The Premier League remains the only major competition in Europe who have not given the green light to five substitutions, in what is a short-sighted view on player welfare.
“It’s a lack of leadership,” “It’s not an advantage, it’s a necessity,” “We don’t protect the players, and that’s why it’s a disaster.”
They are the words recently uttered by Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola in regards to the issue of player wellbeing at a time when demands have never been higher during an unforgiving and relentless schedule.
In the knowledge that a condensed season was on the horizon with the same number of games squeezed in, FIFA extended the rule for all major competitions to allow for extra substitutes which was first introduced after the return from lockdown.
Its continuation was sanctioned by every major topflight league in Europe except the Premier League, with a majority vote twice turning its back on increasing the substitutes from three to five.
The argument against its reintroduction largely comes from clubs who fear those at the top will benefit from their strength in depth by calling on a greater number of higher-quality players.
While one can see where the foundations of this point of view have emerged from, it is a short-sighted one which fails to address the long-term issues of player welfare – which is relevant to every club, whether you are flying at the top of the table or cemented at the bottom.
The EFL led the way in showing that the decision to forge ahead with just three can be flipped on its head after the board agreed to increase the number of substitutes to five during the international break.
And now the pressure will be on the Premier League to follow suit as injuries continue to mount and players are pushed into the red zone – jeopardising their career both short and long-term.
Further discussions are expected to take place over the coming month before the second half of the season but at this juncture, the Premier League is on its own island and is at odds with every other league.
As Guardiola aptly said after the draw with Liverpool last time out, “here we believe we are more special people” and a degree of introspection is required, something which doesn’t come naturally in England’s topflight.
And it’s far from a Liverpool thing. The Reds are just one team on the end of a growing list of injuries and with players heading into the red zone, and it would be remiss to think it is a short-term issue where it should simply be a case of sucking it up and pushing on.
It is what players will have to do out of necessity as those at the top made it so, but one cannot forget this season is not like any another, with fixtures now to be played out every weekend and midweek until January.
Then when you consider international fixtures already undertaken and those yet to come, in addition to summer tournaments, a plethora of players will continue until July before another season starts again soon after.
It is no secret that if a player does not adequately recover from both training and competitive fixtures, they are at an increased risk of stress, overtraining, burnout and ultimately injury.
And as per premierinjuries.com, there have already been 103 muscle injuries in the Premier League after just eight rounds of games, and while physios and medical departments are undoubtedly working overtime, the reintroduction of five substitutes is one which could ease the load on players.
While Aston Villa manager Dean Smith offered a short-term view on the issue having recently stated that: “At the moment, I’m not seeing any trends from my players that suggest player welfare is an issue,” momentum is building in favour of the rule from topflight managers.
According to the Times, 15 Premier League managers threw their support behind giving five substitutes the green light for the second half of the season, with several changing their stance from earlier in the season as shouts to protect players grow louder by the day.
Injuries do not discriminate and turning ones back on protecting one’s own players in fear of those at the top or for financial reasons is horribly short-sighted and neglects the needs of their own players.
There is undoubtedly self-interest at play and while it shouldn’t come as a surprise given the contempt fans, the lifeblood of the sport, are often treated with, players can no longer act as the pawns in their game.
Research has shown higher muscle injury rates are found in games with a reduced recovery time (less than four days) than those with more than six, and the compound nature of increased playing time over a player’s career has the potential to lead to early retirement.
It begs the question of how this even remains a debate.
While you can rightly point to the likes of Klopp and Guardiola not using all substitutions available to them both domestically and in Europe to date, there must be at least the option to rotate as a manager sees fit as five provides greater flexibility to account for injuries late in the game, or even for disciplinary reasons.
It can only take one injury to derail the greater plan, as Liverpool saw with Virgil van Dijk, and players can no longer afford for their club hierarchy to look at the issue beyond their own four walls.
Klopp’s words couldn’t be more apt for the situation the Premier League finds itself in:
“It’s only about player welfare, nothing else, but I don’t know why we have to discuss it at all and not everybody says yes of course.
“It is not about having advantages, it is about player welfare and about having the highest quality in the games for all teams.”