The Super Sub: An Unsustainable Situation

If a player is scoring goals from the bench, then why should a manager start him? Of course, it isn't that simple. Daniel Storey looks at one of football's most curious roles...

Last Updated: 13/11/12 at 17:06 Post Comment

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The super sub is one of football's gloriously celebrated clich├ęs. The phrase was established through the performances of David Fairclough for Liverpool in the late 70s and early 80s, and initiated by the striker's late winner in a European Cup quarter final in 1977. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, another famous example, scored four goals in twelve minutes against Nottingham Forest and the winner in the Champions League final in 1999.

In fact, both of these attributed tags required a slight shifting in the actual facts. Of Fairclough's 153 appearances for Liverpool, only 61 were from the bench, and only 35% of Solskjaer's Premier League appearances came from outside of the starting eleven. However, both players gained the reputation for the importance of late goals after introduction to the game, and football loves a moniker. Such reputations are far easier to gain than lose.

This season, the super sub is back in fashion. The evident recent trait in the Premier League has been for comebacks, with a third of all points gained from losing positions this season. Towards the top of the division this is more pronounced, and the top four teams in the league table are also the four teams who have gained the most points after being behind - 48 in total.

Manchesters United and City, occupying the top two positions in both of these tables, have relied on goalscoring substitutes of their own, so crucial in engineering 29 points worth of comebacks. Javier Hernandez secured a win for United against Chelsea with the winner, and this weekend transformed the game against Aston Villa.

Manchester City's super sub is even more prominent. Edin Dzeko's goals after being introduced as a substitute have gained City nine points this season, the difference between the club being second and eighth. Only three players have more goals than the Bosnian in the Premier League, and yet his strike against QPR on September 1 was his sole contribution when starting.

The simple application of the super sub tag in many ways fails to appreciate the difficulty of such a role. The simplistic assessment is that a striker is entering the game at a time at which fatigue in defenders is increased, but instantly adjusting to the pace of the game for a shortened spell is challenging, and there is no easing-in period. Hernandez had three shots against Villa and all led to goals. On Sunday, Dzeko was able to win four aerial duels, provide a key pass and score a goal with just twelve touches, all within 17 minutes. This is mightily impressive stuff.

You are also forced to approach the game in a different manner. Often used as a substitute by Chelsea, Salomon Kalou explained the difference in mindset: "While you're on the bench, you shouldn't watch the game in the same way as others. I always concentrate on my particular area of the pitch to see what the opposition player is doing in that area. I make mental notes of what he's doing right and what he's doing wrong and I think about what I can do to get the better of him if I get to come on."

However, the role of the super sub is an interesting point in football philosophy. Whilst a manager does not necessarily pick his best eleven players, his starting eleven will typically be what he considers to be his 'best' team. Part of the super sub identity indicates that you are consistently left out of the starting eleven. 'Super' might be good, but 'sub' is less so.

When a striker is left on the bench, media reports inevitably surface that he is unhappy with the situation, something already been mooted this season in the cases of Darren Bent and Emmanuel Adebayor. Are we to believe that starting a match is more important to a striker than scoring a goal, and therefore that possessing a super sub is an unsustainable state of affairs?

That certainly seems to be the case with Edin Dzeko, speaking before his latest winner against Spurs on Sunday. "I was never a super sub before I came to City. I used to play always from the beginning and I scored a lot of goals not as a sub. In the last few games it's a situation like this and I am just happy I am scoring goals. But I will never be a super sub. I want to play."

You can understand the frustrations of the forward, as he has outscored Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez, both of whom have more starts. However, with Manchester City winning games and Dzeko scoring goals from the bench, Roberto Mancini could not be blamed for maintaining the status quo. After all, the Bosnian has just one goal in his three league starts, and City have won only one of those games.

Sir Alex Ferguson has publicly stated an opposing view, hinting that Hernandez would start United's trip to Carrow Road on Saturday, but if the Mexican has been more successful from a secondary role, why would there be a need to change this? More pertinently, hasn't Hernandez demonstrated that this current role is in fact his forte? Whereas many talented forwards may struggle with competitive football in 20 minute bursts, Dzeko and Hernandez have become master exponents of such an art.

Dzeko essentially finds himself in a Catch-22 position. If he continues scoring goals as a substitute, his super sub tag will stick, hanging around his neck like the proverbial albatross, and Mancini will be loathe to alter such a bountiful tactic. If he stops scoring goals, the Italian has alternate options in search of a goal. His propensity to start games may still be slim. Opportunities may possibly arise in the FA Cup or Europa League, but does this sate the demands of an international striker? Perhaps it simply comes down to whether the mentality of a player is for self over club, or club over self?

It may seem logical that a team winning matches and a player scoring goals should please all parties. But in the case of the super sub, it simply produces a dilemma for both player and coach, both with often differing opinions on the matter. It might be fun while it lasts, but simply try telling a multi-million pound player that he is better when doing his job for just fifteen minutes a week.

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