Time was when substitutes were regarded as nothing more than ‘fresh legs’ brought on to ‘freshen things up’ and to provide a ‘fresh impetus’; it seemed that freshness was very much key to the whole enterprise. That was unless the team was losing; in which case the number 12 jumping on the spot by the touchline and showing his studs to the lino was a ‘last desperate throw of the dice’.
Now however, as tactics become ever-more convoluted and sophisticated to the point where football increasingly appears to be a game of break-neck chess, the array of options sitting moodily behind the manager have evolved into being a much more integral part of his thinking. How often do we see fixtures decided from the bench as tiredness descends and games open up? Subs are no longer the twelfth best player but the headline act in waiting.
So who have been the most influential bench-warmers in the Premier League this season?
To determine this we visited a reputable stats site (http://www.whoscored.com/) and simply worked our way through the players with the highest average ratings this term who have began a quarter or more games from the dug-out.
Though we found this to be the fairest method it did lend itself to some unjust omissions. It will probably come as no surprise to see Manchester City and United players dominate the list below due to their excellent all-conquering campaigns. But players such as Edin Dzeko and Javier Hernandez have a huge advantage over their fellow subs in having the luxury of often being introduced once a game is dead and buried. On numerous occasions this season they have fired the final bullet putting opponents out of their misery rather than being a game-changer. So in reality who is to say their contribution has been any more critical than those brought on to steady the ship such as Livermore at Spurs or Whitehead at Stoke?
As much as it is possible to gauge however from statistical data then if you want late glory or last-minute salvation the ten individuals below are the ones you want wearing a tracksuit in your club colours….
1/ Mario Balotelli
There have already been enough words in print written about the Italian’s fiery temperament to threaten a rainforest but the character flaws that give Mancini sleepless nights actually make Mario the ideal impact sub. For one thing he requires little time to get up to speed with the pace of the game; just one foul not given his way and he’s good to go.
Three goals from his eight appearances from the bench is an impressive stat in itself but crucially for City two of them have swung pivotal games in their favour.
After barely being used in the opening few weeks of the campaign – watching from the sidelines as his team-mates tore apart all-comers – Balotelli was thrown on against a resolute Everton who were refusing to yield. Eight minutes later he coolly slotted home and City were on their way to finally defeating a renowned bogey side.
In late-November however we witnessed the flip-side to sending on a firecracker into an already red-hot environment. From the moment he stepped onto the Anfield turf Balotelli appeared intent on inflicting his own brand of skewed justice in a game where previously City had received none. Two swift yellows later and he was back whence he came.
Then came the five-goal thriller at home to Spurs; a 25 minute cameo that was the perfect encapsulation of the player’s sweet and sour offerings. A vicious stamp on Parker’s crown was followed by a nerveless last-minute penalty that ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end for Tottenham’s title challenge.
2/ Edin Dzeko
The burly Bosnian has looked ponderous of late and his powerful, predatory displays from earlier in the season have been all but consigned to memory. Yet he has still scored 13 goals in 27 with 11 of those appearances coming from the bench. Unlike his headline-grabbing team-mate however a large number of these have been the finishing touches to comprehensive routs against inferior opposition, the late brace against United at Old Trafford being a prime example of this *cough*
3/ Jermaine Defoe
Has recovered well from last season’s prolonged drought that cast serious doubts over his future at the Lane. Defoe is now back in the one-goal-in-two groove that has defined his career despite 11 of his 20 appearances being restricted to late bit-parts. If you were to scientifically create a perfect attacking sub he would surely have all the attributes the diminutive poacher possesses; devastating speed and potency being chief amongst them.
4/ James Milner
The third blue to make the top four it is a testament to the quality of Mancini’s squad options. Milner guarantees an elevation of energy and urgency to whichever area the utility man is employed. The England international also possesses one of the finest footballing brains around which is a huge benefit for modern-day subs who are often entrusted with relaying tactical changes from the gaffer.
