IIt is of course essential to draw the positive points from it. In the modern era, it’s all you can do after defeat, look for learnings to implement moving forward. Although it seems almost distasteful to point out 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 sheen of silver lining. It wasn’t just that Jack Grealish brought England back into the game in Germany, it was 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 come with a clamor. There is a constituency within the English support and punditocracy that demands his inclusion. He’s a smart, brilliant player who somehow seems normal; if he weren’t an extremely gifted footballer, he would watch games and smash Jägerbombs in a beer garden. He has an unaffected kindness that makes it almost impossible not to like him. But can you trust him to follow his man, to close passing lanes, not to lose the ball with one left turn too many?
It’s a problem Gareth Southgate and Pep Guardiola have had to struggle with. Grealish, in an unusually revealing on-pitch interview after the league’s final game of the season, opened up about how he struggled to learn a new style at Manchester City. Southgate spoke about the importance of allowing him his freedom. But short of returning to the football of 40 years ago, when complex systems were less prevalent and the team could be built around a genius in the game, how do you get there?
The answer was there in Munich: by getting him off the bench. Context is everything. When the game is in balance and you’re trying to set the pattern, Grealish is a risk. But later, when a stalemate needs to be broken or you’re pursuing an objective, even if you’re defending a lead and want an outlet on the counter, those lawless qualities become a blessing. A dribbler will never be more effective than when running against tired defenders, even if in practice that just means winning a series of free kicks. This role of substitute in the second period, the game-breaker, the finisher, seems to him done.
There remains a lingering feeling that the starting XI is the real deal, that being a substitute is somehow less. Players such as 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 to appear inferior. Particularly now that the Premier League have aligned themselves with most of the rest of the world in allowing five substitutes, it seems likely bench specialists will become more common; all it takes is a change of mindset.
He has sensed in the past that football was getting closer to that point. When Romelu Lukaku was on loan at West Brom in 2012-13, Steve Clarke would regularly start with either him or Shane Long and then, when they had spread their legs out of central defense, brought the other to exploit exhausted limbs.
The advantages are then twofold: not only does the player arrive fresh and therefore have an advantage against tired opponents, but the player who starts knows that he can play hard from the start because his game will probably only last about an hour. – and who in turn should exhaust his direct opponent.
While this is useful in the center of the pitch, it is perhaps even more valuable when duels between wide forwards and wingers can span almost the entire flank and require high stamina anyway.
Specialized subs have become at least semi-accepted with expert penalty goalies. Andrew Redmayne hadn’t played a single minute of Australia’s qualifying campaign but replaced captain Mat Ryan with seconds of extra time remaining in Monday’s World Cup qualifier against Peru. It’s unclear how much of his antics, dancing on his line and throwing the Peru keeper’s annotated water bottle, were responsible for Australia’s victory, but he joined a growing list of under-goers credited with wins inspirational shootouts.
The first appears 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 managers as diverse as Martin O’Neill and Louis van Gaal employed the tactic. But resistance remains, so Thomas Tuchel was widely criticized for bringing on Kepa Arrizabalaga in the Coupe de la Ligue final in February, even though the same plan worked in the Super Cup final. UEFA earlier in the season.
But when the penalties are so distinct, requiring reflexes and theory of the game skills as much as game reading and positioning, why shouldn’t some players who aren’t necessarily the best open game keepers excel at it- they not? When learning the habits and stories of opponents is a key part of the process, it makes perfect sense for a player to focus on reviewing while the open play keeper takes care of the game itself. It’s only convention that makes the idea uncomfortable or worth condemning when it goes wrong – as it sometimes does.
In the days of one, two, or even three substitutes, perhaps the benefits didn’t seem worth it over hiring a new outfielder or covering potential injuries. Now that five (plus an extra one in overtime) are allowed, however, it seems reasonable that a couple could be reserved for the use of specialists, whether they be goalkeepers saving penalties, attackers tricky in Grealish’s mold or another specific one. role.
It’s already starting to happen. All that remains is general acceptance and for players to enjoy the role of super-sub. After all, you are playing weakened opponents in a specific quest for glory. What’s not to like?