Does the word super-sub sound familiar? Perhaps you have seen a soccer game before where a team is losing by one or two goals then the coach brings in a new player and suddenly the entire game is turned around. Then you will hear the commentator scream at the top of his voice, “That is a super-sub!”
Substitution is an important feature in soccer that allows a coach to rethink his strategy when the team is winning or losing a game. For example, when the team is winning, the coach can decide to pull out one or two strikers and bring extra defenders to make it more difficult for the opponent to score.
Likewise, when the team is losing, the coach may bring in one or two midfielders or strikers to try and turn the game around. A similar situation happens when a team member is sent off for an infringement.
It doesn’t matter whether you are playing soccer in America or the United Kingdom, as long as it is under Association Football, the same rules will apply. However, other soccer variations usually have differing views when it comes to substitution.
The big question now is, if substitution is so important in soccer, why is there a strict limit to the number of substitutions a team can make in a match? Today we take a deep dive into this limiting role to let you know the motive behind this restriction.
- How do subs work in soccer?
- Why does soccer limit subs?
How do subs work in soccer?
For one reason or the other—but mostly for tactical changes, fatigue, or due to injury—a coach may decide to pull out a player from the field and introduce a new player from the bench. The incoming player is called a substitute.
Once a player has been substituted, they can no longer participate in the match, rather, will have to watch the rest of the game from the bench. This is different from what is obtainable in American football where a substituted player can still be reintroduced into the game.
Up until May 2020, the maximum number of substitutes allowed for a team in a competitive game was three and a fourth if the game stretches into extra time. However, for non-competitive encounters like friendly matches, the coaches are often allowed to make more substitutions.
In any other soccer game (non-competitive game) where the number of substitutions is going to exceed five FIFA mandates that both teams must reach an agreement on the number of substitutions that are going to be allowed.
Also, the referee must be pre-informed before the match but where this is not done, each team will be allowed a maximum of six subs.
It is interesting to note that the “Law 3 – The Players” of the International Football Association Board (IFAB)—the law-making body of association football—was so strict that a fourth substitute during extra time is a recent development which first happened in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
However, due to the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, IFAB revised the rule on substitutions from three to five substitutes. Below are highlights of the amendment to Rule 3 which relates to players and substitutions;
- A team playing a competitive game can make a maximum of five substitutions per game
- To limit the disruption to the flow of the game, teams can make their five changes in a maximum of three stops within the game. However, substitutions can also be made at halftime
- If both teams make a substitution simultaneously within the gameplay, it will count as one used opportunity for both teams
- Any team that has not used their sub opportunity within the game can carry it into extra time in a cup competition
- Some competitions can allow additional substitution opportunities in extra time. However, teams can also make substitutions before the start of extra time or at half-time in extra time
The temporary five substitution rule was initially scheduled to cover the 2020-21 season. However, on May 28, 2021, IFAB said that the five subs rule will run until the end of 2022.
The procedure for substitution
Prior to the start of the soccer game, the names of the substitutes the team intends to use must be given to the referee. Any player whose name is not on that list will not be allowed to participate in the match.
Substitution can only happen during a stop in a soccer game and must be permitted by the referee.
The outgoing player must leave the field from the closest boundary line (unless ordered by the referee to leave through the halfway line) while the incoming player can only enter through the halfway line in front of the tactical bench.
The incoming player can only enter the pitch when the subbed player has left the field. If any player fails to stick to this guideline, the referee can punish them by flashing a yellow card.
The subbed player is mandated to go straight to the technical area or dressing room. Where a player is substituted and they refuse to leave the pitch, play will go on and the substitute can only enter;
- During the next stoppage
- When the substituted player has left
- When the referee signals that they can enter
Substitution is said to have been completed when the substituted player leaves the pitch and the incoming player enters. If a player is sent off for any reason before the kick-off, a named substitute can replace them.
Why does soccer limit subs?
Now that you know how subs work in soccer, the next big question would be why soccer limits subs. Well, there are myriads of reasons why IFAB has decided to limit the number of subs that a soccer team can make in an official game.
Before delving into that, it is important to mention that the rules of soccer are not static and continue to be reviewed from time to time. Below is a timeline of the changes that have happened to substitution limits through the history of the game.
Number of permitted substitutions
1957 and earlier
2 players and 1 injured goalkeeper
3 plus 1 in extra time
Going by the record in the table above, we will not be surprised if the current five substitutions become permanent even after their expiration on December 31, 2022. Below is a rundown of some of the reasons why soccer limits subs.
