By Yeo Chee Yew

Art of Substitution

July 5th, 2014. The Netherlands and Costa Rica fought hard over the course of 120 minutes but could not break the deadlock. Time was quickly running out for the Oranje, who still had one substitute available ahead of the dreaded penalty shootout. In a moment of madness, manager Louis van Gaal brought on substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul in the dying minutes of extra time - there was no such precedent in World Cup history! Two spectacular saves later, a national hero was born.

It was the English and Italians� turn seven years later in the delayed Euro 2020 Finals. Perhaps inspired by van Gaal, English manager Gareth Southgate made two late substitutions at the end of extra time to bring on Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho. Hopes of emulating that managerial masterclass were quickly dashed, as the two substitutes failed to convert in front of expectant home fans.

This stark contrast of fortunes illustrates how difficult it is to make a game-winning substitution (or two) that will forever be etched in folklore. The fine line between success and failure could not have been thinner. However, that doesn�t have to be if you learn to master the art of substitution.


Sammy LanderSammy Lander (Blurred Screenshot from AFC Wimbledon TV)

AFC Wimbledon�s substitute coach Sammy Lander is the first of his kind (one of, at the very least). As part of his pitch to Wimbledon boss Mark Robinson, he analysed what players were doing prior to their introduction to England's biggest game for 55 years.

Lander observed that, instead of warming up down the touchline, Rashford and Sancho were just walking. �I think they were out warming up for about 11 minutes. For about seven of those they were stood still, for about two minutes they were doing groin stretches and then for about one minute they were sort of just sat watching.�

This led to Lander concluding that the duo were not physically ready to affect the game or match the intensity, let alone raise it. With that lies what Lander believes to be the value of his role: getting players, technically, physically and mentally ready to enter the field of play and enhance the team. In short, to turn them into 'finishers'.

No, not strikers. The �finishers� Lander refers to are those who finish the game, not too dissimilar to a starting XI. Lander thinks of the vocabulary of football and says: �We call them �finishers�, not substitutes, because even the word �substitution� is negative. It means you�re second. Horrible word.�


Reframing the role

�It�s about treating a substitute as a starter � they�ve to do exactly the same job; in fact, it might be harder because they�re usually coming on when the game is a little bit negative for the team. So they have to bring something to it.�

It works from the other direction too. Think back to the Euro 2016 finals between France and Portugal. Talisman Cristiano Ronaldo was forced off early after a nasty challenge and had to be stretchered off the pitch in tears. But his involvement did not end there, joining coach Fernando Santos in the technical area in a combined attempt to push the team one step further.

If you�ve ever played football, chances are you�ve been a substitute at some point, and it can be demoralizing to be one (or subbed off). While ruminating on the bench, the only ones you�re talking to are the other demotivated subs. Reframing the roles reconnects these players to the game and gives them a sense of purpose. It is an interesting concept and one that is woefully underappreciated in team sports.


Impact Time

Impact time refers to the period it takes for a player to impact a game.

Imagine if you were a striker that has been sent on with barely five minutes left to play, with the team needing a last gasp goal to either win or equalize. Chances are, you won�t be able to do much unless the golden opportunity is presented to you on a plate. Eder, for example, �only� scored the winner 30 minutes after his introduction to clinch the Euro 2016 trophy for Portugal.


Half Time

�Half-time becomes crucial � you have 15 minutes of uninterrupted ball-time on a pitch. The subs stay out with me, get touches of the ball, can practice diags (diagonal passes) if that�s what we want. They enjoy it.�

�Lots of players� warm-ups aren�t that good compared to the starters � their warm-up is intense. For some reason, there�s not that perception with subs. But when players come on, they have to run, sprint, get to high speeds and that comes from being warm. Sometimes, we�ll look at players and say, �He�s not warmed up properly�, and the GPS stats will confirm that. The GPS can monitor the warm-up. Make sure they add value.�



The benefits of having the world�s first substitutes coach (even if on a trial basis) were reaped almost immediately. Two substitutes scored within ten minutes of their introduction to salvage a point against Bolton Wanderers in mid-August. In the following game, it was another substitute�s goal (assisted by a fellow substitute) that would have been the winner against Gillingham if not for an unfortunate late own goal.

Six out of the 15 goals that AFC Wimbledon have plundered in their first seven League One games this season were created by substitutes (four goals, two assists). By comparison, at the same stage of last season, none of Wimbledon�s nine league goals had been scored or assisted by substitutes. To re-enforce the point, no fewer than 13 League One clubs still haven�t had a substitute score or assist at the same point.

As the season developed, the Wimbledon substitutes would continue to deliver valuable contributions despite an alarming slump in the team's overall form since mid-December, either assisting or scoring (albeit sporadically) in games where the team was a goal down.

It is perhaps unfair to judge the value of a substitutions coach based on the team�s recent dismal performances. AFC Wimbledon were never a club challenging for the League One title over the past 5 years, and the substitutes� contributions cannot be evaluated on the end product (goals and assists) alone.


While AFC Wimbledon hasn�t blown the world away with their novel trial, the idea of better utilizing and preparing the substitutes for maximum impact off the bench could still very well be the next tactical revolution for football!


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