Playing for Profit: Premier League failed its players by voting against five substitution rule

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Since the coronavirus first brought the world to a halt in March 2020, Europe’s “top-five” soccer leagues have made changes to their rulebooks to accommodate clubs, players and managers. The decision to allow managers to make five substitutions per game as opposed to three has given clubs the flexibility to cope with a heavily condensed schedule. So why did England’s Premier League vote against the “five-sub” rule multiple times this season?

In their return to play last summer, the English Football League and Premier League both voted to allow the “five-sub” rule in England’s top two divisions. Prior to and throughout this season, however, England’s top-flight has axed the idea of allowing five substitutions per game to continue. 

The English Premier League usually kicks its season off in early August, but after last season ended in July instead of May due to the pandemic, the league was forced to delay the start of its current season. Instead of sliding the start date back the full two months to mirror last season’s overage and allow players to rest, the league voted to push the season’s start back just one month. On top of deciding to start the season in September, the league voted to retain its usual final matchday in May. While this decision was likely made in effort to minimize any further disruption to the European soccer calendar caused by the pandemic, it severely neglects the best interests of the league’s most important asset: its players.

While the Premier League wasn’t the only sanctioning body to heavily cut into its players’ offseason, it was the only one to force clubs into making just three substitutions per game despite such an unprecedented spike in injuries to players caused by the lack of rest dating back to last season.

Of Europe’s “top-five” leagues, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga, France’s Ligue 1 and Spain’s La Liga voted to allow the five-subsitute policy to continue this season — with the Premier League as the only exception. 

What’s even more infuriating is the fact that the previously mentioned EFL, which basically sanctions England’s “minor league” professional soccer, voted to allow the “five-sub” rule this season as well. So, to recap, essentially every top European league and even England’s lower divisions voted to allow clubs to continue substituting five players per game as a way to prevent injuries and excessive fatigue. Given the lack of an offseason, the condensed club schedule and the spike in player injuries it seems like the right thing to do.

For an example of the congestion in this season’s schedule, look at the Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur. From Sep. 13 to Mar. 14 last season, Tottenham played 39 matches. This season, that number is up to 46. Tottenham played once every four days on average during this 186-day span, losing almost a full day of rest in between games compared to last season. There was a 57-day span from late November to early January this season where Tottenham played 16 games, averaging just over three days of rest in between games. The increase in physical and mental demand from players has undoubtedly been reflected on the injury sheet as players have gone down with injuries, particularly muscle injuries, at a higher rate than ever before. While it’s impossible for a soccer league to prevent its players from picking up injuries, there are certain situations where I’m sure fans, managers and players would appreciate a little support. This is one of them. Whatever tradition the league is trying to preserve needs to go out of the window, otherwise the league will start to lose quality in its product.  

So if the Premier League and its managers are worried about scaring off investors by manipulating the rule book to allow teams to protect their players from overload, they should think about the bigger picture. The players, specifically stars, are the product. When they don’t play, the league pays, metaphorically.

In the first nine days of the season, injuries were already up 23% from the same period last season, according to Premier Injuries. In the months since, things haven’t really gotten any better, with star after star being lost due to injury. Faces of the league such as Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk, Tottenham’s Son Heung-min and Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero are just some of the countless Premier League players who have missed time this season with muscle injuries. 

Yet here we are, with less than 10 games left in the season, and it looks like the Premier League will get away with unnecessarily risking player fitness. 

But guess what? 

Seasons are wrapping up in Europe’s other top four leagues too. And in England’s lower professional leagues. So while the Premier League was obsessing over maintaining some sort of image or reputation, their competitors were showing them how it’s done, getting through their season on time and without a massive spike in injuries. 

David Ramirez is a junior writing about the intersection of sports and business. He is also a sports editor at the Daily Trojan. His column “Playing for Profit” runs every other Tuesday.