Throughout the world of sports, there are those who are deemed worthy of hearing the opening whistle of a contest. Regardless of the reasons for their inclusion in starting lineups, those folks are viewed as preeminent players. However, there are awards across many a sport that value those that come on after that first line of attack. The NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year and MLB’s Relief Man of the Year (whatever their fucking sponsor is now) are prime examples. We as football fans in Europe need to destigmatize players who come on as a sub. Substitutes can almost be as valuable for their 20-30 minutes as some starters are for their hour.
BEING A SUB ISN’T NECESSARILY A DEMOTION
Price tags on players act as horrible compasses sometimes. Paying an exorbitant fee for a player almost forces managers to shoehorn them into the lineup regardless of fit. It is something that happens at every level of every league. Ownership will deliver an edict from up on high, “This player cost us five and a half games’ worth of revenue, you better make sure they get minutes upon minutes.” Managers in most instances have no choice but to acquiesce.
But for years I’ve yelled from the rooftops, well maybe alleyways, that this stigma of being a sub needs a reworking. There are players who can thrive at a club as a catalyst off the bench. Liverpool Football Club is a prime example of how this thought process should be something more widely spread.
You can sound the cliche alarm all you want, but think about Istanbul. Was there a better person to bring off the pine and inject a level of chaos into a midfield battle after an early goal from AC Milan than Vladimir Smicer? The Czech international was never a goal scorer but what he always did was make opposing midfields work. As much as you want to heap praise on that Milan unit, they were way more flair than industry. Throwing a Czech tube of Mentos into Milan’s bottle of Diet Coke was just enough to fluster the Rossoneri into a capitulation for the ages. Subs matter!
PRESENT DAY APPLICATION
I could sit here all day and laud you with tales before my time of Smicer, Neil Mellor, Florent Sinama Pongolle, and Djibril Cisse. But let’s bring things into a more recent focus. What do you think of when you hear the name Divock Origi? The Belgian only netted 22 times for Liverpool in nearly eight years with the club. But fucking hell can most of you not recollect nearly every single one of his strikes as they all seemingly came in increasingly more clutch moments. He was a super sub who was fully recognized as such. Any clamoring for him to start a match only came from fools who were trying to find weird differentials in FPL. Let’s be honest.
That leads me to my present-day thesis when it comes to the club. The biggest tenet of said thesis is at this stage of the game, Darwin Nunez and Diogo Jota’s most effective deployment is as second-half substitutes.
Oh no! What a disparagement of our recruitment process that our €80m striker and a catalyst of some of our best of times can only get half an hour of game time at best. My biggest qualm with this sentiment is how is this a demotion. I’m not naive. I fully understand that massive fees come with massive expectations. But let my Yankee flag fly for a second and try to do the worst thing possible in the eyes of Europeans and make a relation to an American league.
HOW DARE I?
The NBA has the Sixth Man of the Year award. It speaks for itself so I’m not going to talk to you like you have a dunce cap firmly placed upon your head. The biggest basketball league in the world celebrates the most effective player off the bench on a yearly basis. Yet in the Premier League, the biggest football league in the world, regularly those who play big roles as a sub are viewed as circumstantial cases or beneficiaries of poor opposition.
What Darwin Nunez and Diogo Jota did against Newcastle was nothing short of brilliant. Jota and Harvey Elliott’s introduction showed that Jurgen Klopp was not ready to go quietly into that cold dead night. Nunez’s substitution let a wild stallion run unrestrained at a Magpies defense rife with yellows, weary legs, and a lack of confidence. I still think Dan Burn is getting PTSD flashbacks about his “touch” that put our Uruguayan unicorn in for the equalizer.
CLOSERS AND CHASERS
For the select number of you who have encountered me in American Scouser pod chats or the Discord, I’ve lumped many a sub over time into two distinct categories: chasers and closers. I think each categorization speaks for itself.
James Milner was the epitome of a closer. Regardless of the role he was brought on to fill, right back, holding midfield, tackler for hire, Milly’s charge was to see a result out. Milner wasn’t brought on for that final miracle goal. I think that once healthy this is a role that a player like Stefan Bajcetic can embrace. He’s not always going to be in the starting eleven. But when called upon he can produce 20-30 minutes of counter-attack mutilation.
That brings me back to the duo of Jota and Nunez. They are two players that could and should start in nearly 85% of Premier League sides. But for Liverpool, as the roster is currently constituted, they are best suited as chasers. Two guys that can come on against either lesser players or tired legs and commit football arson. Jota’s ability to rise up in clutch moments, both literally and figuratively, is nearly unparalleled. Get past Darwin’s exorbitant price tag and anybody can see that him using his endless pace against defenders with 65 minutes of Mo Salah marking is a recipe for what we saw at St. James’ Park.
Who else do you think could join our ranks of super subs going forward? Is Ben Doak a sleeper sub? Can we bring in a utility center back to make sure Virgil’s next dust-up doesn’t mean a month of Joe and Joel? Most of all, am I completely full of shit with my assessment? If so, come in on a Thursday evening pod and say it to my face.