Armchair Tactician
By Simon Gallagher
Tuesday 17 May 2011 08:41:00
Browse all Simon Gallagher articles


As late as 1964 the idea of a manager being able to bring two or three players on in the last twenty minutes of a match to chase a victory would have met with amused bewilderment, since the substitution wasn't introduced in English League Football until the 1965/66 season, and only then to cover injury. The accolade of being the League's first substitute went to Charlton's Keith Peacock (father of our own Gavin) that season when he replaced injured goalkeeper Mike Rose after eleven minutes against Bolton.


It wasn't until 1967/68 that the rule was relaxed to include substitutes for tactical reasons, a development in the game that this issue's Armchair Tactician will look at, taking in some of the best known examples of moments of substitution genius.


Tactics extend beyond the eleven men on the pitch. Just ask Sir Alex Ferguson. In the history of spectacular substitutions, his decision to haul off an ineffectual Jesper Blomqvist for Teddy Sheringham in the 67th minute, proved the catalyst for the come-back, and then in his final throw of the dice Ferguson replaced Andy Cole with Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and a few minutes later Man Utd would lift a trophy that had looked all but won by Bayern Munich.


Just ask the three men who won Man Utd the trophy and an incredible treble that had four days earlier included the scalp of Newcastle at Wembley whether those substitutions had tactical value. The introduction of Sheringham in particular changed the attacking make-up of the team, adding a third striker and sacrificing a right midfielder (a change amply covered thanks to David Beckham's central midfield berth and his willingness to track wide).


While substitutions can mean the difference between three points, one or zero, they are also one of the unspoken quantifiers that a manager is judged by when his success is put under more scrutiny than his win ratio. Along with transfer policy, effect on squad morale and development of youth policy, acumen in effective on-pitch changes is one of the swords that a manager lives and dies by.


To balance that importance, substitutions are now considered far more than a necessity to cover injury and fatigue, they offer a management team the ability to change the shape and bias of a team, whether to protect a lead, by changing a luxury offensive player for a more defensive one, or to chase one, by overloading the opposition with a top-heavy formation. Indeed a substitution made necessary by an injury is often considered a waste of a future opportunity for pro-active tactical change.


Such is the lasting legacy of successful substitutions that certain players gather a reputation as a “supersub”, based on their repeated influence in shaping the outcome of the match after replacing another player. Arguably the most famous of these supersubs are Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who once scored four goals as a substitute in Man Utd's 8-1 thrashing of Nottm Forest, Oliver Bierhoff for single-handedly changing the outcome of the Euro '96 final and Liverpool's ginger-haired wonder David Fairclough, for dragging his team past St Etienne in the quarter finals of the European Cup.


Key to the success of the such substitutions must be the willingness of the manager to accept that a tactical substitution is not an admission of inadequacy on their own part. Had Ruud Gullit accepted that fact, he may have put aside his own stubbornness back in 1999 and replaced Paul Robinson, who was entirely unable to hold the ball up with Alan Shearer who could, instead of Duncan Ferguson. Instead, he waited, eventually making the tactical decision to replace Silvio Maric with Shearer too late for him to make a difference, and the striker instead found himself dropping back in order to stem the red and white tide after they scored a second just three minutes after he had joined the action.


Today, the idea of the tactical substitution has changed once more, as teams with the financial clout of Manchester City can populate their benches with strikers who cost around £25m apiece, who are virtually guaranteed to make a difference when they come on. Look at Adam Johnson, and specifically the effect he had on Newcastle in the away leg at the City of Manchester stadium back in October. With Newcastle in the ascendancy, following Jonas Gutierrez's excellent equaliser, Mancini hauled off Gareth Barry, who looked nothing like the England player he claims to be, and put the flying winger on in his place.


Up until that point, almost for the entire game Newcastle had been able to absorb City's pressure, as they looked to release Tevez from deep through the middle, only to be thwarted by the excellent central pairing of Barton and Cheikh Tiote. The Ivorian in particular played out of his skin, never rising to the central midfield violence of Yaya Toure and made Barry look terrible- which is perhaps why Barry's substitution was met with cheers from the Man City fans, and audible groans from the black and whites.


Johnson's introduction gave the midfield an added level of skill, visible when he sold Barton an almighty dummy with the step-over that lead to his goal, only two minutes after he came on. Prior to that, Barton had looked impenetrable in his defensive duties, with Yaya Toure and Barry content to play direct, passing through midfield instead of carrying the ball past the first man, which in most cases lead to a Newcastle player intercepting and breaking down the attack. The substitution was so instantly effective, and so lauded that despite being on the pitch less than 20 minutes, Johnson was named man of the match.


So how can Newcastle learn to use the tactical substitution to the benefit of the team?


As mentioned in last issue's column, one problem that has come up time and time again this season for Newcastle is an inability to change a game with substitutions. Too many times, due to the limited depth of the squad, changes were no more than like-for-like swaps which only add something to the team's performance if the player coming on can add something different. And too often again, those changes made little difference to the outcome of the game- can you remember one that directly had a positive game-changing effect on a match? Because, I'm sad to say I cant.


With January now upon us and the transfer window open, there is an opportunity to add a bit of depth to the team and to bring in not only cover for the positions we are criminally short at (left-back predominantly) but also players who will add an extra dimension to our play.


If we are going to push towards the top of the table, which is becoming more than a pie-in-the-sky possibility with every point we pick up, Newcastle are going to have to bring more first-team quality players in who can boost the quality of our bench. At the minute, only Wayne Routledge, Nile Ranger and perhaps Shane Ferguson look likely to make a difference when introduced late into games, and with Routledge criminally lacking a final ball, Ferguson still a little young, and Ranger's  attitude threatening to get in the way of his potential, that situation cannot continue. With Ben Arfa and Gosling set to feature more heavily in the next month or so, that might relegate Gutierrez to the bench, which would at least offer us another option (he was excellent as a substitute against Man City and occasionally looks like he needs to be dropped to boost his form), but again, the addition of two or three more quality players would hugely improve Alan Pardew's ability to change games in our favour.


That could be the difference between no points and one point. And what do points mean? Prizes.

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