Whether we like it or not, the Premier League has finally decided to catch up with the rest of Europe and permit five substitutions to be made during matches, starting from next season. The rule had been brought in for Project Restart (the league’s completion of the 2019-20 season after the COVID-19 induced hiatus) but for the past two seasons, the league has reverted back to the traditional three substitutes.
Many competitions, however, did not return to the old ways. The other four members of the “Big Five European Leagues” (La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A, and Ligue 1) all decided to keep with five substitutes, whilst European cup competitions and even the F.A. Cup also did the same.
From One to Five in 33 years
A look back at the history of substitutions makes the change feel like a natural progression (which is slightly worrying as by this logic we will be having roll-on-roll-off NFL-style subs by 2050!). It was not until 1995 that three substitutes were allowed; a number that had been increased to two just seven years earlier. In fact, substitutions only became a thing in 1958 – 28 years after the inaugural World Cup and 70 (!) years after the first domestic league had been born.
The change may end up a good one (fresher players, better football) or a bad one (increased disparity between the have’s and have not’s), but what really matters is how all of this impacts our beautiful game of Draft Fantasy Football. And that’s what I’m here to tell you!
The general consensus is that more substitutions will lead to more frustration as many fantasy assets will see their minutes reduced. That part is inevitable – you don’t need a deep dive into analytics to predict that. But what we can do is to compare our current (and future) crop of Premier League managers and have a guess at who is more or less likely to take advantage of the new rule. So that’s what I did.
As mentioned, we have a small sample of Project Restart Premier League matches, European matches since 2020-21, and F.A. Cup matches since 2020-21 from which to form an idea about a manager’s substitution strategies. Of course, many caveats apply here – most notably, the meaningfulness of the game and moment in the game – but the data should still be able to give us a small glimpse of what might happen next season.
We’re going to take a look at 10 managers in total: those of the “big six” (with Erik ten Hag representing Manchester United), and the only other four managers in the league that were at the helm of their club back in Project Restart: Leicester’s Brendan Rodgers, West Ham’s David Moyes, Brighton’s Graham Potter, and Southampton’s Ralph Hasenhuttl. The analysis will cover the number of substitutions made during the eligible games, as well as the timing of these substitutes. Substitutions made during extra-time of competitions are not included, whilst substitutions made during the first half of matches are not included when analysing the timing of the substitutes (because the majority will be injury-enforced as opposed to managerial choice). So with all that in mind, let’s go through each one, and we’ll do so in order of fantasy frustration, from least to most.
Fantasy Frustration with 5 Substitutions...
10. Ralph Hasenhuttl (Southampton)
The introduction of five substitutes shouldn’t bring too much frustration to those rostering Southampton players. That said, the only real “must have” Saint at the moment is the nailed on, 90-minute James Ward-Prowse, so the relevance of Hasenhuttl’s reluctance to substitute may not be that high anyway. In 18 games (9 Premier League, 9 F.A. Cup), the Austrian manager made five substitutions just five times (27.8%, second lowest behind Brendan Rodgers). Even this is a misleadingly high number though, as the timing of subs were the 88th minute, 90th, 90th, 90th, and 92nd – essentially negligible changes. In fact, 45% of all substitutions made by Hasenhuttl in these 18 games came in the 80th minute or later. Rarely making a substitution, and when he does, doing it very late in the game – this won’t be too frustrating for fantasy managers. Feel free to keep Che Adams and Nathan Redmond on your draft board (in the final few rounds of course).
9. David Moyes (West Ham United)
Next up we have West Ham’s David Moyes, who in 25 games (9 Premier League, 6 F.A Cup, 10 European competition) made three or fewer substitutes 60% of the time – 10% higher than the next most, Hasenhuttl. In fact, Moyes, Pep Guardiola, and Thomas Tuchel are the only managers to have made just a single substitute under the new rules, with Moyes doing so twice in recent Europa League knockout matches. His unwillingness to embrace the additional changes was even more profound in the Premier League games, where this number rises to 78%. Relatively good news, then, for those wishing to roster Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornals. The pair have a habit of seeing their numbers appear on the substitutes board (Benrahma has only completed 90 minutes in 17% of his starts!) and whilst that is no doubt frustrating for managers, the new changes probably won’t increase the annoyance. Star man Jarrod Bowen (6th highest scoring fantasy player in the league, as of this writing, but subbed off 12 times in 29 starts) should remain a second rounder.
