Fifteen minutes to go in the 2021-22 Premier League season, the title looked likely to change hands for the first time in months, with Liverpool having every chance of stealing top spot away from Manchester City. But then came Pep Guardiola and three inspired second half substitutions, stealing the crown right at the death.
Oleksandr Zinchenko was the first of those inspired changes, coming on at halftime for club captain Fernandinho. The Ukrainian immediately played a role in offering City greater attacking threat down the left, suddenly urging on City’s attacking intent. Then came Raheem Sterling, one of City’s top goal-scorers this season, on for wing wizard Riyad Mahrez. Sterling’s dynamism down the right immediately added the same attacking urgency to the right-hand-side, finally allowing the Citizens to trouble Lucas Digne and Jacob Ramsey down Aston Villa’s left. But still, City couldn’t find a way through. In came Ilkay Gundogan, a man who became synonymous with important goals last campaign.Embed from Getty Images
Within the span of just six minutes, all three substitutions contributed to the three goals in securing the comeback, and later the title. Sterling brilliantly floated one up for Gundogan to arrive into the box and head home, and then just moments later Zinchenko brilliantly cut the ball back for Rodri to slide the ball into the corner for two. Then came the crucial moment, with Kevin de Bruyne racing into the penalty area and sliding the ball across the box for Ilkay Gundogan to tap home once more. Again, within just six minutes, all three of City’s substitutions contributed to the comeback, securing City their fourth title under Guardiola’s reign. So how did Pep pull off the impossible? How did he know exactly which players to bring on and take off? Here are three ways to best support the substitution process, and make effective changes to change football matches.
1. RECOGNIZING PROBLEMS & OPPORTUNITIESEmbed from Getty Images
Quite simplistic and quite obvious, but a coach must be attuned to the evolution of the match and the potential gaps in their pre-match plan that are setting the team up for failure. Around halftime, a coach should be asking themselves several questions, including:
- What players are struggling to impact the game? If they need replacing, should we make a like-for-like change or opt for something different?
- What players are most likely to impact the game later, even when not playing well right now?
- Where on the field can we hurt the opposition and/or take greater opportunities for success?
- What tactical tweaks can be made within our current game-plan and set-up, and the players currently on the field?
- What players can we introduce into the match to help us overcome the barriers of the opposition? What are the proposed player’s strengths and weaknesses?
Answering these questions will help a manager to adequately make the necessary changes to turn their fortunes around, paying attention to the evolution of the match from the perspective of both their team and the opposition.
2. TIMING & PROACTIVITYEmbed from Getty Images
Often when losing a match, managers can be afraid to make a substitution, trusting the players that they instilled faith in from the beginning. But research has shown that when losing, manager’s have the greatest success of turning a match around in their favour when applying a change before the 58th minute.Embed from Getty Images
This could come at halftime, or as the half progresses and the players still aren’t finding a way to get up to speed or to break the deadlock. Pep masterfully accomplished this with his second half substitution of Zinchenko, and didn’t wait long before introducing another change before the 58th minute mark in the form of Raheem Sterling. In doing so, a manager like Pep allows the incoming player time to grow into the game, without over-depleting their energy resources. The argument for replacing players earlier than later also amplifies when you consider that managers often wait until it becomes abundantly clear that a player is no longer useful to their plans. Managers could be more proactive in making changes earlier, taking the risk away and allowing the substituted player more time to become accustomed to the flow of the match. Instead, we often see managers prioritize reactivity, such as reacting once a goal has been scored or a player has received a second yellow card. In answering the questions posed earlier, managers can do more to proactively make changes to their team structure.
3. PREPARATION & PLANNINGEmbed from Getty Images
In specific matches, managers may have pre-set plans for their substitutions, ensuring different players get an appropriate amount of time on the field. Unfortunately, this fails to take into account the evolution of the match and the necessities of the moment. Where prep work and planning can instead become useful lies within the clarification of role and expectations prior to putting on the proper kit.
You often see substitutes on the sidelines flipping through pages of duties with an assistant coach or analyst, and this process is crucial to clarifying the role of the substitute before entering the pitch. Coaches can even utilize their resources to keep subs engaged throughout the match, highlighting specific moments in the match where the player in their position achieved success or had room for improvement.Embed from Getty Images
Before the start of the 2021-22 campaign, AFC Wimbledon hired a substitution coach named Sammy Lander. Lander specialized his efforts this season in focusing on preparing substitutes for the match by constantly communicating with them throughout the ninety, and breaking down how they may be required to impact the game later on. This kind of approach helps to guide player focus toward tangible guidelines and objectives to achieve upon their introduction. It also helps keep substitutions focused on the match at hand, and ensures they continue to feel a part of the process.
One of the key aspects of being a manager in the modern era is ensuring all squad members feel like an important piece to the puzzle. It takes dedicated time and attention to ensure players that typically bide their time from the bench still feel included, and expectations have to be clearly communicated. Jurgen Klopp’s handling of Divock Origi is one of the best examples in modern times. Despite Origi’s role as a perpetual substitute for the Reds, he’s come on to score some of the most important goals in Liverpool’s history, and relishes his role. Klopp and his staff deserve some level of credit for this, as sitting on a bench is not fun for any player, no matter how much they may earn.Embed from Getty Images
Another imperative element of the preparation process is the warm-up song and dance before entering the pitch. A team’s fitness coach will often have pre-set drills or cones that substitutes can work through as they loosen their limbs and prepare to play, and players must properly warm-up their muscles before entering the fold. An improper warm-up is linked to increased risk of picking up an injury, but also lessens the player’s level of psychological focus and physical readiness for the demands of the match.
In short, the process is far more complicated, and requires far more dedicated attention than just the tactical components of identifying problems and solutions.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
The quest to effectively manage substitutions always comes with many risks and gambles, but with these three necessities, managers can better work substitutions into their game-changing plans. Subs should never be made to feel alienated from the process, and must always know their role and expectation. If clear communication can be conducted from the top down to help players adequately prepare, a manager will then be able to adequately recognize problems on a football pitch and conjure up the appropriate substitute solutions.
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