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Klopp vs Wilder: How the financial disparity in the Premier League is wrongly influencing the five sub debate.

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While Dubois vs Joyce grabbed the boxing headlines this weekend, the real mouth-watering bout was Klopp vs Wilder. 

So far on my podcast – ‘What The Footie’, the podcast that takes football fans behind the scenes, I have spoken with a Club Doctor and a Sports Scientist at two Premier League clubs both during Project Restart and this season. Unsurprisingly, they were both in favour of the return of the five substitute rule, particularly from a player welfare standpoint; one even advocated for unlimited subs, similarly to Hockey. 

It is now finally time to use the B word. No, not that one. Business. It is time to say that the financial issues within the Premier League have clouded the medically sound decision of reinstating the five-sub rule. 

Bobbing and Weaving From The Issue

For a while in English football, we have had a fixture congestion issue. Managers have moaned about it. Managers have advocated for scrapping the League Cup and FA Cup replays. Some managers have dealt with congestion by writing off games against the mighty Big Six and instead prioritising must-win six pointers. Some have dealt with it (Klopp) by upsetting football purists and fielding youngsters in FA Cup games. 

You would have thought that an unprecedented season, in which a global pandemic led to a three-month pause, an intense restart, a lack of pre-season, two triple header international breaks and weekly rounds of European football, would lead to something different. But instead, we are seeing more injuries and asking the same questions.  

In Episode 12 I asked the question: what is going to give? But the answer is nothing (see Figure 1).  

Rowena Samarasinhe, who helped organise Euro 2008, summed it up superbly: “the issue is World level, European level and national level – everyone [UEFA, FIFA, CAF, the FA, EFL, Premier League & etc.] wants to host their event and have the maximum amount of people watching it and competing in it”. 

Figure 1 from The Athletic – illustrates the number of games an elite player like Harry Kane faces.

Sports Science vs Financial Disparity

Despite overwhelming support from medical experts and FIFPro, the Premier League’s one vote per club rule, whereby at least 14 clubs must vote in favour of a motion, has unsurprisingly been a stumbling block. Instead, opponents of it (managers, shareholders, pundits & etc.) have wrongly used the five substitute rule as a platform to debate the competitive landscape of the league. This is incorrect. This is a separate conversation. That debate is bigger than three vs five subs; it is about wage structures, the distribution of wealth and ultimately financial regulation in the Premier League (coming soon – an episode in January on What The Footie about this). 

Whilst we must celebrate clubs like Burnley, who are an example for EFL clubs chasing Premier League status that you can have a financially sustainable model with a low net spend and still compete, Klopp’s cry for help is not about the Big Six vs everyone else. The notion that the five substitute rule only serves the Big Six is a poorly constructed one backed up with little data.  

Teams like Burnley and Sheffield United need five subs as much – or even more – than the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool (see Figure 2). This weekend City beat Burnley 5-0 without key regulars Raheem Sterling, Aymeric Laporte and Sergio Aguero appearing – the latter two players being two without whom Pep Guardiola has learned to cope.  

Contrast that to Burnley, who started with and whose Premier League status will hinge on keeping chance creator Dwight McNeil, colossal defender James Tarkowski and Chris Wood, their top scorer in the last few seasons, fit and fresh.  

Figure 2

The argument that having five substitutes increases the gulf between the Big Six and the ‘lesser sides’ is again an emotional one consolidated with a lack of data. Figures 3 and 4 show that eight of the teams in the top ten before Project Restart (3 subs) remained in the top ten in the Project Restart table (5 subs).  

Figure 5 shows the current league standings (3 subs) and seven of the teams in the top ten were in the top ten in the Project Restart table (5 subs). Figures 3, 4 and 5 clearly illustrate that a gulf has always existed and will continue to exist, irrespective of three vs five substitutes. Man City beating Burnley on the weekend 5-0 at home for the fourth time in a row further highlights it. They did it with three subs on the weekend and they did it with four in June (all the goals were scored before the 4th sub appeared). 

Figure 3 – League Table without 5 subs before Project Restart
Figure 4 – League Table with 5 subs during Project Restart
Figure 5 – League table with 3 subs as of 30th November 2020 

The idea that Big Six teams can throw five world-beaters on the pitch to change a result is merely a hypothetical one. The Bundesliga use the five sub rule and last weekend world-class superstars Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry came off the bench and failed to help 8-in-a-row juggernauts Bayern Munich change a 1-1 home result against a Werder Bremen side that had scraped avoiding relegation last season. Manchester United did not need five subs to come back from 2-0 down vs an impressive Southampton team; they only needed one game-changing sub in Edison Cavani and two forced by injury.

The Final Punch

Whilst I never thought that I would be defending Klopp’s corner, it is time for opponents of the five substitute rule to realise that their arguments are merely emotional ones clouded by the financial issues within the game. There will be a time to debate those financial issues – but for now, Klopp is leading on the scorecard. 

As football prepares itself for the annual festive fixture pile-up, again, I ask what is going to give?

If, as Rowena perfectly put, “…everyone [UEFA, FIFA, CAF, the FA, EFL, Premier League & etc.] wants to host their event and have the maximum amount of people watching it and competing in it”, then Gareth Southgate better start planning for the Euros without the likes of Kane and Rashford. 

Written by Paul Musa (aka Mr What The Footie) Host @ What The Footie  

https://linktr.ee/whatthefootie

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