While some managers have gained reputations for making inspired substitutions, it is up for debate what exactly makes them good at it. Is it the manager’s tactical nous, or does he simply have quality players at his disposal on the bench who may even be better than those who started. While the role of the impact sub is in the limelight after Chicarito’s hat-trick for United, it was hardly rocket science to put him on when trailing 2-0. Hernandez may well have scored for Latics if he had some on for the second half against West Brom. Can you remember Roberto Martinez making substitutions that made such a difference?
Let’s look back to early March of last season, with Wigan Athletic desperate for points. They are trailing 1-0 to a 10th minute Wes Hoolahan goal at Norwich. Roberto Martinez makes a substitution after only 56 minutes. Just over 10 minutes later his tactical change — Shaun Maloney for Jordi Gomez — comes to fruition as the Scot slots through a lovely ball for Victor Moses to score. This was to prove the beginning of a glorious run for Maloney and a miraculous escape from relegation.
Scroll back a little further to December 31st, 2011. Ten-man Latics trail 2-1 at Stoke with 5 minutes to go. Hugo Rodallega goes down in the penalty box. Ben Watson is brought off the bench to score the equalizer. Latics gain a vital point from a match they looked like losing. It must have taken some courage from Martinez because Watson had missed the last two penalties he had taken. Another inspired substitution.
Last weekend the situation was ripe for an inspired substitution. Latics were losing 2-1 at home to West Bromwich, looking well organized, but predictable in their approach. The situation was crying out for something different. Martinez did make a bold substitution after 65 minutes, taking off captain Gary Caldwell and bringing on Ronnie Stam. Stam made a difference – it was pleasing to see the attacking wing back being brought back in from the cold. Together with the other wing back, Jean Beausejour, they put over an array of crosses for the two central strikers. Granted some of the crosses were better than others, but there were chances that could have been put away. Di Santo is a fine footballer, but is woefully lacking when the ball is in the air in the box. Boselli is probably the best header of a ball at the club, but once again he was brought on in the last five minutes, far too late. No wonder there is newspaper talk about Boselli wanting to go back to Italy in the January transfer window. Despite rattling in goals in the League Cup and Under 21 teams he has been brought off the bench only twice in the past six league matches in the 83rd and 86th minutes.
A year ago at this stage Wigan Athletic were woeful. They had 6 points from 12 matches and were propping up the division. There were players who just were not performing well and the team looked disorganized and vulnerable. At this stage they are doing much better. Players in the starting lineup have been performing pretty well and the team has shape and purpose. The problem comes as other teams get to know Wigan’s tactics and devise ways to upset them. Any manager worth his salt is going to figure out how to disrupt that slow Latics build up from defence. We can expect that kind of “pressing” particularly from opponents in the relegation zone.
Moreover without Victor Moses there is more reliability, but less spontaneity. There needs to be another player who will run at opponents and upset defences. This columnist has several times advocated for the inclusion of Callum McManaman, who does not have the pace of Moses, but is nevertheless able to dribble past defenders. Ryo Miyaichi has been injured recently, but his electrifying pace would be an asset, particularly at the end of a game when opponents are tiring. Sadly Albert Crusat’s time at Wigan continues to be dogged by injury, but the diminutive winger definitely has something to offer when fit.
If you are the manager of a top three club, making an inspired substitution is not so difficult. Manchester City can choose any two forwards out of Aguero, Balotelli, Dzeko and Tevez. Roberto Martinez does not have such luxuries on the bench and needs to manage his substitutions the best he can. At times he will change the shape of the team, reverting to a conventional back four. If he is to be criticized, I would say it is the lateness of too many substitutions when things are not going to plan. Being well organized is one thing, but being predictable is another. I’d love to see a bolder approach to substitutions from Roberto.