Substitutes, those brave footballing soldiers thrust into the thick of battle in the hope of either turning or stemming the tide of momentum in a game. Some are intended to bring about positive change, while some are simply utilised to kill time at the end of a game.
As football supporters, we will all have our own opinions on our respective clubs and their substitution policy.
So, (observing only tactical substitutions) the average time of the first tactical change made in the Premier League is just under 66 minutes (65.66 to be exact), giving justification and substance to the often stated thought that managers are generally prone to wait until an hour of play has elapsed before tinkering with their system. However, does this leave coaches with enough time to affect the outcome of a game?
There is quite a big difference of 11 minutes between Bournemouth, the most proactive team, and Chelsea, unsurprisingly the least proactive team to make a first tactical change, but interestingly the remaining 18 teams all fit within that window. There also appears to be no discernible correlation between league position and average time of substitutions, with managers happy to stick with their preferred method regardless of the standings:
So why do teams wait to make changes?
And is there a reason why Bournemouth are making tactical changes before everyone else?
The short answer is “yes”. In their first 16 games played, Bournemouth were either trailing or had been level 11 times when adjusting personnel. In this light, it’s hardly surprising that of the 43 tactical changes made by Eddie Howe, the vast majority were positive, with just two of those bench appearances representing a defensive move.
So we know that Howe is willing to be the first to blink and try to change the course of the game, but how has it worked out for him?
What is noticeable is that they scored 10 times after making a first change, which equates to one goal scored for every 4.3 tactical switches. However, on the other side of the coin, they also conceded nine, though this will inevitably be because they needed to chase a result and have opened up in search of an equaliser or a winner.
In contrast, Chelsea are the last team to make their opening tactical substitution, almost by a full two minutes to Middlesbrough, who rank second. The interesting finding with Chelsea is that though they are often last to make changes, they have actually made more tactical alterations than anybody else. This gives suggestion that they are simply looking to take time off the clock and become more conservative while leading.
Indeed, in their recent astonishing run of consecutive wins, they were leading in every single game at the point they made their first substitution (72 minutes, on average).
Attention in the final quarter of matches therefore turns not towards extending their lead, but to consolidating their position. They have proven far happier to bring on a less attacking player such as Chalobah or Ivanovic, who both made five appearances off the bench each, though Fabregas has also proven himself to be a useful resource in terms of keeping possession and creating chances, stepping off the bench four times with two assists.
Hazard and Pedro have been two of the most substituted players in the league this season, suggesting Conte either doesn’t trust their defensive work rate late in games, or treasures security above maintaining a threat going forward. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Chelsea is their ability to close out games, particularly those that are low scoring. They’ve not conceded a single goal after making their first tactical change, being the only team in the league to have such a statistic.
In general they have shown that they are more than comfortable seeing out games and tend to be the type of team who are just happy to win, rather than going out looking to win big.
In terms of the volume of goals scored and/or conceded after the opening tactical substitution there are a couple of teams who jump out, Crystal Palace at the top of the chart with 27 goals, down to Middlesbrough with just 6.
Starting with Palace, it’s been a roller coaster of a season and they have found results very hard to come by. Their attacking nature has yielded a lot of goals, but has also seen a lot going in at the other end, particularly later in matches and after they make their first tactical change around the 63 minute mark.
On average their matches witness 1.6 goals in either direction after this mark, They simply don’t have the mentality or ability to keep things tight, which is something that has proven very costly with a string of late defeats. Crystal Palace’s losses generally come as a direct result of a goal conceded inside the final 10 minutes of play.
With their current defensive woes showing no real sign of letting up, it could be a trend that continues, even though they are without Connor Wickham for the rest of the season, who had been making an impact from the bench with two goals so far.
OK, now onto Middlesbrough, who are very limited in their output after their first tactical substitution, though that could come down to leaving themselves just 20 minutes to influence the game, with Aitor Karanka reluctant to make changes in personnel, not even using his allotted three options on average.
Goals have been hard to come by at the best of times for Boro, who have set their stall out to be a defensively organised unit first and foremost, which has reaped big rewards with points gained in difficult away matches to both Arsenal and Manchester City. However, what is perhaps even more intriguing is that aside from a pair of defeats to Liverpool and Everton and a win over Bournemouth, all of their first 16 games played were decided by a one-goal margin when there has been a victor.
In addition to this, half of their games have fallen under the natural goal line, while contributions from their substitutes have been minimal, with nobody stepping off the bench in a tactical change producing a goal or an assist.
With substitutes being made late and often of a like-for-like nature, Aitor Karanka is generally happy to stick with his game plan instead of throwing a bit more caution to the wind, which goes a long way to explaining the lack of goals so far. Karanka’s emphasis is obviously on not losing games, rather than actively pursuing wins.
Looking through a wider lens, it’s interesting that just four players have managed more than one goal from the bench this season, making it a fairly exclusive club, though in total the net has been found 38 times by those introduced for tactical reasons: In terms of creativity, even fewer players have made multiple assists.
Man Utd are indifferent after making a change, scoring just four times, while Hull seem to let the floodgates open when pressing to get themselves back into matches, shipping close to a goal a game in the minutes following their first substitution.
It is easy to argue a case for why Hull are struggling at the foot of the table with statistics like those, with their squad depth being poor after a summer of late and rushed recruitment, as well as an extensive injury list that has been present almost all season, making it difficult to have a big influence with touchline decisions.
Man Utd on the other hand are a bit more intriguing, with their struggle to kill games off being evidenced by the lack of goals coming towards the end of matches.
It appears that teams near the lower reaches of the table are conceding more goals with their need to play more openly to claw back deficits making for more expansive matches.
There is a notable correlation with the more proactive teams and the number of goals scored/conceded, though in theory the more minutes players have to make an impact the greater their chance is of doing so.
Chelsea and Middlesbrough, the two latest teams to make changes, unsurprisingly concede fewer goals in the final quarter, but their defences stand up over 90 minutes generally so there is no real need for them to be reactive and push forward, though in Middlesbrough’s goal-shy case it certainly could help!