What really is a ‘super-sub’?
The concept of the ‘super-sub’ comes in and out of fashion in somewhat inconsistent waves. Generally, when a player makes a consistently excellent impact from the bench, the phrase blossoms and becomes commonplace in football chat. When nobody is making such an impact, its the sort of footballing idiom that becomes a little irrelevant.
The phrase itself is inherently misleading. The term ‘super-sub’ would imply that any player who regularly makes a positive impact off the bench qualifies for this glorified title, when in reality, the term is reserved exclusively for strikers, and within that, goal scoring strikers.
That isn’t to say that non-strikers cannot in turn be ‘super’ in their impact from the bench. More that, in reality, it is much harder for a single player to make a truly tangible impact from the bench on a game when not scoring goals. Players brought on to shore up a defence, or alternatively, keep possession, are contributing to something that requires a cohesive team effort, not an individual one. In turn, singling them out for making a superb bench contribution is a much harder case to make than a player who can come on and score a goal, and turn a game on its head.
Even then, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the best strikers in the world make the best ‘super subs’. While seeing a Ronaldo or Messi warming up on the bench would surely send a shiver down the spines of opposition defenders, Ronaldo, Messi and the rest of the footballing stardom would ultimately never qualify for the title.
In fact, the role is ultimately defined by players who have a temperament that accepts ones status as a backup. It would be a hugely risky move for a manager, of any calibre, to wage war against a top level striker by benching them persistently to hope they impacted a game later on. Some of the world’s best strikers are defined by their unfathomable and overwhelming desire to play every minute of every game. Your Diego Costa’s, Alexis Sanchez’s and Gonzalo Higuain’s would make terrible super subs over a prolonged period, and would eventually instruct their agents to find them a new club.
The role is therefore best defined by a player who accepts their status as an important bench player. And this explains why super subs are actually so rare, and why they should be kept held off at all costs. To find a truly quality striker, who can score goals on request, who simultaneously accepts his status weekly as a backup, is completely rare. ‘Supreme striking quality’ and ‘benchwarmer’ aren’t synonymous. It makes Louis Van Gaal’s decision to sell Javier Hernandez to Leverkuson all the more baffling.
To be fair to Van Gaal, super-subs need to be man-managed excellently. Exceptionally talented players will only stay at a club if their manager is able to convince them to do so. Such requires a strong sense of personal loyalty from that player, and a trustful relationship with their manager. It’s easy to breach that trust under the strains of the modern game, and fallouts between player and manager can be bitter affairs when a player has remained loyal on the bench under the presumption that they will either be sold at a later date, or be promoted to a first-teamer.
It’s by no means surprising then, that two of the world’s best remembered super-subs (and through the years, there really haven’t been that many) played for one manager. Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps the greatest man manger of all, was able to keep Javier Hernandez and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer satisfied on the bench for years, with both players making crucial impacts throughout his reign.
The overall need for greater squad rotation to survive the modern fixture list has placed a greater emphasis on substitutes making an impact from the bench. Ferguson was arguably the first manager to actually rotate his squad effectively, which helps explain how United were the first club in the modern era to win a treble. As a result, the ‘super-sub’ is actually a fairly modern development in the game, aided by changes in laws to the substitution rule (first allowed in 1953 and extended through the years) and gradual developments in squad size.
Of the infamous names that can hold the title, David Fairclough, the Liverpool player, is the original. But other examples have sprung up throughout. Edin Dzeko played the role well for Man City, Hernandez was so good he earned a move to Madrid to continue being a super-sub, and Oliver Bierhoff was invaluable to Germany and Udinese.
Severely under-rated because of their overriding, yet superficial status as being benchwarmers, super-subs can make or break seasons when tight games need clinching. Managers like Van Gaal should think twice before selling such useful players like Hernandez again.