Cristiano Ronaldo’s replacement shows football needs to change its relationship with this important role

Cristiano Ronaldo’s reaction to life among the substitutes has brought the role back into the spotlight. But he did so at a time when the impact and importance of the Premier League substitute has never been more apparent.

Ronaldo was dropped for Manchester United’s trip to Chelsea in October as punishment for refusing to continue as a late substitute and for leaving early in the win over Tottenham.

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The Soccer Special panel reacts to Cristiano Ronaldo walking through the tunnel before full time in Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Tottenham

And yet, the previous month, Heung-Min Son became the first substitute to score a Premier League hat-trick for seven years. When Ronaldo himself came off the bench to score against Everton last month, the number of Premier League goals per game scored by substitutes reached its highest level in almost a decade.

This is a logical consequence of the rule which now allows a team to make five substitutions, encouraging their introduction earlier. Any coach – and indeed any player – who chooses to minimize or ignore the opportunities this presents does so at their peril.

This hasn’t always been the accepted wisdom in football, as Sean Dyche explains. “I tend to think that if you’re on the right track, stick to it,” he says. sky sports. “I remember a few years ago there was a lot of talk about the fact that I didn’t make any substitutions.

“Brian Clough didn’t make any substitutions. I remember he once said that if you pick the right team why do you have to change it because that right team might still work until the last minute of the game. If I believe in what I then give it a chance to work.

“It can vary, of course. If you weren’t sure about getting in, you might only give this decision 60 minutes to work through. But if you are sure of your team and everything is going well and the team is working well, then why not leave it until the end of the game to see if it will work?”

Clough made two substitutions in the second of his two European Cup final triumphs, but that was another era. Even in his final season as manager, the first in the Premier League era, three men were allowed on the bench but only two could be used.

Pep Guardiola has sometimes hinted at a Clough-like instinct, despite the strength of his Manchester City side. In the thrilling 3-3 draw at Newcastle in August, he made no changes in the second half. At Liverpool recently, he waited until the 89th minute.

But Guardiola knows how important these replacements can be – if they approach the role with the right attitude. “Now, with five substitutions, the impact is for the guys with the right mentality,” he explained at a press conference earlier this season.

“Normally when people come off the bench and play badly it’s because they’re not there (pointing his head). They complain because they don’t play. After that they don’t play and they don’t come off the bench. When they are there, they can help.

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Manchester City head coach Pep Guardiola instructs Jack Grealish

All of these comments reflect the strange relationship football continues to have with the substitute. For the coach, the bench is still sometimes experienced as an admission of defeat. For the player who finds himself there, the feeling persists of having already lost.

Sammy Lander is trying to change that way of thinking. During the 2019/20 season with AFC Wimbledon, he became what is believed to be football’s first specialist replacement manager. It was a role he identified with after sitting on the bench at Weymouth.

Psychologically, he soon realized that he was not ready to step onto the pitch if called upon. “It’s very hard to judge if you haven’t been in that situation,” Lander said. Sky sports. “It wasn’t until I experienced this that I realized there was a gap in the market.”

Lander, just 25, now works as a consultant, pitching his ideas on replacements to Premier League clubs who are receptive to potential. “Specialized coaches are multiplying because football is reduced to small margins which make a big difference financially.”

He’s understandably reluctant to detail every detail of how he can help teams unlock the substitute’s potential, but acknowledges the mental side of the game is huge. “These Pep quotes go into my presentation,” he laughs.

“It succeeds. You can have a player prepared in all aspects, but if he has that negative stigma attached to being a substitute, he’s not going to walk through a wall for you. The role really helps create that ‘we, not me’ mentality.

“I think the players benefit the most from the psychological aspect. When I first started doing this and talking to the players, it seemed like they only thought they had a part in the game if they scored a goal or provided an assist. This is their take on the game.

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“The reason there is this stigma is that the substitutes are not involved. Everyone talks about starters on Friday, nobody pays much attention to them. The team goes to warm-up and the substitutes are left behind. They are almost excluded from the process.

“But substitutes can play a role even if it’s not the traditional role. Just by showing them love and affection, you can unlock so much more potential for them. The Wimbledon goalkeeping coach used to say it’s a team that starts but a team that finishes.

At Wimbledon, they even used the term “finishers” – as opposed to starters – in an attempt to rebrand the substitute role. “We actually have 11 names for it now,” says Lander. “It gives the substitute a better idea of ​​what we want him to do.”

There’s the energizer, the impactor, and the nearest.

“While these names are great for empowering a player, they also give a bit of tactical savvy on what we want to see from them when they step onto the pitch. If you’re the energizer, you know your job is to bring more intensity to the game.

Cristiano Ronaldo leaves the bench for Manchester United under Erik ten Hag
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Cristiano Ronaldo leaves the bench for Manchester United under Erik ten Hag

Lander is the first to acknowledge that such phrases aren’t for everyone, especially in an industry that can resist change. “If I called Ronaldo a ‘finisher’ he probably wouldn’t take it very well. The terminology works best with younger players,” he says.

“We had a 29-year-old central defender who had played 300 career games. I never had to call him a finisher. I just called him a substitute in front because he had already dealt with this transition. He didn’t need that love, he treated it his way.

“Other players, often younger players, would appreciate that love. If you can make them more productive, it will get them into the starting lineup. When you throw it like that, players will be there for it because you’re trying to solve a problem for them.”

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Arsenal, Nottingham Forest

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In practice, that means talking to players throughout the game. “Players kept going without being spoken to for an hour. I did this analysis of the opposition so I could drip feed them from the bench, update them on tactical changes to ease the transition.

Other problems are more difficult to solve. There’s the technical challenge of having to go through the crucial last five minutes of a big game without having touched a ball for at least 45 minutes. Lander found ways around this. “I can’t reveal too much,” he says.

“But there are problem-solving ways to build those habits, just so their first touch for 60 minutes, their first pass for 60 minutes, wasn’t going to be a game-changer, just so they could settle into a game of such intensity. It makes things easier.

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In total, Lander was among 23 innovations at Wimbledon this season “which were a bit niche, a bit different, a bit new” and while a 19th-place finish in Ligue 1 might not suggest the start of a football revolution, it was a success given their resources.

And the impact of substitutes was clear.

“We had a lot of data because people can’t object to it. We had one of the most productive points per substitute records. We had the second highest goal contribution by substitutes. Remember, this is a team that was 19th, one of the worst scorers in the general classification.

Perhaps the real impact will be felt when others with bigger budgets than Wimbledon choose to embrace these ideas and exploit these benefits. Plymouth are now top of League One with 10 of their goals scored by substitutes. “I followed that.”

Lander mentions the Premier League side who never seem to come back after losing positions. He believes he could have an impact there. Elsewhere, he sees more positive signs. “You’re starting to see real patterns emerge with certain teams.”

Perhaps it’s a scheme that Pep Guardiola already enjoys.

And a lesson Cristiano Ronaldo has yet to learn.

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