Should Football Have Rolling Substitutions?

football substitution illustrationPerhaps a question that you may have wondered why you haven’t thought of it until seeing it here; this is one that actually might warrant thinking about.

Substitutions have for a long time been a widely debated topic in football, having many different variables associated with them. For many years, this was capped at three substitutions per game and in the lower levels of football, it is still the case.

However, following the global pandemic, it was announced that at the higher levels of football, this would be increased to five, allowing clubs to also have more players (nine) listed on the bench.

Seemingly, this has been a success, with this having many benefits to not only clubs, but also players – giving more of the squad a greater chance of being involved in a game and therefore, helping to satisfy their participation expectations.

Originally brought into the game as more of a precautionary measure, when the football season resumed in May 2020 following a two month lockdown, the idea was that this would help to combat the effects of fatigue in players after such a long time without any conditioned physical activity.

This initiative also helped with the soaring temperatures on British shores, as this, in addition to other obvious factors making conditions harder for players.

In the Premier League, this stayed in play until the end of the season and proved to be effective, with many clubs praising the FA for introducing this. It would take another season before this was introduced into law permanently in the Premier League, with clubs voting in favour of five substitutions from the beginning of the 2022/23 season.

It has since proved to be a hit, though there are arguments that it favours bigger clubs with stronger squads, who can afford to name a hundred million pounds worth of substitutions, who are able to change a game quickly. And, five of them.

This has also helped managers with selection headaches. Knowing that they are able to give more of their squad game time, helps to contribute towards the mood within squads and maintain a positive morale – if results go according to plan, that is.

However, could there have been an even better solution, than just increasing the number of substitutions that are allowed?

What Are Rolling Substitutions And What Impact Could They Make?

mo salah being substituted in a liverpool gameOne potentially viable possibility would have been to introduce rolling substitutions to the sport, and it would be interesting to see whether this has ever been considered. Rolling substitutions (or interchanges), are used to good effect in a number of sports; namely rugby league.

What this means, is that teams can bring a player off and then back on again; in rugby this especially makes sense, given the physicality of the sport and the fast-paced nature. Quite often, it is forwards that are used as interchanges, given the fact that they often bear the biggest brunt of the game; usually appearing in 20 minute stints.

In rugby league, which lists 13 players in a starting lineup, four players are required to be named on the bench, with a total of eight interchanges allowed during the 80 minute period of a game.

This has a number of benefits with this model and it has worked well for many years. Especially considering the fact that the rugby league seasons spans from February through to November – enduring what can be sweltering British summer heat, the interchange model does make sense in this sport.

Many US sports also use this model. Basketball (NBA) is one where interchanges are used. While both teams are required to have five players on the court at any one time, each squad is actually made up of 13, with the number of interchanges being unlimited.

It is a sport where this effectively makes sense, based on the intensity of the game. Players have extraordinary fitness levels; constant short sprints from one end of the court to the other, quick footwork and a combination of leaps, twists and rapid movement in general.

Another sport that has unlimited interchanges is ice hockey, with each team having six players on the ice at any one time, with a roster of 20 being named in a match-day squad – again the intensity is at a similar level to basketball and, as a result, the unlimited interchanges rule makes sense.

If rolling substitutions are introduced in football, it would require quite a lot of thinking about, especially from a practical perspective.

How Would Rolling Substitutions Be Implemented In Football?

football substitution iconThere are a number of potential hurdles to jump if this model is ever considered in football. Problems may arise for European competitions if different countries vote against this for their domestic league, which would cause complications.

It would also mean that different governing bodies may have to be involved in the decision-making process, including FIFA and UEFA.

It could also create conflicting opinions between bigger and smaller clubs, who may not have as many players to call upon, due to financial restraints. Certainly, there is a considerable gulf between Premier League clubs and all of the others across Europe, with the former having access to a greater amount of revenue generated by media deals.

There may also be an issue from a logistical standpoint. Firstly, there would have to be a general consensus on how many interchanges are allowed in a football match. While five substitutes is the agreed amount currently, there is an argument that, not only changing these to interchanges but also increasing the number, may disrupt the flow of the game.

In the game, substitutions are allowed when there is a stoppage, at the referee’s discretion, with the fourth official usually communicating with the referee via headset that a team is wanting to make a substitution. However, sometimes a game can run for a long time before a stoppage occurs – especially for possession-based teams that are happy to keep hold of the ball, particularly if they are winning by a significant margin.

This could actually be a tactic that is used to prevent opponents from making interchanges – certainly the Barcelona team of the mid-2000s would have been a classic example of this kind of team; arguably the best football side for decades at keeping hold of the ball for long periods of time (if they felt like it).

A perhaps unrealistic option, to combat this, could be that ‘x’ number of interchanges are allowed every 15 minutes, regardless of the state of play, however, this may cause many unnecessary problems.

As the game gets increasingly faster though (especially in the Premier League), it is easy to understand why rolling substitutions may have a positive impact. Quite often, injuries are caused through fatigue and a congested footballing calendar, without a winter break and allowing a player to come off and then back on again may reduce the impact of the physicality.

Where a problem may occur though, is that if this is implemented there is the fact that a player’s muscles go cold and cause injuries when he does return to the field of play. This could be potentially overcome though. In rugby league, you often see players that have come off on exercise bikes, which allows them to keep themselves warm, just cycling at a steady pace, so as not to exert too much energy.

It would, therefore, not be too much of a problem to implement this, however, there is a limited amount of space in football stadiums, especially in the technical areas and there would have to be a rethink if these exercise bikes are going to be introduced.

Also, there is the fact that a football crowd is different to rugby, with the behaviour of fans often having caused many problems. Stationary players on exercise bikes keeping warm may become a target for opposition supporters, especially for those from different leagues that have a history of crowd trouble – as a result, this may cause problems for European games.

What Is The Likelihood Of This Ever Being Introduced?

football cartoon with question markBecause we have just seen the number of substitutes increased to five for most football competitions, the chances of switching to the interchange model any time soon are perhaps slim.

It would also require a complete overhaul and even a number of think-tanks introduced to analyse how this could work; a substantial expense in itself. There is a reason why the interchange model works in the sports that it is successful in and implementing this in football may cause more trouble than it is actually worth.

Currently, the five substitution model is working and appears to have been a favourable decision; disrupting this after just one season could well create an unwanted backlash and even cause damage to the sport’s reputation.

Apart from in rugby league, this is also very much a US initiative and this may create further disagreement in Europe, with there already being a considerable amount of opposition to the amount of influence that the US is having on football, with an increasing amount of US ownership now in the sport.

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