Why substitutes are deciding this World Cup - and why Roy Hodgson's haven't
It was the 70th minute of Colombia’s game against Ivory Coast when Ivorian midfielder Serey Die’s dithering in midfield was pounced upon fiercely by a resplendent James Rodriguez. Caught in his own half, the counter attack was on. Seconds later, Juan Fernando Quintero was shuffling away rhythmically, dancing with his team-mates having found the net, a ruthless break that put Colombia 2-0 up to effectively secure the win.
In scoring, Quintero, a future star of this Colombia side and the jewel in Los Cafeteros’ crown at youth level, became the 12th player to score at this World Cup from the substitutes’ bench in only 23 games.
Subs rising from the sidelines to swing the game in their country’s favour has become a recurring theme at this World Cup. So far, 18 of the 77 goals in Brazil have either been scored or assisted by replacements. That works out at 23%, meaning nearly a quarter of all goals at this tournament have been crafted by the impact sub. This is a significant increase on South Africa 2010, where 23 of the 145 goals scored were scored or assisted by subs – 16% in total. 2014's total is only five goals short, with less than half the competition played.
Since Jean Beausejour’s stoppage-time strike in Chile’s 3-1 win over Australia, substitutes have had a consistent impact on the tournament. The following day, Marcos Urena came on for Costa Rica against Uruguay and sealed their 3-1 upset within a minute, slotting home Joel Campbell’s brilliant through ball.
Switzerland had bench-dwellers Ahmed Mehmedi and Haris Seferovic to thank for their 2-1 win over Ecuador, as Ottmar Hitzfeld’s personnel changes worked wonders. Mehmedi scored with his first touch after coming on at half time, while Seferovic scored with his - and the game's - last touch, giving his country a priceless three points.
For USA, bench-leavers John Brooks and Graham Zusi combined to provide Jurgen Klinsmann’s team a cathartic late winner against Ghana. Belgium’s 2-1 win over Algeria was also rescued by the pew: Divock Origi, Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens all wrought havoc on the North Africans in a high-tempo second half, the latter duo scoring the decisive goals.
Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Memphis Depay are just two more players to dig the splinters from their jodhpurs and score crucial, game-changing goals, for Russia against Korea and the Netherlands against Australia.
It’s not just goals that these game-changing giants have brought from the bench, though. Several players have come on to reinvigorate their teams, providing that much-needed burst of energy or touch of class and composure to alter evenly-balanced matches. Didier Drogba (for Ivory Coast against Japan) and Juan Quintero (for Colombia against the Ivorians) are two such examples, while second-half tactical switches from Uruguay against England (nullifying Roy Hodgson's overlapping full-backs by switching from a diamond) and Argentina against Bosnia (switching from three centre-backs to a 4-3-3) helped the South Americans to defeat the Europeans.
So why has the impact of substitutes played such a decisive factor at this World Cup so far? Is it set to continue? And why haven’t England had anyone around to work wonders from the sidelines?
Climate, scouting, tactics
Though the numbers could well even out as the tournament progresses, we're still over one-third of the way through World Cup 2014. The stark influence subs have had on games so far, therefore, makes it a question worth considering.
The first, and arguably most significant factor determining this 2014 World Cup quirk, is the depth of quality available in many squads - something Belgium coach Marc Wilmots touched on in prescient mood during a pre-tournament interview with FIFA.com.
"I tend to focus just as much on those that aren’t playing," the 45-year-old commented before the Algeria game. "I want my substitutes to show the same level of desire as the starters. Half our winning goals in the qualifiers were netted by substitutes.”
The individual quality available to Wilmots from the bench is hard to match - bettered by perhaps only a few teams in Brazil, making Belgium a dangerous prospect should they progress to later rounds. Dries Mertens, Marouane Fellaini, Adnan Januzaj, Thomas Vermaelen and Steven Defour are all very capable players who also, importantly, allow Wilmots to experiment with different shapes and tactical systems as the game progresses, a flexibility that Algeria failed to cope with.
Germany had little need for their subs in dispatching Portugal 4-0, but with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose and Julian Draxler in reserve, to name but four, they are not just a brilliant team, but another formidable squad.
Another reason subs might be growing in significance is due to the increase in scouting and technology, with performance analysis departments now the norm for many domestic and international teams. Where once a trip to a World Cup was an intrepid voyage into the unknown, today performance analysts pore through hours of footage, trawling through highlights reels to identify shape, tactics and players to make special preparations for.
Even the so-called minnows have players familiar to fans around the world. Costa Rica’s Joel Campbell is at Arsenal and played in the Champions League for Olympiakos on loan last season. Ecuador have Luis Antonio Valencia; Honduras's Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figueroa are both experienced Premier League players. Football’s poverty gap is closing.
Climate is also undoubtedly an factor. In a country approaching the size of a continent (Belgium, for example, will spend 16 hours travelling around between base camp and matches in 10 days), with temperatures and humidity described as oppressive in some parts, heavy legs will play a decisive role in the outcome of games. Natal, Manaus and Cuiaba all have average temperatures in the 80s (Fahrenheit), while Curitiba is located 3,000 feet above sea level.
Trump cards, but where are Roy's?
The manager that can provide his team fresh impetus via a well-timed, clever substitution or two has an important trump card up his sleeve in Brazil, the ability to wilt the opposition with leg-sapping switches in tempo. Whether by speeding the play up with quick runners or slowing it down with a foot-on-the-ball, tempo-dictating regista, substitutes can continue to play a key role in Brazil.
Having lost both their opening games in tight, even affairs decided by one goal, one wonders whether Roy Hodgson might have better utilised his subs for England. Could he have done anything differently? Apart from the late Hail Mary introduction of Rickie Lambert for Jordan Henderson against Uruguay, the majority of Hodgson's switches in England's opening games have been like-for-like.
Introducing Ross Barkley (for Danny Welbeck), Jack Wilshere (for Henderson) and Adam Lallana (for Daniel Sturridge) failed to radically enliven England against Italy, even if Barkley was lively; reintroducing the young Evertonian for Raheem Sterling, Lallana (for Welbeck) and Rickie Lambert (for four minutes plus stoppage time) did little to sufficiently alter the Uruguay game's denouement.
Did Roy make the wrong changes? Did he have little tactical room for manoeuvre, considering his bold starting line-up essentially already had four forwards? Or is England’s squad much of a muchness - lacking the one or two marquee players from the bench who can grab a game by the scruff of the neck and change its flow?
Every England fan will have his or her own opinion, but it would be no surprise if the teams that go furthest at this World Cup are the ones with the players – and manager – most capable of swinging things from the sidelines.