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Manchester United can use the Premier League’s increased matchday squad size to their advantage

A bigger bench can send a clearer message to fringe players who don’t make the cut

Manchester United Training Session Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

The Premier League officially announced the adoption of the five substitutions rule for the remainder of the season. The 20 member clubs met Thursday and also approved a temporary measure to allow matchday squads to increase from 18 players to 20, putting two extra players on the bench.

It’s yet another rule that seems more likely to help big clubs. If injuries happen, the increase in available players increases the odds that a like-for-like sub will be possible, instead of having to tactically adapt.

As a big club, Manchester United should stand to benefit from this rule. However, United’s case is a bit more unique, in that this rule probably won’t actually benefit them on the pitch, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could still use it his advantage.

When the potential increase to five substitutions was first reported I wrote about how this rule may not really help United. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes, and Paul Pogba are all going to start. One of Daniel James, Mason Greenwood, or Juan Mata probably will too.

That leaves the other two of James, Greenwood, and Mata on the bench along with Odion Ighalo, Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard, Diogo Dalot, and maybe Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes as your other attacking options off the bench. Other than the first two names on that list, none of them are exactly game changers if you’re chasing a game.

Excluding Juan Mata from that list of potential game changers was intentional. United have been chasing plenty of games this year, and only three times have they managed to score an equalizer in the second half. Those equalizers have all been scored by either Mason Greenwood or Daniel James, and the assists on those goals have been from Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, and James. Juan Mata wasn’t even on the pitch for two of those three goals.

It doesn’t matter if you have 5 subs or 15 subs, 9 bench spots or 20 — if United are chasing a match they don’t really have many options.

The new rule does help United when it comes to protecting a lead, however. Ighalo, in an extremely small sample size, hasn’t proven to be an impact striker when chasing a match, but has already proven to be a fantastic striker when it comes to killing off the game late.

Pereira and Lingard are both very good defensive players for their position. Being able to bring on any of Nemanja Matić, Fred, or Scott McTominay — depending on who doesn’t start — for fresh legs in midfield will be a major asset as well. Being able to bring those guys on and resting the attackers will hopefully keep them fresh enough to help United avoid having to chase too many games in the first place.

Mainly though, it’s off the pitch where United can really benefit from this new rule. If Solskjaer chooses, he can use this new rule to really make a statement to his players.

It’s no secret that Solskjaer has set out to clear out as much of the deadwood from United’s squad as possible. He’s already jettisoned several players but there are still more that need to go.

That task is far easier said than done. United’s players make astronomically high wages, and if they leave they aren’t going make nearly as much. That was true before the effects of the coronavirus and it’s especially true now.

If players believe there’s any future for them at United, they’re probably not going anywhere. That’s bad news for anyone who wants to see Andreas Pereira leave. He’s contracted until 2023, and 51.4 percent of his all-time United appearances have come this season. He certainly believes he can fight for a place. Marcos Rojo only (finally) took a loan move this January because he was still in contention for Argentina’s Copa America 2020 squad provided he was playing first team football.

The only way to get players to leave money on the table and leave is if they know there’s no future for them at the club. How do you do that? Leave them out of the squad.

That’s something that up until February Solskjaer just hasn’t been able to do this season. Take a look at this random sample of match-day squads from August through January this season.

All those squads feature Pereira or Lingard on the bench because...they have to be. How many of those squads feature three defenders on the bench? If Solskjaer dropped one of them, who was he going to replace them with? His midfielders (Matić, Pogba, McTominay) were injured. The only time you see Gomes or Chong is when Rashford was hurt and remember, they both were unavailable for parts of the season due to injuries and contract “situations.”

Now look at the match-day squads in three of the four Premier League matches since Odion Ighalo arrived.

Notice the difference?

As soon as Ighalo and Fernandes arrived, that gave Solskjaer enough senior first-team players to fill out a serious match-day squad without both Pereira and Lingard. Once he had that chance he promptly dropped Lingard. A week later McTominay returned and he promptly Pereira as well (plus Diogo Dalot).

Solskjaer made it very clear where those two players stood. They were banished to the Europa League, and in Dalot’s case he was even dropped from that.

For the first time literally all season United have a full strength squad. Under “normal” rules, a full strength squad would mean excuses for the players who aren’t in it. If Phil Jones missed out on the matchday 18, it’s easy for him to tell himself “well Solskjaer only named one center-back on the bench and that’s Eric Bailly, but I can still be ahead of Axel Tuanzebe.” Lingard or Pereira can say a version the same thing — “We’re squad players and there just wasn’t enough room today.

Adding two more players to the bench may not seem like much of a difference, but if used correctly it can speak volumes to players. Not being picked for a matchday 18 is one thing, but not even being picked for the matchday 20?!

When United finally take the pitch again Solskjaer can name a bench that looks like this: Romero, Tuanzebe, Bailly, Williams, Matić, McTominay, Mata, Ighalo, Greenwood.

You can even swap out one of those center-backs for Chong.

If you’re Phil Jones and not making a match-day squad that includes two center-backs — or you’re Lingard/Pereira not making a nine man bench that includes Tahith Chong — well, that’s a big time statement as to where you stand in the pecking order.

If you’re not making that squad and then see the club signing players in your position this summer, you’re far more likely to look to leave. A bigger bench can send a clearer message, thus allowing United to get rid of more dead wood.