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How Barcelona can use the five substitutes rule to their advantage

Quique Setien is worried about the rule change

Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Alejandro Rios/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

The resumption of La Liga edges closer and closer. Its return, however, is also bringing along a set of new rules, in accordance with health guidelines issued by the Spanish government. One of the most significant new additions is, perhaps, the five substitute rule; teams can now sub in five players instead of the usual three.

This rule is bound to have a profound effect on the way teams line up and how they approach games. For high-octane sides such as Jose Bordalas’s Getafe, this rule bodes well. They can maintain higher levels of intensity and press for longer. Others like Atlético Madrid can maintain defensive concentration for longer periods of play, as well. It does not, however, bode well for a certain FC Barcelona.

For years, Barça’s patient style of play has relied on tiring the opposition through effective passing schemes. This is why Barça are often more lethal in the second half, where they take advantage of tired legs and the space that is left behind consequently. This first-second half discrepancy has been especially evident this season. Barça have averaged more shots, more goals, more xG and more counterattacks in the second half. Barça’s first halves are usually sluggish, with slow passages of play and relatively short & lateral passes (this is especially evident in away games).

Barça’s first and second half performances compared

Quique Setién has himself championed this risk averse metronomic style for years. This is why he stressed upon the fact that the five substitute rule could actually “hurt” Barcelona.

So. How can Barça stem this tide of energy? As an avid player of chess, Setién surely would’ve evaluated making moves from disadvantageous positions. He has to do the same now. What Barcelona need to realise is that if other teams can make five substitutes per game so can they. Setién just needs to utilise that rule to his advantage. Perhaps, he could set up the team to launch a first-half blitz, in terms of tempo. That could mean starting with more dynamic players (i.e Arturo Vidal). As a consequence, Barça could rest easy in the second half (if they were leading, of course) and slow down their approach to the game. That would be the time to bring on the controllers. This way, even if the opposition isn’t lulled into defensive lapses, at least they will not have the ball when they need it.

Moreover, even if teams can make five substitutes per game their pressing is still most intense early on. A dynamic start (with multiple passing lengths and options) is a great way to disrupt a medium/high press and take advantage of vacant space. Even if a team starts off with a deep block set up to counter Barça, the more dynamic approach makes sense. Firstly, fresher legs are less likely to be caught on the counter. Secondly, a more intense tempo coupled with varying pass ranges is the key to unlocking deep blocks.

Naturally, the question then arises: ‘but won’t Barça just fizzle out?’ Perhaps, but it is unlikely. Normally, the biggest risk with a top heavy approach is the threat of losing focus/intensity in latter stages of the game. However, here’s where the five substitutes come in; they can help minimise defensive lapses and ease Barça into a more lulling tempo in order to preserve the lead.

With his chess-addled brain, Setién should be able to find a way to get through this. Yes, Barça don’t have the greatest depth at the moment, but they do still possess mercurial talent in abundance. That could be vital. Given that Barça have some tough away fixtures in the upcoming weeks, a top heavy approach may be the way to go, after all. Whether Setién does actually adhere to that remains to be seen.

We shall know the answer to that in nine days.

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