Liverpool players sitting on a bench - concept of substitutions

If not completely in touch with footballing terminology, you may not fully understand what subs are or how many are allowed. A ‘sub’ is simply a substitute, which is a player who comes on when another has to leave the field or is replaced by the manager based on performance or for tactical reasons.

In this article, we will cover how many can be used in today’s football matches, along with how this has changed and how subs might evolve in the future.

How Many Subs Can Be Used in Football Games?

The number five

Essentially, the basic answer for major leagues is now five. Five substitutions are allowed during a typical 90-minute game, up from the previous total of three. The actual law is a little more complicated. Under the Laws of the Game, the maximum of five is permitted but fewer may be used depending on the association. In other words, FIFA permits five, but a certain country’s league may want to stick with three or four.

Why Would Associations Want Fewer Subs?

In the Premier League, all squads are full of quality. Even at the bottom end of the league, teams when not burdened with injuries have many top-quality performers available in the squad to come off the bench and influence games as substitutes. In some leagues, however, one or two teams may dominate.

When that is the case, it gives them an even greater advantage to be able to call upon five subs. When a game gets stretched, they may be able to call on five international-class players with fresh legs to change the game, while smaller teams cannot. This is why some leagues do not want long benches and lots of substitutions.

Sub Numbers Can Change

In domestic and international cup competitions, one extra sub can be used per team if a game goes into extra time. A total of six substitutions therefore can be made in a team of 11 over the course of a 120-minute game. We have more info on this below. That is the case with major competitive matches, such as those in the Premier League, La Liga, the World Cup, etc. The rules can change however depending on the type of match being played. For example:

  • In competitive international matches, up to six subs are allowed.
  • In other matches, more subs are allowed as long as the ref is informed.

Those other matches are essentially ‘friendlies’. In a typical friendly match, there is no limit on the number of subs allowed with many managers changing their entire team at half-time.

History of Substitutions in Football

Substitute player
katatonia82 /

We have to be quite pernickety with the word ‘substitute’ here. In the past, the word wasn’t used for one player replacing another from the bench during a football match. In the earliest incarnations of the game, around 1860, substitute meant simply that a player was brought in from the start for someone who’d failed to turn up for a game. Subs as we know them now did not appear in the game until 1958 when they were added to the laws. Before that time had a player gone off injured, even a goalkeeper, no substitute player was allowed on.

Allowed substitution numbers rose to two from a possible five players in 1988, then later increases allowed for sub ‘keepers and then any three subs from seven named on the bench in recent years. Two subs, plus a goalkeeper if needed, came into play in 1994, in time for the World Cup. This rose to three of any type in ’95 and then to four in particular international competitions beginning from Euro 2016, though only in extra time.

The five-substitute rule was brought in during 2020, mostly in order to ease fixture congestion for teams following lockdowns caused by the global health crisis. The idea was that there would be three opportunities to bring on subs, with an additional chance providing in extra time where needed. The opportunities were to be exclusive of the subs made at half-time in normal or extra time or before the beginning of extra time.

Could the Use of Substitutes Evolve Further?

Football may be the biggest and most popular sport in the world, but it has shown itself multiple times to have lots to learn from other sports. Many fans want VAR decisions to be more like rugby. It took an age to get the sort of goal line technology already used in tennis and cricket, while substitutions are already better used in other major sports too. Thinking about basketball, replacements in that sport are fare more dynamic. Why not be able to switch players in and out of a game, so long as it’s done quickly?

A punter may have paid £100 to see Erling Haaland, only for him to go off injured after ten minutes. What if, after some treatment, he would have been perfectly OK to come back on in 15 minutes’ time? Why not allow that and give watchers full value for their money? Of course, there would be issues. The game is already stopping too many times, but what if we could make subs quicker?

Players already wear all sorts within their shirts and equipment, so presumably it would be nothing to add a chip which connects to a system showing who is in play and who isn’t. No more written notes, while those sitting upstairs or remotely (VAR) can keep a manual check on the numbers, rather than the referee.

Furthermore, even the announcer shouldn’t make too big a deal of the oncoming player. Simply announce their name as they enter, much as they do in cricket when a new batsman comes to the crease. Easy. When there is a VAR check, that is another opportune moment for managers to throw on a replacement with the system taking care of the admin. This can be shown on a screen or announced, perhaps alongside a game clock which stops when the match does, meaning no more ‘injury time’. Interesting thoughts indeed.