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The Role of Substitutionsby Ben Graham

Having watched a lot of the Windham teams so far this season, I have often been struck by how much the sidelines can resemble Piccadilly Circus at rush hour, what with all the comings and goings that seem to be constantly emanating to and from the sidelines. To that end, I thought I would jot down a few thoughts on the role of substitutions within a game of soccer.

Depending on the age groups involved, substitutions have differing roles to play within a game of soccer. At the younger level (from U11 and below) where players should be getting equal playing time, the role of substitutions should be to offer the players a short respite from the hurly burly of the game. What that does not mean, however, is that players are constantly being pulled every three minutes or so. Studies have shown that a player requires twelve minutes to get acclimated to the speed and movement of a game. Starting a player and then pulling them off after three minutes means that a player is never fully warmed up within a game and is therefore never as effective.

With these constant substitutions, not only will players be less effective, they are missing out on some of the principal reasons for playing soccer:

Conditioning and fitness: Players cannot develop any fitness unless they are being physically tested. If you look at the players coming off the field, are they sweating, are they breathing heavily? If not, then they are still fit to go (or are not working hard enough) and should be encouraged to stay on until they require a rest.
Ball handling: A player will, on average, touch the ball every 20-30 seconds within a game. If you let that player play for three minutes, then they have probably touched the ball, on average, 6 times. That does not encourage players to be comfortable on the ball and will not assist them in developing their foot skills.

A more prudent method would be to have two "lines." One line starts the game and plays half of the first half and, obviously, the second line plays the second "half" of the first half. However, try to avoid the temptation of playing a "stronger"line with all your best players. Children are very perceptive and will quickly see what is happening, and that weaker line will quickly become discouraged.

With these two lines, players will be tested physically and will get more touches on the ball, further developing themselves as players.

At the older level, where equal playing time is no longer a requirement, substitutions take on a whole different role. It has long been the tradition in England, that, upon arriving at the game, you nervously await the manager informing you of the first eleven. If you are not named in that first eleven, then you are a substitute and you are going to be less involved than the other players, if involved at all. There may be many reasons why you are not playing as part of the first eleven; you may have missed training that week, you may not be picked to start because you played poorly the week before. Principally, the right to start a game is something you earn, it is not merely a right granted to you because you have turned up to the game.

Similarly, that right can be taken away from you if you fail to perform on the field. In all of the clubs I have coached, it has always been my attitude that the eleven I start the game with is the eleven I envisage finishing the game. A player that is substituted will know he has been substituted because he has played poorly, and he will not return to the game. To that end, players clearly know the expectations I have from each and every one of them. If they wish to play, then a place in the starting eleven is the incentive to aim for. Substitutions are therefore used as rewards and disciplinary measures.

The other principal reason for substitutions is, obviously, tactical. At the high school level, I played a 3-5-2 formation until the last twenty minutes, where I would sub a striker for defender, go to 4-5-1 and try to shut the game down. This would be conditional on me holding a lead of course; otherwise, I may throw on an extra striker and go to 3-4-3. That may be one or two changes. Wholesale changes do more to disrupt the rhythm of a team, than assist them.

It seems that one of the reasons why coaches over here like to make so many substitutions is to overcome the helplessness they feel over the events unfolding out on the field. Get used to it, constant substitutions are not the answer to your desire to control the game from the sidelines. The game is won in your preparation in the week before at training, not in the game itself. There is very little you can do at a game to affect the outcomes that go on out on the field, other than an inspirational half time team talk and a little tinkering with your line-up late in the second half. Just sit back and enjoy it!