There’s definitely an art to making the best use of football substitutes: four of Manchester City’s seven Premier League matches this season have seen them finish with more points than they were on course to win before Pep Guardiola made his first change.
We were curious to find out which managers are the best at changing games using their substitutes and which players are best – and worst – when introduced from the bench, so we’ve analysed the data from the last decade for everyone in the ‘big five’ European leagues.
Which managers use their bench most effectively?
The aforementioned Guardiola, with his intense focus on tactics and access to deep squads, is unsurprisingly one of the best in the business at using his football substitutes. In his 299 league matches as a manager so far, his teams have finished a total of 114 points better off than if each game had ended as he made his first substitution. That works out as a gain of 14.5 points over a 38-game season on average. However, he’s been narrowly beaten by the boss of his former rivals, Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane, whose average gain works out as 15.2 points.
Further down the list we find a list of the game’s leading bosses, including several more Guardiola nemeses in Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, but also a few surprises. The most interesting is Real Sociedad manager Eusebio Sacristan who, unlike most of the other names in our top 10, has not had a large budget to work with and – like Guardiola – had a spell with Barcelona as a player and took charge of their B team. Therefore we would not be at all surprised if he moves on to greater things.
Which players are the most effective football substitutes?
He may be linked regularly with a move away from Arsenal, but a squad player is arguably Theo Walcott’s best role. No player in the big five leagues with at least a quarter of their appearances coming from the bench has had a more positive impact on his team’s fortunes.
Another Premier League player in our top 10 who seems to have embraced life as an impact sub is Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi, although it will be a while before he has added as many points from the bench as Walcott or another former Chelsea player: Cologne veteran Claudio Pizarro.
And which players are the least effective?
We were also interested in the flip side of this: which player’s introduction spells disaster more often than salvation? The answer is Las Palmas’ loanee midfielder Alen Halilovic, whose appearances from the bench have coincided with a net loss of eight points in his career so far.
Premier League fans will recognise Manchester United flop Memphis Depay in second place and Stoke’s Ibrahim Afellay in the top 10, although neither has yet cost their team more points than Crystal Palace’s Bakary Sako. Across spells at Palace and Saint-Etienne, he has seen an overall loss of seven points after coming off the bench, with five of his Premier League introductions seeing the Eagles finish worse off compared to only one where they ended the match in better shape.
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Which players have better (and worse) scoring rates from the bench?
Turning to goalscorers specifically, we were interested to find out if there were players who were actually better as football substitutes than regular starters. Looking at players with at least five goals from the bench, the standout performer is Everton’s Oumar Niasse. Across spells at Hull and the Toffees, he has needed just over half an hour on average to score from the bench while only netting once in all his minutes as a starter.
Batshuayi is unsurprisingly near the top of the list too, while a reduced role at Arsenal behind Alexandre Lacazette in the pecking order might actually suit Olivier Giroud.
We also flipped this around and looked for players who scored at a respectable rate when starting matches but struggled when introduced mid-game. Lazio’s Ciro Immobile tops the list by some distance, with a scoring rate over five times better as a member of the starting 11 than as a substitute.
The list is packed with big names and mostly players in their prime, but the presence of Wayne Rooney and Claudio Pizarro suggests that neither will enjoy the reduced role that usually comes with advancing years.
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