1. Limit interruptions to the game
Every stoppage in soccer takes a bite off the momentum of the game. Professional referees always try as much as possible to keep the game flowing with minimal interference once the start whistle is blown.
Imagine if there is unlimited substitution and the game has to be stopped every few minutes for a team to bring in a substitute. That will significantly disrupt the flow of the game and can cause fans to lose interest.
Interestingly, the time continues to count even when the game is paused. For every substitution, the referee usually adds 30 seconds extra time (injury time) to compensate for the time lost.
This is one of the areas where Association Football differs from futsal. In futsal, there is a timekeeper that stops the clock each time the whistle is blown.
For this reason, futsal can afford to have unlimited substitutions without affecting the game’s time like in soccer.
Imagine if there were limitless substitutions in soccer without pausing the time. That will eventually mean having over 10 or 15 minutes of extra time.
Since the fans are the lifeblood of every soccer team (they generate the revenue used to maintain the team), it is paramount to keep the fans happy or soccer teams will go bankrupt.
Also, too many stoppages in a game can make the players become mentally and physically exhausted. It is not surprising that soccer players often feign injuries when their team is winning to run down the time and also drain their opponents mentally.
2. Unlimited substitutions create an unfair advantage
Every team doesn’t have the same quality of players. A large number of subs will favor big teams at the expense of the smaller ones, thus creating an unfair advantage.
For example, some teams like Chelsea FC and Manchester City have a large number of elite players such that they can swap the entire first team with the second without feeling any huge decline in quality. However, smaller teams keep mostly inexperienced players on the bench.
If there were unlimited subs, big teams can rotate players such that the team will play with almost the same energy and pace throughout the game.
Smaller teams will rather manage their experienced few players rather than risk the bringing in of inexperienced players in a bit to match the energy of their opponents.
Consequently, teams with deeper squads can easily rotate players within a match to prevent fatigue—especially during calendar peaks when teams play two games or more per week.
Teams with weaker squads will be left with fewer options and risk fatigue which will eventually affect their performance.
Also, towards the end of a game, players usually get tired—especially if the game stretches to extra time. If there were unlimited subs, the team with a deeper squad can easily swap all their players and easily win the game.
3. Limited subs encourages improved performance
The limited number of substitutions forces players to work harder to maintain their performance and alertness during the entire game. If players know that they can easily be taken out when they are tired, they may only work half as hard as they currently do.
A limited number of subs forces players to work not just on physical fitness but also on their mental fitness. It also gives every player a chance to make the first eleven of their team.
Imagine if soccer was all about strength, some players may never get to play international soccer because of their physical appearance. However, weaker players often work on ways to outsmart their opponents.
For example, a player with a very low pace can work on becoming a better dribbler so that he or she will make up for the pace they don’t have.
4. Soccer is a game of wits not just strength
There is a reason why a lot of emphasis is laid on the technical crew in soccer including the formation. This is also the reason why hiring and firing coaches is a normal phenomenon in soccer.
The simple reason is that while American football is more of a strength game than wits, soccer is the direct opposite.
If unlimited substitutions are allowed in soccer, it will reduce it to a game of strength rather than wits because the team with more active players will have a higher chance of winning the game.
However, with limited substitutions, players will learn to play the game with not only their muscles but also their brains. For example, players will know when to run and when not to in order to conserve energy.
The limited number of substitutions also forces the technical crew to think of ways of outwitting their opponent irrespective of the quality of their squad. The general thinking is that wits will always outsmart muscles.
5. Unlimited subs will make the coaches useless
If there was unlimited sub there would be no need of having a coach since any player can simply come in to replace another that I tired.
However, the limited number of subs force the coach to look at his or her players and choose those at the top of their physical and mental fitness to start the game.
On the flip side, unlimited substitutions can cause the coaches to randomly change their tactics at any point in the game which may cause the players to become confused.
However, if a coach sticks to a particular tactic for too long it can also lead to better performance of the players since they may be required to perform a certain role more often.
Apart from official competitive games, it is at the sole discretion of the referee to decide the number of subs that a game will have. One thing is clear, the rule on substitution will continue to change—although most teams will want it to remain at three like most other sports.
However, the higher the pendulum swings, the more it will favor big teams with a large number of professional players. Who knows, the current movement from three to five may become the new normal by the end of 2022. We just have to wait to find out.
Hi there, I’m Jay.
Soccer is everything in my life! My friends and I have created this blog with all our enthusiasm, passion, and understanding after years of playing pro soccer. Hope you will enjoy it!