DOHA, Qatar — We’re not even through the group stage yet, but there have already been more goals scored by substitutes at the 2022 World Cup than in the whole of the last tournament.
With one matchday left, the group stage in Qatar has seen players coming off the bench to find the net on 22 separate occasions, six more than at Russia 2018. It is already the third-highest total in World Cup history although still short of the all-time record of 32 from 2014 when, appropriately, substitute Mario Gotze scored the winner in extra time as Germany beat Argentina 1-0 at the Maracana Stadium.
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil is an outlier — with eight more goals scored by subs than the second highest (24) at Germany 2006 — yet this World Cup is on course to potentially break that record. Some 19% of total goals in Brazil (171) were scored by substitutes. The 22 in Qatar, from 106 overall, yields 1% more so far.
So what is going on?
Five substitutes rule
This is the obvious place to start. This summer, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) made the temporary measure which had allowed teams to make five substitutes rather than three a permanent law. “The decision follows a global analysis of the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on football,” read an IFAB statement.
As a result, the Bureau of the FIFA Council increased the maximum World Cup squad size from 23 to 26 players. Teams have been allowed to use five substitutes instead of three in the regulation 90 minutes, plus an additional sub should a game go to extra time; both teams will get another in the case of any concussion substitute.
This clearly enables managers to more easily make a double or triple change to chase a game or rest key players. They are also less likely to take risks with injured players safe in the knowledge they can still make several changes.
In the 44 matches to this point, teams have used all five substitutes on 51 occasions (including one where Iran made six due to a concussion substitute.) Teams have used four substitutes a further 27 times, so that’s 78 times out of a possible 88 that teams have used at least four.
Having 26-man squads
There are more players in Qatar than for any previous World Cup. And that brings its own problems for managers seeking to preside over a settled, unified camp.
England manager Gareth Southgate has previously expressed his scepticism about the expanded squads, believing there is more “skill” involved in picking a 23 and also that the extra numbers can leave unused players feeling alienated. He struck a more bullish tone when addressing the issue prior to England’s 3-0 win over Wales on Monday.
“It is always a challenge but we are at a major tournament and it is not about giving caps out,” he said. “We are here to try to go as far as we possibly can. We’ve got a brilliant group, they support each other but of course players will be disappointed when they are not playing.
“In other camps throughout the year, we try to give people game time where we can, but when you’re in a World Cup, you can’t be thinking in that way unless you’ve already qualified and have a game with a different approach. We are fortunate we have many professionals who get on with that. I’ve done that myself by going to a tournament without many minutes at all.”
Wholesale changes are not uncommon. France manager Didier Deschamps made six alterations for his team’s final group match in 2018 — a 0-0 draw with Denmark — and made nine this time in Wednesday’s 1-0 shock loss to Tunisia. Using all five substitutes is clearly another nod to keeping players involved across what every team hopes would be a seven-match run.
FIFA is often criticised for wanting more bang for its buck — a 48-team World Cup in 2026 is the most obvious example — and the push for matches to effectively last longer is no different. However, the desire to discourage timewasting and ensure greater accuracy in compensating for breaks in play is surely viewed as a positive, even if it has led to a fundamental change in our expectations of added time.
Speaking on Wednesday, chairman of referees committee, Pierluigi Collina stated that there had been an average of 10 minutes added time during the first 32 matches in Qatar, up on a six-and-a-half minute average across all games in Russia 2018.
There have been outliers. A remarkable 23 minutes of time was added on to each half in England’s win against Iran — though 14 minutes were accounted for by injuries; 11 to treat Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand for concussion — while there were eight goals, one delay of play for a VAR check and another pause for an on-field review.
“People want to see more football and we as FIFA, together with IFAB, we have requested to try to do something to have more time played during a match,” Collina said. “Already in Russia, we did something in this direction: asking referees to more accurately calculate the stoppage time to be given at the end of each half. This recommendation was reiterated here before Qatar 2022, in order to offer more active time played during the match.
“We have given referees some specific incidents that should be considered, particularly the time spent for players’ injuries which was already calculated but more on a standardised amount of time: one minute each intervention. We have seen there are many injuries that need more than one minute for the treatment. Substitutions, this is something to be considered. In the past, one sub: 30 seconds, this was the directive.
“With 10 substitution and multiple substitutions within one slot, we cannot say three subs in one slot means one-and-a-half [minutes] because it is probably less but more than 30 seconds. So they have to accurately calculate.”
Collina added that if the figures from Russia were adapted to include 10 substitutes per game rather than six, the average in 2018 would have risen to seven minutes and 30 seconds. Therefore, the matches in Qatar are not that much longer.
Tournament timing and shift in thinking
The first northern hemisphere winter World Cup will be a factor in decision-making, with some players pushed further than others during the early part of the domestic season. It is theoretically possible, for example, that a top Premier League star could play 78 matches across the 2022-23 season with a three-week break across the year.
Player welfare is a more prominent factor in top-level football these days and the lack of preparation time, combined with the condensed group stage schedule in Qatar, makes the use of substitutes more important.
The thinking around substitutes has also changed. Rather than simply replacing like for like within a tactical setup or due to injury, impact players designed to exploit tiring defences are an essential strategic element to some teams. Five substitutes only increases the options for a greater tactical shift.
List of goal-scoring subs so far at Qatar 2022
Marcus Rashford: ENGLAND vs. Iran
Jack Grealish: ENGLAND vs. Iran
Davy Klaassen: NETHERLANDS vs. Senegal
Ritsu Doan: JAPAN vs. Germany
Takuma Asano: JAPAN vs. Germany
Carlos Soler: SPAIN vs. Costa Rica
Alvaro Morata: SPAIN vs. Costa Rica
Rafael Leao: PORTUGAL vs. Ghana
Osman Bukari: GHANA vs. Portugal
Mohammed Muntari: QATAR vs. Senegal
Bamba Dieng SENEGAL vs. Qatar
Rouzbeh Cheshmi: IRAN vs. Wales
Vincent Aboubakar: CAMEROON vs. Serbia
Alvaro Morata: SPAIN vs. Germany
Niclas Fullkrug: GERMANY vs. Spain
Zakaria Aboukhlal: MOROCCO vs. Belgium
Lovro Majer: CROATIA vs. Canada
Enzo Fernandez: ARGENTINA vs. Mexico
Kai Havertz: GERMANY vs. Japan (2)
Niclas Füllkrug: GERMANY vs. Japan
Ritsu Doan: JAPAN vs. Spain