Having the opportunity to make substitutions seems natural in soccer, and it’s a vital part of the modern game.
However, the current rule that allows you to take as many as three players off and replace them (or even four, under certain circumstances) was not always part of the sport.
In fact, for a long time, soccer teams had to rely on the same players that started the game to finish it. As you could imagine, adding the substitutions rule was one of the most influential changes in the history of the sport.
If you don’t believe that, simply check my post on the most amazing substitutions in soccer history and tell me again how subs don’t matter.
This is why I decided to take a closer look at the timeline of this rule and see its impact on the game of soccer.
More About the Subs Rule Over the Years
Let’s take a closer look at the way the substitutions rule was born and what happened next.
The Dark Times
Many will be shocked, but the substitutions during the course of the game were not included in the first soccer rules, and this remained the case until 1958!
Before that, each team was supposed to provide three substitute players for each game.
However, the idea behind that was to replace players who failed to start the matches for some reason – for example, if someone arrived late or got injured immediately before the kick-off.
Once the match started, the same players would have to continue.
As you could imagine, soccer was very different because of that. Coaches couldn’t make tactical switches by changing personnel and adding fresh legs.
On top of that, if one of the players was fatigued or injured during the match and couldn’t continue, teams simply had to play with fewer men. It was tough back then, and a change in the rules was inevitable.
Introducing Subs in 1958
It was obvious that requiring the same 22 people that started the games to finish them wasn’t working. Too often, you would see an injury ruin a certain soccer match because the teams simply had no option to replace the player who couldn’t continue.
This is how a new rule was born. The coaches now had the chance to take one player off and let someone else take his place on the pitch. On top of that, if the goalkeeper got injured, the team received the opportunity to make a second sub.
Obviously, this was a huge step for the development of soccer, and it changed the game completely.
It took a while for the rule to be adopted in all important competitions. For example, the World Cup finals didn’t allow replacements during the games until 1970.
And yet, this new approach was clearly working. Most coaches were careful and mostly kept the sub option for injuries, but some started adopting a more tactical approach. They would change the personnel to try and inject some fresh ideas into their teams.
Still, having only one sub was limited and didn’t allow much freedom. The preparation before the matches remained the main factor for success, and it was hard to impact the result with only one substitution.
The success of the rule was clear. This is the main reason for what happened next.
More and More Subs!
In the next couple of decades, the number of substitutions allowed during the match was increased a couple of times. The governing bodies of soccer, the clubs, the players, and the fans all believed this was a widely positive change for the game.
A second sub was added in 1988, the rule was changed to 2 + 1 for an injured goalie, and to 3 in 1995. As you could imagine, every time that happened, it gave more freedom to the coaches to influence the game while it’s being played.
Right now, each team has the right to substitute three players during the game. As of 2018, the number goes up to four in FIFA tournaments, under the condition that the match has reached extra time.
There are a couple of rules related to this soccer law. For a start, a substitution can be performed only during a stoppage in play. The assistant referee should notify the main official when one is requested.
He then gives his permission for the replacement to happen. The substituted player leaves the pitch, while the new one enters it.
If you want to check all the details, feel free to take a look at the official FIFA website page dedicated to the substitution rule and the number of players in general.
Also, I would like to clarify one more thing. The officials usually stop their clocks when a sub is performed, so the true playing time is not affected. Most of the time, a substitution equals about 30 seconds of extra time given afterward.
This is one of the main reasons the extra time of the second half is much longer on average compared to the first 45 minutes. There simply are way more subs performed after the interval.
What Did the Subs Rule Bring to Soccer?
It would be an understatement to say that the substitute rule changed soccer for good. It’s among the laws of the game that have influenced everyone involved, from the presidents of the clubs to the managers and the players.
Let’s take a look at the different aspects of the sport that were impacted by the subs rule.
Dealing with Injuries
Before the substitutions were allowed in the game, every injury was a devastating blow to the team. It would mean that they basically had to play with a man down for the rest of the game. Just imagine if that happened early on or if they had more than one injured player.
A lot of games became uncompetitive for that reason. On top of that, the rule benefited dirty teams who would go out and deliberately commit dangerous tackles.
If you consider how soft the refereeing was back then compared to now, it led to ugly scenes way too often.
This is why the initial goal of the new rule was to change that for good and even the playing field. Having only one sub wasn’t completely enough, but it was a substantial step in this direction.
The next couple of times the number of allowed subs was raised was more than enough. I think we are at a great place nowadays, and we almost never see teams go down to fewer players because of injuries. Of course, it does happen every now and then, but it’s rare enough and only late in the games.
The modern soccer is so intense and demanding physically that the subs are a must. Rotating your players, keeping them fresh, and replacing them in a timely manner certainly affects their long-term health.
Sure, it’s another variable in the already complicated life of the coaches, but nowadays, most clubs have an army of assistant coaches, nutritionists, physios, and so on.
This is why the substitute rule certainly improved the game of soccer, but this was only the beginning. I think it added much more.
Before the subs were introduced in soccer, the tactical decisions made by the coaches were limited mostly to the preparation for the match. Getting to know the opposition and picking the best team to exploit the weaknesses was crucial for the win.
If a coach made too many mistakes, it was almost impossible to correct them once the game started. Sure, you could try switching positions or instructing your players to try something different. However, the coaches were limited to the personnel that was already on the pitch.
When you can actually send in some new players, you have a completely different tool at your disposal.
Substitutions allow every coach the opportunity to play with the system, style, and shape of his team. Even replacing one player could bring a major difference, and the opportunities when you can do it with three are simply endless.
We’ve seen it time and time again. The best coaches out there often are capable of completely turning the fortune of their team with a single substitution in the right moment.
It is interesting how some managers are known for the fact that most of their subs are prepared before the game and don’t change. A good example is Arsene Wenger, who was often accused of not being capable of reacting to how the matches are unfolding.
If you take a look at this interview with the Frenchman, you will see the logic behind this approach. Other coaches have a completely different style and are relying on a hunch when making a sub. Either way, the rule provides a lot of flexibility and an exceptional tool to work with.
I think this is the biggest positive from the introduction of this soccer law. It makes the game more flexible and exciting for the public as well. The dramatic twists and turns are so important, and the subs are a direct way to force them without twisting the balance of the game too much.
I should also mention a strange phenomenon. There are players who have the reputation of a super sub and often score more goals from the bench. The likes of Olivier Giroud in his Arsenal years, Javier Hernandez, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (both at Manchester United) are the perfect examples.
Each of them has proven his value by scoring a ton of goals as a sub but somehow failed to convince they are consistent enough to start for a top team each week.
Of course, few things in life are entirely positive. Almost everything has something negative as well, and I feel that’s the case with the subs rule, too. While I love it and I feel that it brings so much to the game of soccer, there’s a certain aspect that bothers me.
Too many coaches and teams use it in an attempt to break the rhythm of the opponent and even waste time.
You will often see subs in the last 10-15 minutes of the games when one of the teams is trying to hold onto its lead.
The players usually slowly walk away, and instead of witnessing a breath-taking finale of intensive attacks, you have to wait for them. And sometimes, the officials make it worse. They are too patient with the slow tempo of the substitution or simply don’t add enough time to make up for that.
Still, it’s not that big of a deal, and many people actually believe this is a legit and exciting tactical use of the subs rule, so it might be just me when it comes to this one. I can’t help but think it slows the games down in the moments that are supposed to be the most exciting.
The only thing close to a solution is better officiating. The referees are given the right to ask the substituted player to leave the pitch from a side that would take less time.
If they exercise this more often and do their job when it comes to the added time, we could see an improvement with this problem.
What to Expect from the Future
I mentioned a couple of times that I like the current subs rule, and I feel it is fairly balanced. The recently added fourth sub for the extra time of FIFA tournaments doesn’t change that, either. The law serves the needs of soccer well for the time being.
However, I am a bit worried that the likes of UEFA and FIFA might go too far at some point. If you look at it, they keep adding an extra sub every decade or so. If this trend continues, we could very well see four or even five subs in the near future.
This could potentially break the balance of the sport, so I hope the leading organizations don’t go in this direction. It would be a step too far and could lead to various troubles.
And still, the game is constantly changing and evolving. Probably, the time will come when more subs are necessary and actually a good idea. I simply don’t think it will happen soon.
I sometimes wonder how on Earth subs got introduced as late as 1958. The solution seems so obvious and beneficial for the development of the sport, and yet, the teams somehow played for more than 60 years without the option to replace some of the players.
What do you think about the subs rule? Has it gone too far, or is it balanced right now? I would love to see your opinion in the comments below.
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