Why The New Substitution Rule Will (Unfairly) Help Watford

The EFL has confirmed that for the rest of the 2020/2021 season, teams will be allowed to make up to five substitutions per match. Championship clubs additionally voted to allow nine substitutes to be named in the match-day squad. 

The Premier League is seeing managers go head-to-head on the issue of extra substitutions. The Football League has been able to avoid such conflict as the fixture congestion, in conjunction with the fact there was a shorter than usual preseason, was enough to convince a sufficient number of clubs to vote to revert back to Project Restart’s substitution rule, effective for the rest of the season. 

Watford are set to benefit tremendously from this rule change. Simply stated, Watford have one of the best clubs in the Championship in terms of player-by-player talent and depth. Having been recently relegated, the majority of the squad has top-flight experience, and many were consistent fixtures in Watford’s Premier League days. Especially as the Club was able to avoid a thorough post-relegation transfer-raid, Watford’s “second-team” is still good enough to compete with some lower-in-the-table Championship first-teams (after all, between Capoue, Hughes, Cleverley, Garner, Chalobah, Quina, and Dele-Bashiru, the center of the midfield alone is top-quality from first-choices to fringe players).

As with all other teams, one way in which the Hornets will benefit is there will be a better chance of preventing unnecessary muscle injuries as more players can be rotated onto the pitch. Excluding the goalkeeper, half of the starting eleven does not need to finish the match. The number of times clubs lose matches because one of their players cannot continue on but they have already used all their substitutions would only increase if this rule did not get approved.

Fitness is the main reason why the decision to add two more substitutions to matches was uncontested below the Premier League. However, the point of conflict in the top-flight is the very reason Watford will benefit from this rule. One of the most vocal opponents of the five-substitution rule in the Premier League is Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder, who calls the main advocates for the rule change, including Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, “selfish.” The self-interest Wilder is referring to is in reference to how the “bigger” clubs would be able to rotate more big-money players into match-day action, which is unfair to clubs with lesser financial capabilities. 

Watford were one of the smaller clubs in the Premier League during their time there, but in modern footballing terms, the Hornets are one of the biggest clubs in the Championship due to their recent top-flight status and recent transfer history. Watford’s fifth substitute will likely have a much higher transfer value than would most other team’s fifth substitutes. So, inevitably, the fact Watford have more quality in their depth than most other teams means the ability to have more players involved in a match will be to their advantage. If Watford are chasing a game, they have enough quality attacking-minded players on the bench to provide them an extra boost. If Watford need to hold onto a narrow lead, the same would apply for defenders. At the same time, there would still be room for one or two more substitutes to replace players who pick up cramps or other injuries. 

As Watford fans have come to learn, Vladimir Ivic will not hesitate to change formations both between and within matches. This season, Watford have played in a 5-3-2, 5-2-3, 4-3-3, and in their recent triumph over Preston, a 4-4-2. The availability of extra substitutions will further allow Ivic to implement tactical changes during matches, as there is a better chance that, using the extra substitutes, the tactics will not require out-of-position players.

In the 42 day span from the 21st of November to the 2nd of January, Watford will have played 12 matches, an average of one match every 3.5 days. The fixture congestion the rest of the season offers is not much more forgiving. The rule change is necessary for the duration of the season, as has been agreed. And, even though clubs like Watford will for sure benefit, it won’t be of immense disproportional benefit in comparison to other clubs because of the fitness implications. If the five substitution rule is permanently instated in all leagues, then Watford might be better off without it.

The continuation of the five substitution rule beyond this season does not seem probable, especially considering the stalling and opposition it is seeing in the Premier League. However, the rule’s permanence is not totally out of the question. If Watford were to be promoted or in Sheffield United’s current position, then Watford would likely be backing Chris Wilder’s stance. In the Championship, Watford are at the top end of the bell curve of quality. In the Premier League, they were no further right than the apex. Extra substitutions in the top-flight would only benefit Watford from a fitness standpoint, as they would suffer from larger clubs’ ability to substitute on extra big-money players.

All in all, Watford will reap the rewards of the rule change through their depth, quality, and a manager who knows how to roll the tactical dice both between and within matches. If Watford were in the Premier League, then this rule would be unfavorable to them. But, for now, with promotion still the reasonable target, any such positive changes to the season could prove to be another number to unlocking the code to get back to the Premier League. 

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