The super substitutes are back and Jack Grealish can set a benchmark as a deciding factor | Football


meOf course, it is essential that we extract the positive aspects. In the modern age, that’s all you can do after defeat, look for the learnings that will be enacted in the future. Although it almost seems unpleasant to point to something that went well for England after a dismal Nations League campaign that culminated in their worst home defeat since 1928, there was, in the fatigue and frustration, a faint ray of light. It’s not just that Jack Grealish dragged England back into the game away from Germany, it’s that his performance in Munich hinted at a new way of conceptualizing the game.

Grealish is one of those players who, for about 18 months, has been clamoring. There is a constituency within the support and chatter of England that demands his inclusion. He is a smart and brilliant player who somehow seems normal; if he wasn’t a supremely gifted footballer, he’d be watching games and kissing Jägerbombs in a beer garden. He has a natural kindness that makes it nearly impossible not to like him. But can you trust him to track down his man, to shut down passing lanes, to not fumble the ball with one too many clumsy tricks?

It is a problem that Gareth Southgate and Pep Guardiola have had to deal with. Grealish, in an unusually revealing interview on the pitch after the final game of the league season, spoke of how difficult it was for him to learn a new style at Manchester City. Southgate has spoken of the importance of allowing his freedom. But short of a return to football 40 years ago, when complex systems were less prevalent and the team could be built around a genius of the game, how can that be achieved?


The answer was there in Munich: taking him off the bench. Context is everything. When the game is balanced and you’re trying to establish the pattern, Grealish is a risk. But later, when a stalemate needs to be broken or you’re chasing an objective, even if you’re defending an advantage and want an outlet on the counterattack, those anarchic qualities become a blessing. A dribbler will never be more effective than when facing tired defenders, even if in practice that just means winning a series of free throws. That role as a substitute in the second half, the one who breaks the game, the one who finishes off, feels made for him.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær resisted the ‘super substitute’ tag in his playing days. Photograph: Dan Chung/The Guardian

There remains a nagging feeling that the starting XI is the real deal, that being a stand-in is somehow minor. Players like David Fairclough and Ole Gunnar Solskjær resisted the “super-sub” label, insisting they were more than that. But there is no reason for a player who arrives to appear inferior. Particularly now that the Premier League has aligned itself with most of the rest of the world in allowing five substitutions, it seems likely that specialists on the bench will become more common; all it takes is a change in mindset.

He has felt in the past that football was approaching this point. When Romelu Lukaku was on loan at West Brom in 2012-13, Steve Clarke would often start with either him or Shane Long and then, when they had left legs out of central defence, they would bring in the other to exploit the worn limbs.

So the benefits are twofold: not only does the player arrive fresh and therefore at an advantage against tired opponents, but the starting player knows they can go flat out from the start because their game will probably only last another hour. or less. – And that in turn should exhaust the direct opponent of him.

While that’s useful in midfield, it’s perhaps even more valuable when duels between forwards and wingers can stretch almost the entire length of the flank and require serious stamina anyway.

Specialized substitutes have become at least semi-accepted with goalkeepers who are experts at penalties. Andrew Redmayne had not played a single minute of Australia’s qualifying campaign, but he replaced captain Mat Ryan with seconds remaining in extra time in Monday’s World Cup qualifying play-off against Peru. It’s unclear how responsible his antics – dancing on his line and throwing Peru’s goalkeeper’s scored water bottle – were responsible for Australia’s victory, but he joined a growing list of substitute goalkeepers credited with shot-inspiring victories. penalties.

Andrew Redmayne takes a photo with fans.
Australia’s reserve goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne was signed for the penalty shootout with Peru and helped secure World Cup qualification. Photograph: Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

The first seems to have been Nikos Christidis, who replaced Lakis Stergioudas when AEK Athens beat QPR in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals in 1976-77 and saved Dave Webb’s penalty, since coaches as diverse as Martin O’Neill and Louis van Gaal have employed the tactic. But resistance persists, for which Thomas Tuchel was widely criticized for bringing Kepa Arrizabalaga into February’s League Cup final, even though the same plan had worked in the UEFA Super Cup final earlier in the season. seasonal.

But when penalties are so clear, demanding reflexes and game theory skills as much as reading the game and positioning, why don’t some players who aren’t necessarily the best open-play goalkeepers excel at them? When learning opponents’ habits and narratives is such a key part of the process, it makes perfect sense for one player to focus on review while the open play keeper continues the match. It’s only convention that makes the idea seem awkward or worth condemning when it goes wrong, as it occasionally will.

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In the days of one, two or even three backups, maybe the benefits didn’t seem worth it compared to bringing in a new outfielder or having coverage for potential injuries. However, now that five are allowed (plus an additional one in extra time), it seems reasonable that a couple could be reserved for the use of specialists, be they penalty-saving goalkeepers, skilled attackers in the Grealish mold or some other specific type. . role.

It’s already starting to happen. All that remains is general acceptance and players coming to enjoy the role of being the super understudy. After all, you are playing against weakened opponents in a specific quest for glory. What is not to enjoy that?