Dynamite on the bench


In a market that demands specialized profiles, ‘super-subs’ know how to make a difference in a team without being a starter.

He is hardly ever in the starting eleven. Yet he almost always makes the game. He is called ‘super-sub’, and his mission is to pull his team out of the heat when time is tight and the result is unsatisfactory. Coming off the bench and making a difference is his speciality. Being decisive, his trademark.

The history of football is full of players who have achieved success through their ability to change the course of games as substitutes. Ole Gunnar Solskjær is undoubtedly among those who have best embodied this prototype of player. The Norwegian forward scored his first goal for Manchester United in August 1996, six minutes after having entered the pitch during a match against Blackburn. Fate dictated that 11 years later, when he scored his last goal for the ‘Red Devils’, Solskjær would do so under identical circumstances: in the same stadium, against the same opponent… and six minutes after replacing a teammate!

Between these two goals, the Norwegian striker – now coach of Manchester United – scored another 27 goals coming off the bench. The most important being the one he scored at Camp Nou, in a historic Champions League (1999) in which Sir Alex Ferguson‘s team managed to win in the final minutes against Bayern Munich. It was an epic goal, a trademark of a striker who ended up becoming the true ’12th player’ of United: he rarely played in the starting line-up, but he always made the most of the minutes he had available.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer en su etapa como jugador el Manchester United.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a match he played for Manchester United.

“Every coach needs a ‘super-sub’ player in his team, capable of changing the dynamics of a game that is stuck”, explains Marc Vinyals, head of the first team of the U-19 team in the Marcet High Performance Academy. “At the beginning of the match, technicians always want for there to be a certain order, so that everything happens as we have planned it. But if this plan doesn’t work and the match gets stalled, we are forced to move on to plan B. And in this case, it is fundamental to have a ‘super-sub’ player at hand, a player who, thanks to his characteristics, can break the order and generate opportunities, spreading chaos among the rival lines”.

According to Vinyals, they are usually qualified, skilful footballers who dominate one on one situations. Many are extreme, and try to blast the game starting from the sidelines. Others have a profile that is more suited to direct football and are specialists in glancing balls, drawing fouls, generating second plays… “They are often players who even clash with the style of the team they belong to, but in the end they manage to make a difference, as Henrik Larsson did for Barça.

more and more clubs are looking specifically for ‘game-changERS’ for the last 20 minutes of the gameS

The importance of ‘super-sub’ players is such that more and more clubs are looking specifically for such profiles. This means that a team is no longer concerned only with signing a good winger, but is also looking to sign another one for the last 20 minutes of the game. Because ‘super-sub’ players are not just substitutes. On the contrary, their peculiarity makes them valuable.

It is demonstrated by Barça itself, that were looking for a number ‘9’ that perhaps is not connected to their style, but is perfect to unblock a match in its final stretch. One of the most popular names for filling this gap is Ángel Rodríguez, who began the season with Getafe. In the first six months of LaLiga the forward from Tenerife scored 10 goals in 21 matches, entering the starting eleven only six times. These numbers have made him the best substitute of the last decade in the Spanish Primera, surpassing the numbers achieved in the 2015-16 season  by another textbook ‘super-sub’ player, the Spanish footballer Ángel Correa.

Ángel celebra un gol marcado con el Getafe.
Ángel Rodrígez after scoring for Getafe.

But what happens when a ‘super-sub’ player becomes a starter? If they’re a true ‘super-sub’ player, they’re doomed to failure. Because by definition, this type of player does better by jumping on the pitch in the last few minutes than by starting the game from the opening whistle. You should never confuse a ‘super-sub’ player with an ordinary substitute. It’s one thing for a player to just sit on the bench because the coach doesn’t trust him. It’s another thing for a footballer to start as a ‘super-sub’ player because he’s considered to be a specialist in the last few minutes.

When a ‘super-sub’ does well over and over again, we coaches always start to doubt and wonder whether we should give them a chance from the start,” explains Vinyals. “However, every time we start them, the player in question lets us down over time. Take the paradigmatic example of Filip Malbasic, who in the 2018-19 season had a better goalscoring average in the second half than in the first. The Tenerife winger scored every 115 minutes when he started as a substitute, and every 541 minutes when he was a starter. A few figures that make the Serbian player the perfect prototype of a ‘super-sub’.

it is essential for this type of footballer to accept their role in the team, But it’s not always easy

There are further stats that help demonstrate this phenomenon. Last year the Spanish consulting firm Driblab managed to put figures on the desk. “We wanted to see who the ‘game-changers’ of the major European leagues are, those players who break with the established and give one step more from the bench,” explain the heads of this company, which have not taken into account only the goals generated by substitutes, but also the assists.

The data covers the 2018-19 season and features players such as Paco Alcácer (Borussia Dortmund), Joaquín Correa (Lazio) and Gabriel Jesús (Manchester City). But the graphics produced by Driblab also show how difficult it is for a substitute to take the field and make the difference by making that vital pass. There are plenty of ‘super-sub’ shots at goal, but it’s really hard to find players who can make a difference in terms of assists in the final minutes of a match.

Tim Krul releva a Jasper Cillesen antes de la tanda de penaltis contra Costa Rica.
Tim Krul relieves Jasper Cillesen before the penalty shootout against Costa Rica.

So the numbers confirm what every fan knows: the quintessential ‘super-subs’ are those who score goals. That is, strikers and wingers. Every rule has its exception, though, and no one better thanTim Krul can prove it. The Dutch goalkeeper rose to fame in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup when Louis Van Gaal decided he would relieve Jasper Cillesen just before the penalty shootout against Costa Rica. The goalkeeper managed to deflect two shots and his brilliant performance earned the Netherlands a place in the semifinals. The tulips surprised the world with an unexpected change that paid off and established Krull as the quintessential ‘super-sub’ goalkeeper.

Whether they are goalkeepers or outfield players, it is essential for this type of footballer to know how to accept their role in the team. But it’s not always easy. Many players, especially the younger ones, reject the label ‘super-sub’ because they want to play from the start. They don’t want to be second-rate players. They still see the bench more as a punishment than an opportunity. But there are also those who are more comfortable in that role. Not only do they know how to accept it, but they also take advantage of it. They understand that football requires increasingly specialised profiles, and that projects them into a successful future in which they are recognised for what they are: ‘super-subs’ from head to toe.

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