As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. With football leagues all over Europe attempting to complete almost three months worth of matches in less than eight weeks, the sport's governing body decided to make a drastic change to the rules of the game. Gone, at least temporarily, is the standard three sub rule, making way for a new world, one in which managers will now be able to make five changes in any given match.
It's not as earth shattering as using an NHL-style blue line rather than the last-man offside rule or bringing back the old MLS breakaway penalty kicks, but those two extra swaps could dramatically change the strategic battle between managers. German clubs have a bit of a head-start in this new reality, but I thought we'd take a look at how Paulo Fonseca might use this new rule to Roma's advantage.
Before we get into specifics rotation patterns, let's look at the two basic philosophies Fonseca will likely have to juggle over the next two months.
More Subs, Same Strategy
With 90 minutes and countless kilometres to run, managers typically keep all three subs in their back pocket, seldom dipping into the bench prior to the hour mark. We'll see an occasional injury-induced first-half sub, but by and large managers save their substitutes for when it matters most: the final 20 to 30 minutes of the match.
With two more options off the bench, it's natural to assume that managers might go to the well earlier, but based on the early returns from the Bundesliga, that assumption doesn't hold water. Hell, in all nine fixtures last weekend, the clubs collectively used only 83% of available substitutions. Of those swaps, only 16% came before the hour hour mark, and two-thirds of those changes came at the start of the second half (more on that in a second). Do a bit more math and you'll see that nearly 11% of all subs last weekend came in the 46th minute.
So, at least based on this admittedly small sample size, managers in the German league haven't exactly fomented a strategic revolution. But if we look at that 11% figure, there might be a new path forward.
Will Five Subs Equal a Fresh Look?
When we're talking about five subs, that's 50% of your outfield players (trust me, I only failed trig once). That's crazy. If Roma's attack were running cold, Fonseca could conceivably swap out his entire attacking component without batting an eye, but let's focus on that 11% figure from the prior section.
Even with five available options, substitutes are still a precious late game commodity, so I wouldn't expect to see managers pull a player off in disgust after only 20 minutes, but if there is a predictive pattern in last week's Bundesliga fixtures, it's this: managers essentially have a free pass to change the makeup of the squad at half time.
Let's say the match is knotted at one apiece at half time and your attack is looking a bit sluggish. Under normal circumstances (where subs are precious and seldom used early in the match) you'd have to gut it out to the hour mark before making a tactical change, and even then you're essentially hoping that one player can change the whole scheme.
With five moves in their pocket, a manager could conceivably swap out both forwards or the entirety of their central midfield at half-time, effecting change in the form and function of the team in dramatic fashion, while retaining the ability to correct course later in the match with those two remaining subs.
Think of it like a vat of tomato sauce simmering on the stove. No longer will Paulo Fonseca have to wait and adjust the salt until the pasta is ready, he now has extra leeway to tinker with the balance throughout the entire process. Hell, he can even add more garlic if he wants.
How Will This Look for Roma?
Okay, now that we've got the theoretical framework out of the way, let's look at what a typical match for Roma might look like under these new rules. Even under this new paradigm, I suspect most substitutions (barring injuries) will focus on midfield and attack, so we'll center our discussion on those areas.
On June 24th, Roma will play host to Sampdoria and while it's far too early to speculate on lineups, let's assume the forward two-thirds look like this:
Double Pivot: Bryan Cristante, Jordan Veretout
Midfield: Cengiz Ünder, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Justin Kluivert
Forward: Edin Dzeko
Now, ordinarily, Fonseca would likely be limited to one or two small tactical changes, perhaps swapping out a winger or a play-maker and hoping that single sub tilts the pitch in Roma’s favor, but this new rule opens up a world of possibilities.
Let's say, for instance, that Sampdoria managed to put the clamps on Fonseca Football and that maybe Pellegrini and Ünder aren't getting it done in the first half. Fonseca could swap them both out for Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Carles Perez, respectively. And if that still doesn't remedy the situation, with three more changes at his disposal he could accent the attack even more, bringing on Pastore's play-making for Kluivert, putting El Flaco in the hole and Mkhitaryan on the left.
Ordinarily, that'd be it; three subs and you’re done. But let's say those substitutions worked and Roma grabbed a slim one goal lead. With such an attacking lineup out there—Pastore, Perez, Mkhitaryan and Dzeko—we'd be pulling out our hair, but with two further subs, Fonseca could create a more defensive shape by bringing on Amadou Diawara for Perez (changing to a 4-3-3) or really park the bus by inserting Davide Santon in place of Dzeko, leaving Pastore as the lone forward in a 4-5-1, buttressed by a midfield of Diawara, Cristante, Veretout, Mkhitaryan and Santon.
In essence, Fonseca can manage a match in three waves: 1) the initial starting lineup, 2) two or three changes at half-time to change shape/tactics/approach, 3) two or three changes for a final course correction to either grab or protect a lead.
There will be a bit of a learning curve, and it will be jarring to see potentially three subs at once, but this new rule will enable Paulo Fonseca to not only keep his players fresh, but his tactical approach as well.
A Football match is a living entity, and this new rule will allow Fonseca to keep his finger on its pulse from start to finish.