By Peter Hall
LONDON (Reuters) - Being able to use five substitutes is a new phenomenon, but after a record-breaking impact from players off the bench in the knockout stages at Euro 2020, interest in making additional replacements a permanent fixture will only increase.
Last-gasp drama has defined this year's European Championship, especially in some enthralling knockout-round matches.
There was Switzerland's stunning comeback from 3-1 down to peg world champions France back in the last 16, a match they eventually won on penalties, Croatia's incredible turnaround in their clash with Spain, and Italy's pulsating tussle with Austria that went to extra time.
All three of those matches had one thing in common - goals from substitutes were key, with a coach's use of his squad making more difference than ever at a European Championship.
According to Nielsen's Gracenote, an average of 0.75 goals per match have been scored by substitutes so far in the knockout stages at Euro 2020 - the highest rate since a knockout phase with at least seven games was introduced in 1996.
Five goals were scored in 15 knockout matches by substitutes at Euro 2016, but there have been nine already this time around, with three games still to go.
Spain coach Luis Enrique, ahead of his side's semi-final clash with Italy on Tuesday, has been especially willing to utilise all his options off the bench, and to great effect.
There were assists and goals from Pau Torres, Dani Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal versus Croatia and a winning penalty from Oyarzabal against Switzerland in the quarter-final. In both matches, Oyarzabal was Spain's fourth replacement.
With five chances to change a match, coaches are understanding the importance of keeping such talent in reserve, especially during a gruelling tournament.
HERE TO STAY?
Sources from within the game have told Reuters that there is a desire for five substitutions to remain a permanent fixture.
Soccer's law-making body the International Football Association Board (IFAB) announced in May that competition organisers will have the option of allowing teams to continue using up to five substitutes per game until the end of 2022.
The temporary rule was first introduced in May 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to allow teams to use five substitutes, instead of the standard three, to support player welfare amid a congested fixture schedule.
The temporary amendment will remain in place until Dec. 31, 2022 "for all top-level competitions", IFAB said, with its implementation at the discretion of individual competition organisers.
A further extension is likely to be one of the issues that is part of FIFA’s major review of international football and the match calendar that is being led by former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, but ultimately it will be IFAB's decision.
The counter argument from many club-level coaches is that five subs favours bigger teams with greater financial resources to have more strength in depth.
But if knockout matches in major tournaments, which are often tense affairs with so much at stake, can generate enhanced excitement thanks to many fresh legs thrown on late in the day, then the desire for more of the same is likely to gather pace.
(Reporting by Peter Hall; additional reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge)