Tactical Substitutions: Making a Difference from the Bench

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. However, just how effective are teams at employing their bench players over the course of 90 minutes?

Observing purely tactical substitutions made in the Premier League up to and including Round 16 back on the 13/14th December, I have burrowed into the approaches of different teams and the impact of changes made, with particular attention paid to impacts in the Total Goals market.

To begin with a very general base layer of information, I wanted to see the average time of the first tactical substitutions made in the Premier League. Looking at all 20 teams, the average is just under 66 minutes for the first tactical alteration (65.66 to be exact), giving justification and substance to the oft-stated thought that managers are generally prone to waiting 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?

What we can immediately see from the table below is that there is quite a big difference of 11 minutes between AFC 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 16 games played (at the time of writing), Bournemouth have either trailed or 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 have been 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 have 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 have also conceded nine, though this will inevitably be because they have needed to chase a result and have opened up in search of an equaliser or a winner.

Does this first change make Bournemouth a more attractive option for in-play trading when considering the OU Markets?

Ultimately, not really, as on the eight occasions their games have been over the natural goal line (the line closest to 50/50 odds at kick-off), six of those matches have already passed the threshold by the time they’ve made a change, meaning that the odds for the next goal tend to be pretty short (goals breed goals and all that jazz).

In contrast, Chelsea are the last team to make their opening tactical substitution, almost by a full two minutes to Middlesbrough, who ranked 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 ten consecutive wins (at the time of writing), they have been leading in every single game at the point they make 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 have 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 that fall under the natural goal line, as when they do rack up bigger score lines, the damage is often done much earlier as they blitz opponents with quick goals. This makes them hard to gauge from an in-play perspective, with there likely being very little value in backing unders, unless they are nursing a small lead or sit level at half time. You can often take advantage of an overreaction at 1-0 in a game involving a heavy favourite, if you know them to be the type of favourite 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 other teams who jump out, ranging from Crystal Palace at the top of the chart with 27 goals, down to Middlesbrough with a paltry 6:


Starting with Palace, it’s been a roller coaster of a season for Alan Pardew and his men, who 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, making them a very good candidate for backing the overs both deadball and in-play, particularly if the match is finely poised. 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. Up to and including Round 16, Crystal Palace’s last four losses have come as a direct result of a goal conceded inside the final 10 minutes of play.

Games that go over the natural line have been the way for Palace this season, beating it in 59% of matches played. 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.

Concurrently, Middlesbrough 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. He’s made just 37 tactical switches all season, 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 games played up until Round 16 have been 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, Middlesbrough are generally happy to stick with their game plan instead of throwing a bit more caution to the wind, which goes a long way to explaining their lack of goals so far. Karanka’s emphasis seems to be more on not losing games, rather than actively pursuing wins.

At a slightly more granular level, it’s not a major surprise to see that Arsenal, the team with the most goals scored after their first tactical substitution, are also seeing big contributions from those stepping off the bench. Olivier Giroud stands out as the Premier League’s super-sub this season, having chipped in with three goals and two assists to change the course of matches, though Man City’s Nolito has contributed a goal more. His goals alone have secured four points for City, providing an invaluable contribution. However, at Arsenal it’s not just the Frenchman doing the business when coming on, with Iwobi and Xhaka also having found the net, while Ramsey, Mohamed El Nenny and Oxlade-Chamberlain have weighed in with an assist apiece.

Arsenal themselves sit around mid-table in terms of the average time of their first tactical substitution and quantity of tactical changes, but the impact those alterations are having is yielding a big return, highlighting the value of a strong bench to call upon when needed. 53% of Arsenal games have finished over the natural goal line, while their ability to finish matches well is also a beneficial factor, with the team not letting up, which can also be of help to their Asian Handicap marks, which they have beaten 41% of the time in 2016/17 to date. There seems to be more benefit in sticking with Arsenal for the full 90 minutes if backing overs, even if the game is still in the balance or fairly low scoring heading into the final phase of play.

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, with Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge something of a surprise inclusion, taking some weight out of the suggestion that he isn’t a particularly strong team player:


Other notable discoveries from this piece are how indifferent Man Utd are 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 for Mike Phelan to have a big influence with his 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.

Overall it seems that there are a few valuable pieces of insight with regards to the Total Goals market and substitutions being made within the Premier League this season, with it appearing teams near the lower reaches of the table are seeing more goals and perhaps providing more opportunities for in-play trading, with their need to play more openly to claw back deficits making for more expansive matches.

Arsenal and Man City both sit highly in the tables in terms of goal output, however, with strong attacking threat coming from the bench making a big impact in the latter stages of matches. There is a notable correlation with the more proactive teams and the number of goals scored, 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 wouldn’t help!

In summary if looking to improve your in-play goals trading it would be prudent to consider substitutes as a potential trigger with some teams to get in/out of trades quickly, where value could be had before the alterations have the chance to really take effect.

Alec Payne (@Payney3)

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