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The impact of the bench with five substitutions

How squad management and strength in depth came under the microscope in last season's competition.

Unai Emery instructs Alfonso Pedraza during the final
Unai Emery instructs Alfonso Pedraza during the final UEFA via Getty Images

From a record-breaking season for goals to changes in defending in the penalty area, we examine some of the main talking points from the 2020/21 UEFA Europa League technical report.

Here we focus on how managing a squad and having strength in depth became a key consideration for coaches as the five substitution rule was extended due to the impact of COVID-19 and fixture congestion.

Unai Emery provided a good example of this in the final, using his subs effectively to regain control of the game in extra time and bring on his preferred penalty takers.

Sub-stantial contributions

The impact of the bench was considerable. Having a long bench is always a benefit, but strength in depth took on even greater significance in this first full season with five substitutions permitted. The amendment to the rules – allowing for five replacements from a total of three stoppages in play – was brought in for the final stages of the 2019/20 season as a response to the fixture congestion caused by the global pandemic.

It was extended for the entire 2020/21 campaign – the most condensed on record. Managing resources therefore became a key consideration for coaches throughout the campaign, with not only the physical aspect but also a motivational challenge to be weighed up on a weekly basis.

Villarreal coach Unai Emery talks to his players prior to extra time
Villarreal coach Unai Emery talks to his players prior to extra timePOOL/AFP via Getty Images

Emery struck the right balance right the way through to the very last penalty in Gdansk, with his player management evident both in the changes from game to game and round to round, and in particular in the final. "When you look at the way Unai managed things with Villarreal, then having five substitutes is really a game changer," commented UEFA Technical Observer Frans Hoek. "It gives an enormous amount of new possibilities."

The final was an excellent example of how substitutes were able to impact on games. Although the title match was ultimately decided on a penalty shoot-out, Emery's decision to use all five of his available substitutes in normal time – and the additional sixth replacement in extra time – ensured his team made a much fresher impression throughout the additional period.

The possession statistics confirm this transformation. Over the first 90 minutes, Manchester United had enjoyed most of the possession (almost 60%, rising to over 70% in the last 15 minutes), but Villarreal gained much more of the ball in extra time, pushing close to 60% of possession in the second period.

United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær, conversely, did not use any of his substitutes during the 90 minutes, making changes only in extra time, with his last replacements introduced with an eye already on the looming shoot-out. The benefit Villarreal gained from having five new players on the field could also be seen in the total touches and attempted passes they had in extra time, when they had more energy and motivated players to push for a winner.

That is not to say that Solskjær did not have a lot of strength in depth in his squad, and he proved on earlier occasions that he was not afraid to dig into his reserves to change the course of games. His side's victory over Milan in the round of 16 came largely thanks to changes he made. In the first leg at Old Trafford, Amad Diallo came off the bench to put the Red Devils ahead and, while Simon Kjær earned the Rossoneri a draw on the night, it was the turn of Paul Pogba to enter the fray at half-time at San Siro and score the decisive goal for the visitors.

Over the course of the season, there were a total of 100 goals scored by substitutes, 16.23% of the total. The five-sub rule contributed to this increase and the average number of subs per game rose to 4.19 from 2.86. Consequently, the average playing time per player reduced by 8%. With more subs on the field, the chances of them scoring increase, but Diallo and Pogba’s goals were not isolated examples as teams subbed with success. Roberto Soldado sprang from the bench to take Granada into the quarter-finals with a 3-2 aggregate win over Molde while Nicolas Pépé got Arsenal on their way to victory over Slavia Praha in the quarter-finals. "As a coach, you have to work even more with the players who are on the bench," said UEFA Technical Observer Dušan Fitzel. "You need to work with them so when they come on, they see it as an opportunity for them. It’s part of the psychological work with the squad."