8. Brendan Rodgers (Leicester City)
Brendan Rodgers has frustrated fantasy managers this season, but that has largely been because of the regularly changing starting elevens forced upon him by Leicester’s league leading injury problems. In a more normal season, we should expect the managers in-game substitution strategy to be one of the more conservative in the league, easing the concerns of those eager to draft the likes of James Maddison and Harvey Barnes. In fact, in our sample of 37 games (9 Premier League, 8 F.A. Cup, 20 European competition), Rodgers utilised all five substitutes on the fewest occasions amongst our ten managers (27% of the time), though he sits middle-of-the-pack for games in which three subs or fewer were used (37.8%). Where the Northern Irishman is less cautious is in the timing of his changes. Only Jurgen Klopp (58 minutes), makes his first substitute earlier than Rodgers (60 minutes), and only Graham Potter (63 minutes) makes his second substitute earlier (Rodgers, 64 minutes). These numbers are supported by Premier League data taken this season, as FBRef reports that Leicester’s substitutes play 23 minutes on average, tied for third most in the league behind Leeds and Watford. Overall, though, not too frustrating.
7. Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea)
Thomas Tuchel arrived at Chelsea in January 2021, so we don’t have Project Restart data for the manager. Thanks to strong showings in the F.A. Cup (8 matches) and Europe (17 matches), though, we do still have a decent sample size from which to work with. Similar to Rodgers, Tuchel’s substitution strategy is far less frustrating than his initial selection strategy (though unlike Rodgers, Tuchel’s selections tend to be from choice as opposed to enforced because of injuries). He made all five substitutions in just 36% of games (6th highest) and made three or fewer substitutions in 28% of games (4th lowest). He’s slightly on the cautious side for when the first substitution is made (63rd minute – tied for third latest), meaning that overall, Tuchel probably won’t be too frustrating when the new rule is implemented next season. That said, the lack of Project Restart data doesn’t help our confidence here, particularly as managers tend to be more aggressive with their substitutions in the league.
6. Pep Guardiola (Manchester City)
Things that 2021-22 has debunked: KDB is finished, Trent can’t defend, Pep Roulette exists. Guardiola’s team selections are no longer the source of anxiety and frustration for fantasy managers – and his substitution strategy next season likely won’t be either. The Manchester City manager made three substitutions or fewer in 45.2% of games – third highest behind Moyes and Hasenhuttl. In fact, across all our managers, there were only eight instances in which just one substitute was made, and Guardiola accounts for five of those. Admittedly, they were all Champions League matches, but still, Pep is definitely a reluctant user of his bench and data from the Premier League this season also backs this up. No team averages more minutes per starting player than City’s 87 and the sky blues have made the fewest subs in the league by far (61 in total, with the next fewest being Burnley at 74). Even City’s most subbed-off players spend a long time on the pitch, with Kevin De Bruyne (completes 90 minutes in 63% of starts), Phil Foden (65%), Gabriel Jesus (56%), and Jack Grealish (61%) averaging at least 83 minutes per start. Let others believe the false narrative that the new substitution rule will dent the fantasy value of City players – it ain’t happening.
5. Erik ten Hag (Manchester United)
Into the top five for frustration, and we have incoming Manchester United manager, Erik ten Hag. Now, of course, ten Hag was not in the Premier League during Project Restart, but his time at Ajax might still tell us something about his substitution strategy. The Dutch side played 20 matches in Europe over the last two seasons and so far this season have played 29 times in the Eredivisie, which also utilises a five-substitute system. From these 49 games we see that ten Hag used all five substitutions 38.8% of the time (5th highest) and three subs or fewer 36.7% of the time (5th most). Perhaps not surprisingly, he was slightly more cautious in Europe than in the Eredivisie (five subs 41% of the time vs 35% of the time and the timing of the third sub in the 80th minute vs the 75th minute). Thus, it would be remis not to mention the elephant in the room here: managing Manchester United in the Premier League is going to be a slightly different beast to managing Ajax in the Eredivisie. Nevertheless, there may still be some clues to be found with this data.
4. Antonio Conte (Tottenham Hotspur)
Like with ten Hag, we’re going to cheat a little here and take a look at Conte’s numbers in another European league, namely Serie A when he was in charge of Inter Milan. Across this competition (38 games), European competition with Inter (6 games), European competition with Tottenham (2 games), and the F.A. Cup with Tottenham (3 games), we have a mixed but sizeable sample. Conte is not afraid to make substitutions. He used all five substitutions in 59.2% of games – third highest amongst our group of managers. But whilst he may be open to change, he doesn’t exactly do it quickly. His first substitution is made, on average, in the 63rd minute (tied for third latest) and his second substitute is in the 70th minute (tied for second latest). With a summer transfer window in which to build his own squad (and therefore have options on the bench that he actually wants to play), it may be that these numbers are on the low side of what we should expect from the Italian next season. As such, Conte finds himself 4th in our frustration rating list.
