IOf course, it is important that we extract positive moments. In the modern age, that’s all you can do after defeat, look for lessons to apply in the future. While it’s almost tasteless to point out that England fared well after a dismal campaign in the League of Nations that ended in their worst home defeat since 1928, there was one vague ray of hope in weariness and disappointment. It’s not just that Jack Grealish brought England back into the game far into Germany, but also that his performance in Munich hinted at a new way of thinking about the game.
Grealish is one of those players that for 18 months or so has been coming in with a bang. There are supporters and experts in England who demand its inclusion. He is a smart, flamboyant player who seems somehow normal; if he wasn’t a supremely gifted footballer, he would watch matches and lick Jägerbombs in the beer garden. He has a genuine amiability that makes it almost impossible not to love him. But can you trust him to keep an eye on your player, to block passes, not to lose the ball to one too many clumsy tricks?
This is a problem that Gareth Southgate and Pep Guardiola have had to contend with. Grealish, in an unusually revealing interview on the pitch after the final game of the league season, spoke about how difficult it was for him to learn a new style of play at Manchester City. Southgate spoke of the importance of giving him his freedom. But aside from a return to football 40 years ago, when complex systems were less common and a team could be built around a single genius playmaker, how can this be achieved?
The answer was in Munich: take him off the bench. Context is everything. When the game is in balance and you’re trying to set a pattern, Grealish is a risk. But later, when you need to break a stalemate or you’re pursuing a goal, even if you’re defending the lead and want to counterattack, those anarchic qualities become a blessing. A dribbler will never be more effective than when working against tired defenders, even if in practice it simply means winning a series of free kicks. This role of a substitute in the second half, a game interrupter, a finisher seems to be created for him.
There remains a strong feeling that the starting XI is a real business, and being a replacement is somehow less. Players such as David Fairclough and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have rejected the “super-supersub” label, insisting that they were something more. But the exiting player has no reason to look worse. In particular, now that the Premier League has agreed with most of the rest of the world to allow five substitutions, it looks like specialists on the bench will become more common; all it takes is a change in mentality.
In the past, football seemed to be approaching this point. When Romelu Lukaku was on loan at West Bromwich in 2012/13, Steve Clarke regularly started with either him or Shane Long, and then when they were running from the centre-back he would bring in another to use his debilitated limbs.
The advantage in this case is twofold: not only does the player come out fresh and thus have an advantage over tired opponents, but the player who starts knows that he can play at full strength right from the start because his game is likely to only last an hour or so. – and this, in turn, should exhaust his direct opponent.
While useful in midfield, it is arguably even more valuable when duels between wingers and wingers can take place almost all the way down the flank and require a lot of stamina anyway.
Substitutes have become at least half accepted by goalkeepers who are penalty kick experts. Andrew Redmayne did not play a single minute in Australia’s qualifying campaign but came on for captain Mat Ryan seconds before the end of Monday’s World Cup qualifying play-off against Peru. It’s unclear how responsible his antics, dancing on his line and throwing away a Peruvian goaltender-tagged water bottle for Australia’s win, but he joined a growing list of substitute goaltenders credited with inspiring shootout victories.
The earliest appears to have been Nikos Christidis, who replaced Lakis Stergiudas when AEK beat QPR in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup in 1976-77 and saved Dave Webb’s penalties, since managers as varied as Martin O’Neill and Louis van Gaal used tactics. But resistance remains, so Thomas Tuchel has been widely criticized for taking Kepa Arrizabalaga in February’s League Cup final, even though the same plan worked in the UEFA Super Cup final earlier this season.
But when penalties are so precise, requiring reflexes and game theory abilities as well as reading the game and positioning, why would some players who aren’t necessarily the best goalkeepers in open play excel at them? When learning about the habits and tells of opponents is such a key part of the process, it only makes sense for one player to focus on reviewing while the open goaltender takes care of the match itself. It’s only convention that makes an idea seem awkward or reprehensible when it doesn’t go the way it should, which sometimes happens.
On days of one, two, or even three subs, perhaps the benefits weren’t worth it compared to bringing in a fresh outfielder or covering up potential injuries. Now that five is allowed (plus one more in extra time), it seems reasonable that the pair could be reserved for the use of specialists, whether as penalty keepers, sly Grealish-shaped strikers, or some other specific role.
This is already starting to happen. All that’s left is universal recognition and an opportunity for players to enjoy being a super-submissive. After all, you are playing against weakened opponents in a specific pursuit of glory. What’s not to like about it?