Is the Premier League prepared to adopt a substitution revolution?

As a manager in the Premier League, José Mourinho had a diverse range of personas. He could be likened to a chameleon, constantly changing from lively to argumentative.

In 2015, Chelsea achieved a Premier League title victory that resembled a redemption arc for Tom Wambsgans. However, from 2004 to 2007, Chelsea and Mourinho displayed a similar energy to that of Logan Roy’s lead character. Each game was filled with Mourinho’s signature razzmatazz, for better or for worse. It’s no surprise that when Chelsea suffered a loss to Fulham on March 20, 2006 – the first in 27 years – Mourinho continued to dominate the headlines.

The match ended in a close 1-0 victory, marking a significant change. Near the end, William Gallas was sent off and gave a mild thumbs down to Fulham supporters. This led to a pitch invasion by home fans, which provoked a response from away fans and required intervention from the on-field police.

However, Mourinho’s substitutions were the main focus. In the 26th minute, he replaced Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips with Damian Duff and Didier Drogba, who both seemed hesitant as they offered a hand to their angry teammates leaving the field. Mourinho continued to make changes, taking out Robert Huth for fellow center-back Ricardo Carvalho during half-time.

This was a bold move, even for Mourinho. It was risky, especially considering the possibility of his team suffering another injury and being down a player. He was taking a chance with team spirit and potential player dissatisfaction; he made it clear to everyone that there were members of his squad whom he did not fully rely on.

There is still a stigma surrounding early substitutions, despite the passing of time. When Erik ten Hag replaced Sofyan Amrabat during half-time in Sunday’s Manchester derby, there was immediate discussion about a lack of team identity and the manager’s lack of trust in players, rather than considering it as a tactical decision that did not work out.

When coaches refer to changes as tactical, some may doubt their effectiveness. While tactics play a role, what is the underlying motive? It’s possible that equipping journalists with lie detection abilities or allowing them to act like morning TV talk show hosts could be the future of soccer entertainment.

Up until now in this season, there have been 47 instances where players were substituted during half-time in Premier League games, which is an increase of 17 compared to last season’s 30. Most of these substitutions can be categorized as tactical, but what exactly does that entail?

Substitutions are not causing a significant amount of changes in formations. They are frequently one-to-one replacements. Out of the 47 substitutions, only four have been made by teams in a winning position. Additionally, there have been substitutions due to red cards, like when Ashley Young was sent off in the 37th minute of the recent Merseyside derby.

The implementation of five replacements has played a significant role in the rise. It’s important to mention that substitutions made during half-time do not count towards the limit, meaning that a team manager can still make substitutions at three other times during a match, as long as the total number does not exceed five.

It is common for changes to occur around the one-hour mark, which is typically when a manager has the freedom to make decisions as they see fit. Players have been given a pep talk during half-time and instructions are reiterated. They have 15 minutes to demonstrate that they understand what is expected of them.

The idea of using fresh players in football has been around for a long time. However, the increased demands on players have led to teams making substitutions earlier. In the past, Chris Wilder dismissed the idea of mental and physical demands affecting players, calling it “nonsense” when discussing the possibility of having two additional substitutes. He believed that this would not benefit his team, especially when compared to larger clubs with bigger squads and better options. Instead, Wilder preferred to minimize the chances of making mistakes by sticking with his original starting lineup and making a few small adjustments. Unlike Pep Guardiola, who has been able to call upon players like Jérémy Doku, Mateo Kovacic, Julián Álvarez, Jack Grealish, and Matheus Nunes this season, Wilder did not have these luxury options available to him.

However, the increase in the number of substitutes is not as significant as Wilder had predicted. In the current season, there is almost an equal number of players being exchanged between top and bottom-half clubs during the break. Brighton has the highest with six, while Burnley, Wolves, and Arsenal have all made five swaps.

The sport of football continues to prioritize the idea of ranking players based on their skills. A player in the Premier League may already be considered at fault before even playing if they are not deemed as skilled as the player they are replacing.

Jürgen Klopp hugs Diogo Jota as he leaves the pitch during Sunday’s game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest

We are far from implementing a transatlantic approach in this matter. Sports leagues such as the NFL and NBA have a more inclusive approach to using their teams, where concepts like substitution patterns and complete unit changes are more widely accepted.

Ignore newsletter advertisement

If there is any argument, it could be said that it would be more logical for teams at the bottom of the league to utilize the strategy of making changes during half-time even more. When playing at stadiums like the Etihad or Emirates where they have little possession and are constantly being moved around and required to make sprints and recovery runs, does it truly make a difference who is playing in a specific position, such as right wing-back? Wouldn’t it be more important to have players with strong endurance and energy levels? Shouldn’t the focus be on having someone who can maintain high levels of concentration rather than someone who is more skilled with the ball?

In their match against Liverpool at Anfield last Sunday, Nottingham Forest had 160 additional ball pressures compared to the home side who had 72.6% possession. This demonstrates how Forest has strategically expanded their team in order to achieve their goals. Coach Steve Cooper prioritizes having a diverse array of players and regularly rotates them to ensure optimal performance.

There has been an increase in this trend beyond the Premier League. English teams competing in Europe have been utilizing rotation and making changes, regardless of the score. This is part of their strategy to manage their players and successfully handle the demands of their busy schedule.

The focus of the game is often on surviving the next attack, maintaining team structure, and advancing gameplay in short intervals of five minutes. While we are committed to the traditional format of two 45-minute halves, it may not be unreasonable to consider a new approach that utilizes different personnel strategies. Is it possible that the future of the game involves planning and strategizing for three thirds, with half-time breaks at the 30- and 60-minute marks? This could potentially address concerns about player well-being and exhaustion. Some may argue that it goes against the essence of competition, but this is not an issue in other team sports globally.

Soccer players continue to play a crucial role in driving cultural changes. The case of Mourinho is an extreme one. Players are delicate assets and tend to interpret being substituted before the 89th minute as a subtle form of criticism or a sign that they are not up to par. It is a common sight to see television broadcasts focusing on players who have been taken off, often accompanied by a slight shaking of the head as if to convey the message that they could have continued playing.

Overall, the football community tends to overlook the fact that those who are given the opportunity to start a game have a significant impact on its result. Starting a game is more than just being assigned a role at the beginning rather than in the middle or end.

We are gradually moving towards the idea of implementing and embracing a triple half-time switch as a deliberate strategy to have players run for 90 minutes in just 45. This is a technique that is poised to develop in a field that constantly seeks to improve even by the slightest amount.

Perhaps in the future, we will reflect on Mourinho at Fulham and see him as a visionary, a trailblazer who was ahead of his time. Or, it’s possible that he was simply angry and took action as a result.

The replacements have been altered since then, but mostly still adhere to an outdated belief system.