect. This includes Barcelona, who used an incredible 38 players in La Liga in 2021/22, with Valencia and Espanyol using 34 each. In the case of the Catalan club, three different managers and a busy January transfer window explain why the number is so high.
In Serie A, we will see similar effective use of the homegrown rule – only this time from clubs at the wrong end of the table. Salernitana, who avoided relegation by a single point earlier this year, used 42 players throughout the 21/22 Serie A campaign, with Genoa a close second at 40. What this seemingly speaks to most is just how many homegrown players clubs on the continent tend to use in comparison to their Premier League counterparts. Curiously, in the case of Serie A last season, the two title protagonists from Milan both used fewer than 28 players, which gives credence to the theory that there is an ideal squad size to aim for.
What Might Change In The Future?
Over the coming years and decades, it seems highly unlikely that the current trend toward more matches will change. After all, more games mean more revenue for the governing bodies, clubs and players alike. With this in mind, bigger squads are likely here to stay, as the human body can only endure so much punishment.
We’re already seeing in the world of cricket how an intense schedule is forcing players like Ben Stokes to retire from some formats of the game as the demands become too much. Football looks to be heading in the same direction, especially with competitions like the Champions League and World Cup set to be expanded in the coming years.
To this end, it’s in managers’ best interest to keep their squads on the larger side to accommodate the inevitable injuries and bouts of fatigue that will naturally occur during a season. As Liverpool showed last year, having fringe players who can come in and be match winners is essential for any side that wishes to compete on all fronts. Henceforth, the days of 18-player squads look to be well and truly over – as they have been for some time now.
As we’ve shown, Premier League squad sizes can differ massively. While there have been many trend changes since the beginning of the EPL, some truisms remain as valid today as they did 20 years ago. For instance, you seldom see a successful side using 30 players or more in a season, as this is normally reserved for teams that become increasingly desperate for results in trying times.
In addition, we must also recognise how the vast majority of successful sides, whether intentionally so or on accident, tend to use between 26 and 28 players in a Premier League campaign. Too few players and adequate cover cannot be found, too many and the morale of a squad can begin to suffer. There really does seem to be a sweet spot when it comes to squad sizes in the modern era.