The five substitutes and expanded bench changes are no more. Chelsea will be left holding the bag as innovation gave way to conservation.
The game of football as it is now is not the same game it was 100 years ago. That may rankle some, but it is the pure honest truth. The game evolves as new things are required. It did so by adding five substitutes and an expanded bench after the Covid break. Both are no more.
There was a concern that having more substitutes gave bigger clubs an unfair advantage due to them naturally having more depth. There is no evidence of that, at least not in the short term. As for the expanded bench, the only thing imperfect about it was that it did not have a youth mandate (something that has been bounced around as a notion in England for years).
But for a club like Chelsea, losing these two rules hurts as it was clear they were gearing up to take advantage of them. The Blues were spending to add attackers, all of whom, even if on the bench, could play a role in a match thanks to these two rules. Without these rules, those options go away, which will force the club into hard decisions they likely were not anticipating.
With an 18 man bench and just three subs, most clubs will effectively have a group of 15 or 16 players that can be trusted to start. Five subs and a nine man bench made that number closer to 18. Having the ability to change half of the starting outfielders offered not only a greater deal of tactical flexibility, but it offered opportunities to youth to come on in games and it gave managers an extra out if any injuries happened.
Chelsea seemed to be aiming for that tactical flexibility. With Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner coming in, in addition to the possibilities of others, the Blues were reinforcing without really having many leaving at the same time. That will not be the case any longer.
Look at midfield for example. There simply is not room for N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic, Jorginho, Mason Mount, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ross Barkley, Billy Gilmour, and the potential signing of Kai Havertz with only three subs allowed and a seven man bench. At most, four or five will get decent enough playing time to justify staying at Chelsea. The rest will either be redundant or leave.
Furthermore, the expanded bench returning to seven is the most cosmetic change possible. Three subs or five, clubs were largely going to use the same players off the bench. It doesn’t affect smaller clubs differently than bigger clubs. All that was really needed was perhaps a mandate that a certain number were youth players. That would help the development of English players coming up through academies but apparently returning to the way things were always done, even if that isn’t true, is of bigger importance.
The game took a step forward with these two changes, even if they were forced. Pearl clutching and narratives with no data has brought it back for the sake of “the way things have always been done”. In two years, after other European leagues keep the five subs and expanded benches and show up England internationally (at club and country level), these rules will return. For now, it is back to the way things were always done.