It is, of course, essential that we draw the positives. In the modern age that is all you can ever do after defeat, look for learnings to be enacted moving forward. Although it almost seems distasteful to point out something that went right for England after a dismal Nations League campaign that culminated in their worst home defeat since 1928, there was, in the fatigue and the frustration, one vague sliver of a silver lining. It’s not just that Jack Grealish dragged England back into the game away to 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 18 months or so, has come with a clamour. There is a constituency within the England support and punditocracy that demands his inclusion. He is a smart, bright player who seems somehow normal; if he didn’t happen to be a supremely gifted footballer, he would be watching matches and necking Jägerbombs in a beer garden. He has an unaffected niceness that makes it almost impossible not to warm to him. But can you trust him to track his man, to close down the passing lanes, not to lose the ball with one gauche trick too many?
It is an issue with which Gareth Southgate and Pep Guardiola have had to wrestle. Grealish, in an unusually revealing on-pitch interview after the final game of the league season, spoke of how hard he found it to learn a new style at Manchester City. Southgate has talked about the importance of allowing him his freedom. But short of a return to the football of 40 years ago, when complex systems were less prevalent and the team could be built around one playmaking genius, how can that be achieved?
The answer was there in Munich: by bringing him off the bench. Context is everything. When the game is in the balance and you’re trying to set the pattern, Grealish is a risk. But later, when a stalemate needs breaking or you’re chasing a goal, even if you’re defending a lead and want an outlet on the counter, those anarchic qualities become a blessing. A dribbler will never be more effective than when running against weary defenders, even if in practice that just means winning a string of free-kicks. That role of second-half substitute, the game ‑ breaker, the finisher, feels made for him.
There remains a lingering sense that the starting XI is the real business, that being a substitute is somehow lesser. Players such as David Fairclough and Ole Gunnar Solskjær resisted the tag of “super ‑ sub”, insisting they were more than that. But there is no reason for a player coming on to seem inferior. Particularly now the Premier League has fallen into line with most of the rest of the world to permit five substitutes, it seems likely bench specialists will become more common; all it takes is a shift of mentality.
It 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 regularly start with either him or Shane Long and then, when they had run the legs off the central defense, bring on the other to exploit spent limbs.
The benefits then are twofold: not only is the player coming on fresh and so at an advantage against tired opponents, but the player who starts knows he can play at full tilt from the off because his game is only likely to be an hour or so – and that in turn should exhaust his direct opponent.
While that is useful in the center of the pitch, it is perhaps even more value when the duels between wide forwards and wingers can extend along the almost whole flank and require great stamina anyway.
Specialist subs have become at least semi-accepted with goalkeepers who are penalty experts. Andrew Redmayne hadn’t played a single minute of Australia’s qualifying campaign but came on for the captain, Mat Ryan, with seconds of extra time remaining in Monday’s World Cup qualifying playoff against Peru. Quite how responsible his antics, dancing on his line and tossing away the Peru keeper’s annotated water bottle, were for Australia’s win is unclear, but he joined a growing list of sub keepers credited with inspiring shootout wins.
The earliest appears to have been Nikos Christidis, who came on for Lakis Stergioudas as AEK Athens beat QPR in the Uefa Cup quarter-finals in 1976-77 and saved Dave Webb’s penalty, since when managers as diverse as Martin O’Neill and Louis van Gaal have employed the tactic. But a resistance remains, so that Thomas Tuchel was widely criticized for bringing Kepa Arrizabalaga on in February’s League Cup final, even though the same plan had worked in the Uefa Super Cup final earlier in the season.
But when penalties are so distinct, demanding reflexes and aptitude at game theory as much as reading the play and positioning, why wouldn’t some players who aren’t necessarily the best open-play keepers excel at them? When learning the habits and tells of opponents is such a key part of the process it makes perfect sense to have one player focus on revision while the open-play keeper gets on with the match itself. It’s only convention that makes the idea seem uncomfortable or worth condemning when it goes wrong – as it occasionally will.
In the days of one, two or even three subs, perhaps the benefits didn’t seem worth it compared with bringing on a fresh outfielder or having cover for potential injuries. Now that five (plus an additional one in extra time) are permitted, though, it seems reasonable that a couple can be reserved for the use of specialists, be they penalty-saving keepers, tricky attackers in the mold of Grealish or some other specific role.
It’s already beginning to happen. All that remains is general acceptance and for players to come to relish the role of being the super-sub. After all, you’re playing against weakened opponents on a specific quest for glory. What’s not to enjoy about that?