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UEFA Champions League Technical Report: The impact of substitutes

The UEFA Technical Observers' review of the 2021/22 UEFA Champions League season discusses how changes effected games and weigh up the merits and drawbacks of using five substitutes.

Rodrygo celebrates after scoring against Manchester City
Rodrygo celebrates after scoring against Manchester City AFP via Getty Images

The UEFA Technical Observers attending every 2021/22 UEFA Champions League game have shared their thoughts on rising trends in the competition in the annual Technical Report.

UEFA.com focuses on some key developments in terms of bringing players off the bench, after a campaign in which Rodrygo rescued Real Madrid more than once.

Read the full Technical Report

Changes for the better

There was no better example of the power of the right substitution in the Champions League than last season's winners Real Madrid.

After all, no substitute made as dramatic an impact on the 2021/22 competition as Madrid's young Brazilian forward Rodrygo. In the quarter-final second leg against Chelsea, he volleyed his side back into the game with his first touch. Just to underline the point, he then came off the bench in the semi-final return against Manchester City and scored twice as Madrid produced another stunning comeback.

Watch Rodrygo's dramatic Madrid double

As the Technical Report underlines, Rodrygo was not the only replacement to shine either. Indeed, of the 29 matches in the knockout rounds there was a scoring substitute in 11 of them. To reinforce the point, of the 25 goals scored across the campaign in second-half added time, 12 were by substitutes – including Rodrygo's second against City.

With that figure in mind, the report considers the keys to making the right changes and cites other examples offered by Madrid, whose coach Carlo Ancelotti did not shy from making bold changes. In that aforementioned tie against City, for instance, he sent on Eduardo Camavinga in place of Luka Modrić – and was rewarded with the French teenager providing the ball to Karim Benzema in the lead-up to Rodrygo's first goal.

For UEFA's Technical Observers, this topic was all the more significant for the fact coaches can now call on five substitutes. Reflecting on the challenge of shuffling your pack wisely, Roberto Martínez, the Belgium national coach and UEFA match observer, said: "It's not about how long you play but the quality of your playing time. That comes from what the coach creates in the dressing room, an environment where everybody is important and that is essential. If you can create that environment then five subs is positive."

Another leading coaching figure quoted in the report is Fabio Capello, a Champions League-winning coach with AC Milan, who said: "The most important thing for me is the respect between every player – that when you make a substitution, you have the respect for the other one that enters. Real Madrid have really good young players because the oldest players put respect in the mind of these younger ones."

The five-subs rule

This was the second full season in which teams could make five substitutions, rather than three, and runners-up Liverpool were among those with the most replacements, their average of 4.8 per match surpassed only by Inter, Porto and Sporting CP.

Of Liverpool's 60 changes overall, 27 were midfielders coming on to re-energise their efforts centrally. Further upfield, Roberto Firmino scored three goals as a substitute while winger Luis Díaz played a major role off the bench in the semi-final second-leg comeback win over Villarreal with his direct running and equalising goal.

In the Zone: Luis Díaz's star turn for Liverpool

The Technical Report offers varying views of the merits of five substitutes, saying: "One of UEFA's observers pointed to the risk of mistakes from newly-introduced players as they adjusted to the tempo of a match. Another suggested that five substitutes brought the potential for disruption and it was interesting to see that Pep Guardiola at Manchester City averaged only 3.6 changes per match – the fourth-lowest figure among the 32 teams who participated between the group stage and final.

"This begged two questions: whether Guardiola did not want to spoil his side's flow and if he feels he has the same quality of specialists on his bench for the very specific demands he asks players to fill."

For the record, Guardiola used 26 players – the joint-fifth highest number – showing a preference to rotate his players rather than change them mid-match (City's neighbours Manchester United used the most players: 31).

Exploring further the potential impact of the five-substitute rule, Aitor Karanka offers another view in the report: "Instead of 20 or 22 players, maybe 18 is better as they're going to have more chances and it's going to be easier to build a relationship where everybody feels 'I can play'."

Another UEFA match observer, Vera Pauw, preferred to focus on the greater possibilities that coaches have now to tweak their strategy mid-game. "You can respond to what the other coach is doing and still have the opportunity to change strategy at the end of the game," she said.

Read the full Technical Report