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Cristiano Ronaldo's substitute strop shows football needs to change its relationship with this important role

Cristiano Ronaldo showed there is still a stigma to being on the bench but in the era of five substitutes that needs to change. Sammy Lander, the game’s first specialist substitutes coach, explains why advantages can be gained – if the role is approached correctly…

Cristiano Ronaldo among the substitutes for Manchester United
Image: Cristiano Ronaldo among the substitutes for Manchester United

Cristiano Ronaldo’s reaction to life among the substitutes has put the role back in the spotlight. But it has done so at a time when the impact and the importance of the Premier League substitute has never been more apparent.

Ronaldo was dropped for Manchester United's trip to Chelsea in October as punishment for refusing to go on as a late substitute and for leaving early in the win over Tottenham.

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The Soccer Special panel react to Cristiano Ronaldo walking down the tunnel before full-time during Manchester United’s 2-0 victory against Tottenham

And yet, the previous month, Heung-Min Son became the first substitute to score a Premier League hat-trick for seven years. When Ronaldo himself came off the bench to score against Everton last month, the number of Premier League goals per game being scored by substitutes jumped to its highest level for almost a decade.

That is a logical consequence of the rule that now allows a team to make five substitutions, encouraging their earlier introduction. Any coach - and indeed any player - who chooses to downplay or ignore the opportunities that this presents does so at their peril.

Substitute Nelson stars for Arsenal
Substitute Nelson stars for Arsenal

Reiss Nelson came off the bench to score two and set up another in Arsenal's 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest

This was not always the accepted wisdom in football, as Sean Dyche explains. "I tend to think that if you are on the right lines, stick to it," he tells Sky Sports. "I remember that there was a lot made a few years ago of the fact that I didn't make substitutions.

"Brian Clough didn't make substitutions. I remember him saying once that if you picked the right team what did you need to change it for because that right team could still work right until the last minute of the game. If I believe in what I do then give it a chance to work.

"That can vary, of course. If you were unsure going in, you might only give that decision 60 minutes to work. But if you are sure of your team and it is going well and the team are performing well then why not leave it until the end of the game to find out if it will work?"

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Clough did make two substitutions in the second of his two European Cup final triumphs but this was a different time. Even in his final season as a manager, the first of the Premier League era, three men were allowed on the bench but only two could be used.

Pep Guardiola has sometimes hinted at a similar instinct to Clough, despite the strength of his Manchester City squad. In the thrilling 3-3 draw at Newcastle in August he made no second-half changes. At Liverpool recently, he waited until the 89th minute.

But Guardiola knows how important that substitutes can be - if they approach the role with the right attitude. "Now, with five substitutions, the impact is for the guys with the right mentality," he explained, speaking at a press conference earlier this season.

"Normally, when people come off the bench and play badly it is because they are not here (pointing to his head). They are complaining because they don't play. After that, they don't play and they don't come off the bench. When they are there, they can help."

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 09: Pep Guardiola gives instructions to Jack Grealish of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Brentford at Etihad Stadium on February 09, 2022 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Image: Manchester City head coach Pep Guardiola gives instructions to Jack Grealish

All these comments reflect the odd relationship that football continues to have with the substitute. For the coach, the bench is still sometimes seen as an admission of defeat. For the player who finds himself there, the feeling persists that they have already lost.

Sammy Lander is trying to change that thinking. In the 2019/20 season with AFC Wimbledon, he became what is believed to be football's first specialist substitutes coach. It was a role that he had identified himself after sitting on the bench for Weymouth.

Psychologically, he quickly realised that he was not ready to step onto the pitch if called upon. "It is very hard to judge unless you have been in that situation," Lander tells Sky Sports. "It was only when I experienced it that I understood there was a gap in the market."

Lander, only 25, now works as a consultant, presenting his ideas about substitutes to Premier League clubs who are receptive to the potential. "Specialist coaches are increasing because football is down to small margins that make a big difference financially."

He is understandably reluctant to break down all the details of how he can help teams to unlock the potential of the substitute but acknowledges that the mental side of the game is huge. "Those Pep quotes are going into my presentation," he says, laughing.

"It nails it. You can have a player prepared in every single aspect but if they have that negative stigma that is attached to being a substitute then they are not going to run through a wall for you. The role really helps to create that 'we, not me' mentality.

"I think players benefit most from the psychological aspect. When I first started doing this and was speaking to players, it just seemed that they only think they played a role in the game if they scored a goal or provided an assist. That is their perspective on the game.

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"The reason there is this stigma is because subs are not involved. Everyone is talking about the starters on the Friday, nobody is giving them much attention. The team goes to warm-up and the subs are left behind. They are almost excluded from the process.

"But subs can play a role even if it is not the traditional one. Just by showing them some love and affection you can unlock so much more potential from them. The goalkeeping coach at Wimbledon used to say that it is a team that starts but a squad that finishes."

At Wimbledon, they even used the term 'finishers' - as opposed to starters - in an attempt to rebrand the substitute role. "We actually have 11 names for it now," says Lander. "It gives the substitute a better idea of what we want them to do."

There is the energiser, the impactor and the closer.

"While those names are great for empowering a player, they also give a bit of tactical know-how about what we want to see from them when they go out on the pitch. If you are the energiser then you know that your job is to bring more intensity to the game."

Cristiano Ronaldo comes off the bench for Manchester United under Erik ten Hag
Image: Cristiano Ronaldo comes off the bench for Manchester United under Erik ten Hag

Lander is the first to acknowledge that such phrases are not for everyone, particularly in an industry that can be resistant to change. "If I called Ronaldo a 'finisher' he probably wouldn't take it very well. The terminology works better with younger players," he says.

"We had a 29-year-old centre-back who had played 300 career games. I never had to call him a finisher. I just called him a sub to his face because he had already dealt with that transition. He did not need that love, he had dealt with it in his own way.

"Other players, often younger players, would appreciate that love. If you can make them more productive it will lead to them getting into the starting line-up. When you pitch it like that, players will be here for it because you are trying to solve a problem for them."

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Arsenal's win against Nottingham Forest

In practice, that means talking to players throughout the game. "Players were going on having not been spoken to for an hour. I did that opposition analysis so I could drip-feed that from the bench, updated them on tactical changes to make the transition easier."

Other problems are harder to solve. There is the technical challenge of having to go on for the crucial final five minutes of a big game without having touched a football for at least 45 minutes. Lander has found ways around it. "I can't reveal too much," he says.

"But there are ways of problem-solving to get those habits in, just so that their first touch for 60 minutes, their first pass for 60 minutes, wasn't going to change the game, just so they could settle into a game of such intensity. That makes it easier."

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In total, Lander was part of 23 innovations at Wimbledon that season "that were a little bit niche, a little bit different, a little bit new" and while a League One finish of 19th might not suggest the start of a football revolution, it was success given their resources.

And the impact of the substitutes was clear.

"We had loads of data because people can't argue with it. We had one of the most productive points-per-substitute records. We had the second-highest goal contribution by substitutes. Remember, this is a team that was 19th, one of the lowest scorers overall."

Perhaps the real impact will be felt when others with bigger budgets than Wimbledon choose to embrace these ideas and exploit these advantages. Plymouth are now top of League One with 10 of their goals scored by substitutes. "I have been tracking that."

Lander mentions the Premier League team that never seem to come back from losing positions. He believes he could make an impact there. Elsewhere, he sees more positive signs. "You are starting to see real patterns emerging with certain teams."

Perhaps it is a pattern that Pep Guardiola already appreciates.

And a lesson that Cristiano Ronaldo still needs to learn.

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