3. Mikel Arteta (Arsenal)
Taking bronze medal for fantasy frustration is Mikel Arteta, and no, that’s not because he’s currently forcing managers to seriously consider picking up Eddie Nketiah. In 10 Premier League games and 14 Europa League games he made at least four substitutions in every single game. The reason his numbers look lower in our five subs graph from earlier is because these also include the three F.A. Cup matches in which Arteta made just three substitutions – ignore those and that 48.2% would rise to 54.2%. He also tends to pull the trigger fairly early – at least with his first substitution, doing so at the 60 minute mark on average. These numbers do, however, slightly contradict data from the league this season, in that Arsenal have made the sixth fewest substitutions (86) and give the second fewest minutes to those players (17), though this could be exactly what the present analysis shows: Arteta’s different strategies when afforded more substitutions. With a squad growing in experience and, presumably, more to his liking, Arteta and Arsenal could well frustrate fantasy managers next season.
2. Graham Potter (Brighton & Hove Albion)
Graham Potter, frustrating? Surely not. Admittedly, we have just 14 games from which to base this on (9 in the Premier League, 5 in the F.A. Cup) but the fact that the data is backing up general perceptions about Potter feels right. The Brighton manager made all five substitutes in nine of the 10 Project Restart games and the only one in which he didn’t was the match against champions Liverpool in which they were just 2-1 down heading into the final 15 minutes (they eventually lost 3-1 – still a rather respectable score line against such opposition). Overall, Potter used five substitutes in 64.3% of matches (2nd most) and three substitutes or fewer in 7.1% of matches (1st least), but it may be the average minutes of the substitutes that will lead to most frustration. Brighton made their third substitute, on average, in the 68th minute. Compare this to Southampton’s 81 minutes and West Ham’s 78 minutes, and you see the size of the difference. Those tempted to draft Pascal Gross – and you should be tempted – should take note: his 79 minutes per start average is likely to come down even lower next season*.
*Yes, you can make the argument that his 33% substituted on rate and 19 minute average appearance from the bench will increase, and therefore you can start him if he’s not in the eleven…but that’s just crazy talk in my opinion!
1. Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool)
Liverpool leading the way, as it always seems to be these days. This time, though, it’s in terms of potential fantasy frustration when the five substitutions rule is brought in next season. If Klopp’s 35 games with the rule (9 in the Premier League, 6 in the F.A. Cup, 20 in the Champions League) have shown us one thing, it’s that he’s going to freshen things up, and he’s going to do it quickly. The German made all five substitutions in a massive 71.4% of games – most in the league by some distance – and used three subs or fewer in just 17.2% of games. What’s more, his first substitution came, on average, on the 58th minute – eight minutes earlier than Hasenhuttl’s first substitution. If Liverpool’s frightening front five stay in-tact heading into next season, the frustration for fantasy managers is going to be phenomenal. Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino rarely see out a game as it is (7 from 22 for the former and 3 from 9 for the latter) and we’d expect this to get worse with five substitutions now allowed. Fantasy grievances will be particularly high with these two and Salah/Mane/Diaz because generally speaking, managers make more changes when their teams are cruising in matches – so if/when Liverpool are 4-0 up against Fulham with 30 minutes still to play, be prepared to see your player’s number come up on that board, and your chances of him filling his boots as Liverpool bag numbers 5, 6, and 7 quickly disappear. Does that make Salah no longer the #1 pick next season? No, but it may warrant knocking the other four down a few spots.
It’ll be interesting to see how the new rule plays out, both in “the real world” and in draft fantasy. I’m of the opinion that you never start someone in fantasy who isn’t starting in real life, but this change has to nudge the needle marginally in favour of that risky strategy. If/when the likes of Salah and Mane are rested, the likelihood of them coming on, and for a good chunk of the game, will increase, and we’ve seen before what 30 minutes of Salah can do. Overall, though, the impact is likely to be smaller than what general perception is suggesting – especially for some teams/managers. It’s possible that the likes of Bowen, Benrahma, Barnes, and Maddison fall a little in the draft with people worried about their game time – but readers of this should now know that this concern is probably no greater than during the current season. There are always potential advantages to be found when a new rule is introduced, and this one is no different. Hopefully the data we’ve looked at today gives you a head start on finding that advantage before your league rivals do.
For all the latest from The Inner Geek, follow @the_innergeek on Twitter!
And for more in-depth and exclusive resources, become a member of The Inner Circle.