The Role of Substitutes

By | April 10, 2015

It’s no secret that every athlete wants to maximize the time they are able to play the sport they love. And what is the best way to maximize time on the pitch? Starting the game and controlling your level of play. After all, who wants to spend time on the bench, especially in the context of professional soccer where there are strict rules relating to substitutions? Teams are only permitted three substitutions per game, and once a player is on the bench, they are not permitted to return [1]. This can be a very stressful constriction, as players not wanting to be prohibited from returning to the game often play through an assortment of injuries. Many are calling for a reform in the substitution rules to incentivize players to pay attention to their injuries [2]. Nevertheless, coaches must use their substitutions very carefully, saving them for either injuries or strategic infusions of energy.

As my youth coaches coined it, adding a “fresh pair of legs” toward the end of the game can be the difference between a win and a loss. Many games in major tournaments have been decided by the goal of a player coming off the bench. Let’s appreciate some of the most important goals scored by substitutes in recent years.


Goal #1: 2014 World Cup Final

Germany versus Argentina

Goal Scored by: Mario Götze

Götze scored in the 113th minute of the 2014 World Cup Final in order to give Germany the 1-0 lead [3]. Interestingly enough, the assist for the goal also went to a fellow substitute, André Schürrle, who entered in the 33rd minute for Christoph Kramer. Götze’s goal showed immense skill, as he used his chest to trap the ball and proceeded to volley the ball past the keeper into the opposite side netting. Götze replaced Klose (one of my personal favorite German players) in the 88th minute, giving the German side an extra burst of speed for overtime. From a television perspective, the fact that this goal was scored almost immediately after Schweinsteiger had to exit the field due to a bleeding cut on his face is comical, as they barely had time to return to the live feed before the goal was scored.

Goal #2: 2014 World Cup Round of 16

Belgium versus USA

Goal Scored by: Romelu Lukaku

Although this goal was not the go-ahead goal for Belgium, it did prove to be the one that ensured Belgium’s victory when the US answered with a goal of their own in the waning minutes of extra time. Belgium’s substitutes proved to be the difference in many of their World Cup tournament games, with three Belgian substitutes scoring in group play alone [4]. Belgian head coach Marc Wilmots changed the starting lineup for almost every game. Lukaku started most of the prior games in the tournament, but he did replace Origi in the middle of this game, proving how it can be an advantage to have someone of Lukaku’s speed and skill coming off the bench. Lukaku challenged Tim Howard many times throughout the course of extra time apart from the time he scored. His pass to Kevin De Bruyne set up De Bruyne’s goal in the 93rd minute (although admittedly De Bruyne did turn the corner on his own.) Lukaku’s fresh bursts of speed as the game was ending really made a difference, as he did not have to deal with the same level of fatigue as the other players who had already been playing for 90 minutes

Honorable Mention Goal

Goal Scored by: Julian Green

Julian Green came off the bench in extra time, scoring almost immediately after he came in. This goal, although it did not lead to a US victory, led to a flurry of US shots and chances that made this game the single most stressful I have watched in my entire life. By limiting the USA’s goal deficit to one, Julian Green gave the United States a second shot at winning this game. [5]

Goal #3: 2011 Women’s World Cup Semifinal

USA versus France

Goal Scored by: Alex Morgan

Again, this goal did not put the US decisively ahead of France (Abby Wambach’s goal did that) but this is the goal that put Alex Morgan on the map. Many argued after her performance in this game that she deserved a starting spot; however, Morgan herself said “It’s been working with me coming off the bench, rather than being unsure if I’m going to play.” [6] For Morgan, it was not about her starting position, but instead about being prepared to play the game. As we now know, Alex Morgan has now become an integral part of the US Women’s team, and this was her first World Cup goal.

Substitutes are not just players marked for “in case of an emergency;” they are an integral part of the team and can have drastic effects on the outcome of the game. Especially in the waning minutes of extra time, substitutes’ added energy can be the entire difference in a game. Substitution rules are tough; you need to make every single one worth it. But when a substitute unexpectedly pulls through for the game winning shot, there is nothing better in soccer. Everyone loves the underdog, which is what substitutes are often perceived to be. It’s safe to say, however, that you can never count an player out, as you never know what kind of trick they’ll pull out of their sleeve, or hat as the case may be.


