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Premier division teams in the top European leagues (EPL etc) play a lot of matches, especially the elite teams that also play in UEFA. With player fatigue, injury, suspension etc reserve players must be needed at times. By reserve I mean players beyond the starting eleven plus 3 subs.

My question is who are these players, how good are they and what do they get paid? From the teams perspective, they have plenty of cash and don't want to have to field players who are terrible when their stars are unavailable. But from the players perspective, if you are good enough to occasionally be a sub and get a few minutes for Manchester United, then you are probably good enough to be a starting player for Wolverhampton but then you'd actually get to play full games regularly. Is this about the standard of these reserve players, or are they more like the ability of a regular starter in a lower division?

The main football code I follow is Australian Rugby League and in the top competition (the NRL) each club has a top team but also a reserved grade team that plays in a parallel competition. There is also an under 21s competition which also functions as a type of reserve grade. When top team players are unavailable, someone who has been doing well in reserve grade steps up to the big time and when the top player returns they go back to the reserves but crucially keep getting regular game time. My understanding of European football is that there is not this kind of reserve grade system. So what are the reserve players doing when they are not needed? How do they continue to demonstrate to the manager that they are in form?

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Every professional top division football team in Europe usually has a squad of around 30-35 players including reserves. The quality of most of the reserve players are almost equal to that of the starting 11 and the substitutes. The reserve players not only replace the starting 11 and substitutes when they are injured but also when they are out of form or when the manager needs to try out a different strategy and some of the reserve players fit well into it. Some managers adopt a squad rotation policy as a strategic move and reduce the burden on the starting 11. This way reserve players get oppurtunities.

To give you more clarity on the Manchester United/Wolverhampton scenario which you have mentioned, a player may choose to be on the bench or reserve at MU, this way he gets to play with better players in his team. Or he may choose to play as a statting 11 at Wolves, this way he gets more match time. The choice depends on the player.

There are reserve grade matches and U-21 matches which do occur simultaneously along with the main competition and reserve players use these matched to stay fit. I know that this is the case in England, not sure about other leagues.

I understand that you are comparing this with Australian Rugby League (which I know little about). In comparison, I believe that reserve players are used quite often in football and play a crucial role. I can say that it is very rare to see a top flight team to field the same 11 for more than 3 games consecutively.

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Just to clarify, you are saying that there is a parallel reserve grade competition in the EPL? I.e. when Man U plays Arsenal, prior to the main game there is a game played between Man U reserves and Arsenal reserves? –  Bogdanovist Sep 10 '12 at 1:05
    
Yes, check out en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011%E2%80%9312_Premier_Reserve_League there is also an U-21 league. But these games are not played prior to the main games. They are played independently. –  Max Sep 10 '12 at 1:17
    
Ah right, well that pretty much undercuts the premise of the question! +1 and accept for clearing that up. –  Bogdanovist Sep 10 '12 at 1:26
    
Just to add to that - A few clubs were not very happy with the reserve league as it was too expensive for teams to travel through out the country. And so, in England, it was replaced by the U-21 league, in which the football academies of various clubs participate. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_Development_League_1 –  Max Sep 10 '12 at 1:27

In addition to the very accurate answer by @Max I would like to note a couple of thoughts on why a player might want to choose to be a reserve player in a top team or a starter in a smaller club, given those two options:

First of all as Max also pointed out, there is usually some squad rotation in most top tier clubs. This is mainly due to competing in many different lanes (league, Europe, national league cup...) and this would put a physical burden on players that play a game every third day. Also there is the somewhat stochastic risk of injury, so unless you really need your stars on the pitch, it might be smarter (in case of an upcoming tough match) to keep them in the bench and not risk an injury. The take home message being, there usually isn't a startup that plays every game and all the other being "just-in-case" players.

Another prospect is the players age, ambition and career goals. Top teams can usually pay much more for their reserves than what smaller teams can afford to pay to their starting players. They would also get significant squad bonuses if the top team in question wins a competition. This would be very lucrative for a player who has been around for some years and career-wise stalled or on the decline. A much younger and relatively unknown player on the other hand would most likely prefer to play in a smaller club to get more playing time (thus experience) and also try and prove himself as a talent, so that he might one day be a starter for a better team.

Finally there is the factor of loyalty, some players are "born and grown" in a club and choose not to leave the club, and the city, for better contracts or more playing time. That's a matter of personal principles, and I for one, respect that a lot even though it's not a very professional behavior.

Hope this gives some more insight on the subject.

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Some interesting points, thanks. –  Bogdanovist Sep 10 '12 at 5:35

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