An in depth look at how Arsenal are changing how we perceive the role of the substitute & why this is beneficial to both players and fans alike. By Christine Allen
“Do you want to play the first or the second half?” My Manager asks.
I don’t miss a beat. “Second.”
It’s the year 1997. I’m 9 years old sporting the black and white kit of a talented Under 10 Kingswood United boys football team in Tallaght.
Two years later I transitioned to an equally impressive, competitive and overpopulated under 12 girls ‘A’ team for Templeogue United (an ambitious and successful club in which our very own Katie McCabe was to later hone her skills) where this conversation repeated itself, my answer never changing.
While I’ve often wondered as an adult why I simply accepted that a full game was not on the cards (self praise is no praise but I was pretty good, often converting free kicks with my right foot and making long accurate passes that opened up our opposition), there was no doubt that I wanted to be on the pitch when the final whistle blew.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s popularity amongst my teammates may have played a factor – the baby faced super sub who so often rescued the Red Devils from the jaws of defeat – or Nwankwo Kanu who for a time, held the record for the most appearances by a substitute for the Gunners, playing 197 games and netting 44 goals.
Whatever the rationale, as a child I instinctively knew that the second half of a match was an opportunity to make the most memorable and meaningful impact. For me, there was no choice to be made.
In addition, I never felt any shame about not starting.
However this sentiment was not always shared by my fellow substitutes, who’s parents would often have heated debates with our manager about his selection choices, their disappointment and frustration weighing heavily on their kids.
Following Arsenal Women’s exquisite comeback against Man United on October 6th, Jonas Eidevall gave the media a rare insight into the pre-match strategy that he and his staff employ.
Listening to him speak in his candid and methodological manner, I was reminded of my younger self, bouncing on my Predators as my teammates sucked on their skeins of orange at half-time, bursting to get onto the pitch.
In fact, it validated the sense of value that I believed I brought to my team, despite starting on the bench.
With five substitutions made in our opening WSL game alone against Liverpool, our manager is facing a very different challenge this year in terms of squad management.
“One change we have done this year is instead of presenting the starting XI first, we always present the bench first,” Eidevall told Sky Sports. “Because they [the subs] are so important. This is the tools we have to change things during the game and you guys are going to be really important for us. I think all players coming on today really showed that. You start with one XI but you also finish with another XI… A lot of times you’re only thinking about how you want to start a football match; it’s equally as important how you finish a football match.”
While as fans we know that the Arsenal women substitutes are in no way ‘lesser than’ our starting eleven for any given game, by presenting the value and contribution such players can make in such a sensitive and clever way, Eidevall is shifting what it means to be on the bench for every player on our team, which in turn will affect their own sense of self and belonging. It is genius from a sports psychology perspective.
Granted we’re in the early stages of this new season, but so far there are no whisperings of dissatisfaction amongst the players in the media, visible signs of discontent on the sidelines or half hearted resentful efforts when called upon. Nor does it seem likely within this cohesive and supportive group of players, who’s heroic unity last season produced an aptly named documentary (watch it if you haven’t!)
The pay off to this holistic approach that the coaching staff are executing can be seen in the energy, skill and drive that our substitutes inject into not only their performances, but our team as a whole – both last season and now.
Case in point, take a look at our bench during any WSL game. Injured or fit, players are engaged – they are invested. This can be seen in the eruption of the bench following McCabe’s absolute screamer against City last season.
They are also kept ready for action by the coaching staff, via regular warm up exercises. No player is forgotten or ignored which is crucial when it comes to players mental well-being (A study led by Jane O Reilly of the University of Ottawa found that being ignored, excluded or overlooked in the workplace causes more damage to an individual’s mental health than bullying and harassment.)
Take Cloe Lacasse’s performance at the Leigh Sports Village. Sprinting onto the pitch in the 86th minute, entrusted with the important task of dispersing a tactical directive to her teammates, the Canadian international rejuvenates our attack.
Weaving past United’s defence on the right hand side and delivering dangerous balls into the box, Lacasse fires the ball into the top left corner to bring us level and bag her first goal for the Gunners.
And let’s not forget Jen Beattie.
Before making an appearance against Juventus in our Group C Champions League battle in November of last year, Beattie had racked up an estimated 50 minutes of game time in the 22/23 season.
Despite not being a regular starter for our team, her passion and commitment to our club is never in doubt, her influence in that game proving formidable, the now retired Scottish international registering two headed clearances and a 95.5% pass accuracy across 21 passes.
Beattie emulated this performance time and time again when called upon amidst a litany of injuries last season, showing tremendous leadership and converting chances at critical junctures.
Now while it is reasonable to assume that no fully fit player will, as a first preference, choose to be on the bench, perhaps there is now an acceptance amongst the players that playing for a top tier club like Arsenal means fighting for your place every week. Surely this can only benefit both the players, club and fans alike?
It’s exciting.” Beth Mead, having since returned from a long and arduous ACL recovery to rapturous applause at the Emirates, states. “We’ve got so many talented players coming in and the competition is getting feisty. It will make us better in the long run.”
Perhaps too, with the number of minutes players were expected to play last season, and the perhaps consequential litany of injuries suffered, a competitive squad is a blessing for players well-being – both physically and mentally, allowing players that need it, a guilt-free break.
While this does not address the underlying issues which Vivianne Miedema has publicly spoken to, it can be a temporary solution (until the root issues are addressed) for clubs who are fortunate enough to have such squad depth.
The shift in focus from the starting eleven to those waiting in the wings can also be seen across our club, with Mikel Arteta and staff making the conscious decision to rename their substitute players ‘impacters’.
“I discussed it with a few people.” Arteta confides. “People around other sports and football and then we discussed it with the team…we wanted to find something that is particular to us. I think it was the best way to express how we feel about them [the substitutes] and how they have to feel towards the team, especially on matchday. I think the way we now describe it is more like we want. If you repeat it more and more and more and you discuss it more and more and more, it will be closer to that than just being a sub.”
One thing is clear – there is a shift happening in football.
The traditional stubborn mindset adopted by a manager of a static unchanging starting eleven is out, replaced now with the vision of a dynamic interchangeable team, one that can be adjusted on a real time basis, to fit a particular game and tournament.
This transition is evident in the creation of a brand new role in football – that of the substitute coach, along with the 2022 ruling by the IFAB which allows for five substitutes per game instead of three.
For both professional players, and those young kids who have the unenviable choice to make of playing a first or second half, being subbed on or off is losing its stigma.
This can only be a good thing.