[1]  Laws of the Game. Zurich, Switzerland: Fédération Internationale De Football Association, 1998. FIFA, 2014/2015. Web.

[2] Bajaj, Aditya. “World Cup Proves It Is Time for FIFA to Change Substitution Rules.” Sporting News. N.p., 20 July 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2015.

[3]  “Götze Goal Wins Germany the World Cup.” UEFA, 13 July 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

[4] “FIFA World Cup 2014 – Belgium vs. USA (Highlights) – BBC.” YouTube. BBC, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

[5] “2014 FIFA World Cup™ – Matches –” N.p., 01 July 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

[6] Ubha, Ravi. “Alex Morgan Relishing Role of Super Sub.” ESPN. N.p., 14 July 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

4 thoughts on “The Role of Substitutes

  1. Deemer Class IV

    I really appreciate your examples in this post as well, they are great goals and plays that really stick out! I think something that goes under the radar as well is the ability of the substitute player to buy into his or her role. You demonstrated how important substitutes are and while it can be tough to not be the “starter”, it is vital that all the players are “all in” to their role on the team. When you have this team unity, winning is the ultimate goal and each player will do their part. Abby Wombach demonstrated that commitment, knowing that her role was critical to her team’s success. There are great stories throughout sports currently and over the history of all sports in which players make sacrifices, whether in playing time, or salary or some other sacrifice, with the ultimate goal of winning. This is what we love about sports and is so refreshing at times in a society that often seems “me-first” oriented.

  2. Brian Wolfson

    Great post! I think substitutes are an integral part of the game, one that people always forget to talk about. First, when a coach puts in a substitute player (say in the minute 75 of the match), because this player is not tired, he will give his 100% until the game ends. If this player is a forward, that means that he was put into the game to score a goal, and therefore he will try his best to do so (and this supports what Harrison stated that substitutes can score at a higher rate than starting forwards). Second, there are many players, especially the older ones, who tend to be subbed out around the 70-minute mark because of fatigue. This means that, although the other team (Team B) knows what will happen, the coach from the first team (Team A) can always insert a different player to change the game. For example, if Team A is winning and it is always the same midfielder that gets subbed out, perhaps the coach will put a defensive midfielder in place to hold the lead. If Team A is losing, perhaps he replaces the midfielder with an attacking midfielder or even a forward. Finally, one also has to consider that injuries (and yellow cards) can happen at any time. Therefore, a coach has to be smart about how he uses his three substitutions, because he might want to sub out a player for getting a yellow and thus not risk him getting kicked off the game, or he might have to replace an injured player.

  3. Aissa Huysmans

    Substitute players can definitely turn a game around, and they keep the game interesting! I think that the 3 substitute rule is a great one and adds to the unpredictability of the game that we all love… I think that substitutions say a lot about the vision of a coach too and how they read the rhythm of the game in order to see what is missing or what needs to be added by incoming players.

  4. Harrison Kalt


    I think this is an extremely well thought-out and informative post and could not agree more with your take on the role of substitutes in soccer. Months ago, I read an incredibly interesting piece by Dan Altman that chronicled the true importance of the substitute player. Referencing several so-called “supersubs”, most notably Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez (this piece was written about a year ago before his move to Real Madrid) and Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko. Nonetheless, when he went through all of the English Premier League’s scoring logs from last year, Altman found that substitutes coming on as forwards actually scored at a higher rate than starting forwards. While there is an argument that this inflated rate could come as a result of the tired legs and overall fatigue that this incredibly enduring sport provides, the numbers do suggest that substitutes, those often overlooked by the average fan as unimportant or auxiliary, have a massive impact on the game. When you think of the NBA, names like Manu Ginobili, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom and formerly James Harden come to mind. These are guys that are integral parts of the team, but are used strategically to wear-down and ultimately conquer the opponent.


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