5/ Park Si-Jung
The Korean has faced some rare flak from reds this term who usually appreciate the graft and endeavour he puts into every appearance. The general consensus may be that this is a poor campaign by his usual standards but the facts beg to differ with consistently high ratings right across the board. What Park offers United extends beyond his performances too; he is a consummate squad player who gets on with the job and never sulks when dropped. While others may grab the glory such qualities are priceless to any manager.
6/ Adam Johnson
A somewhat surprising entry considering Johnson has exasperated rather than illuminated this term. A couple of trademark strikes drifting in from wide may have given a flattering reading of his contribution which has largely been poor and ineffectual. Where have the jinking runs gone that so bamboozled full-backs? Where is the schoolboy devilment? Sadly it seems that Mancini has drummed this out of his only out-and-out wide man and as we all saw at Ewood Park last night potent width can make all the difference.
7/ Ryan Giggs
Another surprise entry because although there is no doubt that the ancient Welshman provides a calming influence late-on for United every time I’ve seen him play this term he has looked a shadow of his former self. Of course the nous and experience is there – accrued from winning more silverware than any other player in English history during a career that seemed to have endured for 60-odd years – but too many passes have gone astray for Giggs to compare favourably to his metronomic peer Scholes.
Even his finest moment this season – the last minute winner at Carrow Road that arguably will go down as the moment the title race altered irrevocably – came from a rare full outing.
8/ Javier Hernandez
Only one other United player – the baby-faced assassin Solskjaer – has scored more goals from off the bench in the club’s history and what makes the Mexican’s feat all the more remarkable is that he hasn’t been here two years yet.
Pea Jr is fast inheriting Solskjaer’s reputation as a ‘super sub’ which is down in no small part to their shared traits. Both clinical in their execution and possessing a natural intelligence to seek out half a yard of space – a key attribute when defences tire.
Hernandez has already bagged ten this term despite only making six starts and without doubt his most crucial contribution from the bench was at Stamford Bridge where he completed a three-goal fightback with a late equaliser.
A red-supporting mate succinctly summed up his worth last week when watching United struggle to kill off a resilient Fulham side. After once again witnessing Wellbeck trip over his own feet he boomed at the screen ‘Get Hernandez on. At least he knows where the f***ing goal is!’
9/ Tomas Rosicky
The wily Czech has enjoyed a renaissance this term after appearing to be fading into obscurity in recent seasons. Having last month signed a contract extension at the Emirates – after turning down some ‘huge numbers’ from China and Russia – it looks like Wenger has at his disposal a while longer a player of genuine vision and cunning capable of orchestrating things in the middle of a youthful side. Rosicky – now in his thirties – offers the best of both worlds from the bench. Should Arsenal be struggling to break down stubborn resistance he has the ingenuity to open sides up. If they wish to close the game down he equally now has the old head to keep things steady and ticking along.
10/ Bryan Ruiz
Fulham’s Costa Rican front man with the lovely hair was panned by Cutter writer (and Fulham fan) Mike Forrest recently in these very pages but again, like with Park, the stats throw a lighter shade onto matters. Whilst two goals in 26 appearances (10 from the bench) is undoubtedly a poor effort Ruiz’s all-round play has been to a high standard and his ability to drift deep into spaces makes him a useful option for Jol when games need opening up.
11/ Chris Eagles
It took Eagles time to adjust to the top flight following his summer switch from Burnley but he has now proven himself capable of turning it on at the highest level. The reasons for his early struggles were not the players fault as first Lee Chung-Yong suffered a horrendous injury depriving Bolton of arguably their best player but additionally placing too much creative onus on their newbie. Secondly the Trotter’s early season fixture list read like a masochist’s dream with City, Liverpool, then United leaving with the maximum points. Facing Clichy, Enrique and Evra in your first few weeks was one hell of a reintroduction to the Prem for the ex-United starlet but three goals and four assists in 26 appearances (7 as sub) is ultimately a decent return.
12/ Craig Bellamy
Lightning pace and thunderous passion, Bellamy certainly has everything required to produce a storming finish, something that Liverpool have needed too often this season after an insipid hour of Downing or Adam. The Welshman may be unable to string consecutive performances together due to his persistent knee problem but perhaps it is precisely because of this that he makes for such an impacting sub.