The art of substitutions

By Danny Wyn Griffith

Time often calls on football managers to take necessary risks in order to win matches. Sometimes these risks pay off, other times they blow up in your face. Along with a change in tactics, substitutions are another prime example of how to alter the course of a match. Being able to take off the underperforming striker, and replacing him with someone who has a point to prove has the potential to turn the game on its head. Same goes for when you’re defending a tight lead. At this point, you may want to take off an attacker, in order to have that extra man in midfield to close out the match. We must remember, however, that having the opportunity to call on substitutes is still a relatively new modern day luxury.

The first-ever recorded substitute in international football is known to have been Richard Gottinger replacing Horst Eckel for West Germany against Saarland in a 1954 World Cup qualifying tie. English football history was made on 21 August 1965, as Charlton Athletic goalkeeper, Keith Peacock, became the first official substitute to venture onto the pitch in domestic football, as he replaced the injured first-choice keeper, Mike Rose, against Bolton Wanderers. At the beginning of the 1965/66 season, the Football Association had taken it upon themselves to allow substitutions, but only to replace injured players. In the years leading up to the decision, big matches, such as the FA Cup final, had seen sides depleted by the end of matches, thereby having an effect on the outcome of the tie.

The rules regarding substitutions have changed drastically over the course of the past 52 years, so much so that suggestions have been banded regarding the introduction of a further substitute, thereby making it a permitted four. Having said that, regardless of how many you’re allowed to make, the most important aspect is their effect on the match.

This season, we’ve seen managers’ decisions pay off handsomely. José Mourinho, into his famed second season at Manchester United, saw a remarkable start to the season. He took Marcus Rashford off for Anthony Martial against West Ham on the opening day; Martial scored. With the score deadlocked at 0-0 against Leicester City, he took off Martial for Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Marouane Fellaini; both Rashford and Fellaini scored as United went onto to win 2-0. True, having such talents to call upon off the bench has its advantage and, sometimes, lady luck may be on the manager’s side. Yet, one must remember that when, how and why you make these changes is what separates the best managers, from the rest.

Elsewhere in the Premier League, we’ve seen Peter Crouch, at 36 years of age, come off the bench to rescue Stoke City at West Bromwich Albion, and then score the winner at home to Southampton. We’ve seen Everton’s forgotten man, Oumar Niasse, who was cast aside without any disregard upon Ronald Koeman’s arrival, prove the Dutchman’s judgement to be wanting, as he came off the bench to score twice against Bournemouth, turning a potential 1-0 defeat into a much-needed 2-1 win for the struggling Toffees.

Still, there have been times when substitutions backfire dramatically. A recent example, ironically, being José Mourinho’s decision to call upon Fellaini to replace Mkhitaryan in the 2016/17 Premier League meeting at Goodison Park. Leading 1-0 with three minutes remaining, Fellaini is thrust on, for one can only imagine his height being a major factor in Mourinho’s decision making, with Everton’s set-pieces causing issues for the Red Devils. Less than a minute into his return to Merseyside, Fellaini fouls Idrissa Gueye. The referee awards the home-side a penalty. Leighton Baines scores and the match finishes 1-1. Fellaini is ridiculed in the weeks that follow. Mourinho’s judgement is questioned.

As a football manager, you live and die by your decisions. As shown, the same sub, but at different stages of games, can have a devastatingly good or bad effect. Football’s history is riddled with such instances.

During Manchester United’s famous 1998/99 treble season, Sir Alex Ferguson had the knack of rotating his forwards, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham, in a destructive manner. He once called upon the benched Solskjaer on a cold winter’s evening at Nottingham Forrest, with the Norwegian responding by scoring four goals in an 8-1 thrashing. In the FA Cup final, Teddy Sheringham replaced the injured United captain, Roy Keane, after nine minutes. Two minutes later, Sheringham broke the deadlock and guided Manchester United to the FA Cup win. Four days on in Catalonia, Sir Alex’s side faced Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League final. Only previously European champions under Sir Matt Busby in 1968, United found themselves 1-0 down for most of the match after a Mario Basler free-kick for Die Roten. Ferguson called upon Sheringham and Solskjaer in the second half, replacing Jesper Blomqvist and Andy Cole. In added on time, Sheringham would equalise, before Solskjaer would win the match. Ferguson’s decision paid off. Manchester United were European champions once again.

At one time, managers had no control between the dressing room and the final whistle, other than tactical changes and half-time rants. Substitutions, however, gave managers the opportunity to make amends for previous decisions and affect results mid-match. Football hasn’t looked back since Keith Peacock’s introduction for Charlton Athletic in 1965, and with player data and analytics playing such a huge part in the modern day game, expect substitutions to alter the course of matches, more so than ever, over the coming years.

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