The Most Influential Substitutions in the History of Soccer
Soccer coaches are responsible for many things. They have to work closely with the management to assemble the strongest team possible, work on the tactics, develop the players, and so much more.
A good chunk of their work requires hard work, planning, and preparation. But some of the important decisions each coach makes are a result of his hunches and the ability to improvise.
I don’t think anything shows that more than the substitutions made throughout any single game. Sure, some coaches, like Arsene Wenger for example, are known for preparing them before the match has started.
But some managers are more reactive and make changes based on how a game is progressing.
There are many cases in the history of the game when sending the right player in at the right time has worked wonders. In fact, many major matches and tournaments have been decided by players who entered the show late.
I decided to conduct a list of some of the most amazing substitutions out there, and I’ve included all kinds of different stories.
Some will be about players who won the games by showing their amazing skill. Others are an example of stupidity. There are no clear and objective criteria, so these examples are my opinion of what qualifies as amazing.
Also, you won’t see many old games here for a simple reason.
The substitution rule was introduced in soccer in the middle of the 20th century and basically served only for injuries for a long time. It was in the 1970s when they became a tactical part of the game, and it took up 1995 to see three of them per team allowed.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the craziest subs in soccer history.
The King Is Back
As an Arsenal supporter, I can’t help but start with one of the most emotional moments in the club history of the past ten years or so.
You don’t have to be a Gunner to know what Thierry Henry means to the supporters. He is the top scorer in Arsenal’s history and returned for a second stint at the club in 2011-2012.
The team was struggling to find a winner against a tough Leeds side in the FA Cup, with about 20 minutes left in the match. This was when Arsene Wenger decided to send Henry on the pitch, and the crowd was buzzing.
It was a fairytale return for the Arsenal legend, who found the net in typical fashion only about 10 minutes later. The crowd was in ecstasy, and it was another chapter in Henry’s love story with Arsenal.
Sure, it was only an early round of the FA Cup and hardly the most impactful result for purely soccer reasons.
And yet the emotional eruption it caused is the reason I’ve included this moment. The man himself released a tear and celebrated together with Arsene Wenger.
Zlatan Is Here!
The Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the most colorful players in the modern history of the sport. He is somewhat controversial and hasn’t been particularly loyal during his long career, but his skills can’t be denied.
Since he had some health issues and reached an age that doesn’t allow him to stay competitive in the top European leagues, Zlatan decide to move to the MLS in the summer of 2018. LA Galaxy was the club that signed the superstar, and Hollywood seems like the perfect match for the big man.
He didn’t waste any time and announced his arrival in the best possible way. His team was trailing 3-1 with only 11 minutes to go. This was until Zlatan was brought in and played for LA Galaxy for the first time.
Just six minutes later, he scored an absolute stunner from 40 yards, and the crowd simply went mad. You could imagine what happened a couple of minutes later when Zlatan found the net once more and LA Galaxy won 4-3 at the end.
The Legend of Bierhoff
This moment is probably one of the most stunning soccer substitutions I’ve seen in my whole life. It happened in the final of EURO 1996 in England. The Czech Republic was one of the most exciting teams I’ve ever watched, and their brave side managed to reach the last match and face Germany.
They even managed to go 1-0 ahead when Patrik Berger found the net in the 59th minute and looked set to win the tournament. The German striker Oliver Bierhoff had other ideas. He started at the bench and came on in a desperate attempt to salvage the game in the 69th.
The tall forward had the reputation of one of the best players in the air at the time, and he more than delivered. Only four minutes after entering the pitch, Bierhoff scored with a header to level the score, and the game went into the extra time.
During the 1996 European Championship, the governing bodies of soccer were trying the Golden Goal experiment, which is probably one of the most unfair rules in the history of the sport.
If any team found the net in the extra time, it would be instantly over for the other. I don’t think the Germans will complain about that, as Bierhoff found the net once more, this time with his left foot in the 95th minute.
This brought the title to Germany, and the striker will forever remain in soccer history as one of the best substitutions. Of course, credit to his coach Berti Vogts, who was the one to bring him in.
Double Delight for Manchester United
When we talk about crazy finals of major tournaments, it’s impossible to miss the 1999 UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
The German team was arguably the best in the whole competition and was playing much better in the final match as well. Bayern created plenty of opportunities to score but was only leading 1-0 towards the end of the game.
The legendary manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, had only two players on the bench that made sense under such circumstances.
One of them was the Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who had the reputation of one of the best substitutes in the history of English soccer, and the other was experienced striker Teddy Sheringham.
Sir Alex was hoping one of them could inspire the Red Devils for some kind of a comeback, but I don’t think that even he expected what followed next.
The regular 90 minutes were gone, and there were only a couple of extra minutes left. It seemed like Bayern would deservedly win the Champions League when Sheringham found the net after a corner kick. The English team and their supporters went mad.
But this was just the beginning of it.
Two minutes later, right at the death, it was Solskjaer’s turn to find the net, after an assist by Sheringham. This completed one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the sport, and it was the two substitutes who did the job.
The Best Sub Performance Ever?
If we are looking for the best performance by a sub ever, I think the Polish striker Robert Lewandowski has a solid claim for the title.
His Bayern Munich was trailing 1-0 at half time against Wolfsburg at home in a match from the 2015-2016 Bundesliga season. Lewandowski was on the bench because the manager, Pep Guardiola, decided to give him a rest.
The negative scoreline forced Guardiola to introduce Lewandowski at the break, and the deadly striker didn’t disappoint. He managed to score five (that’s right – 5!!!) goals by the 60th minute, and the game was well beyond Wolfsburg.
Bayern won 5-1 at the end, and I can’t think of a better performance by a substitution in the history of the sport. Especially if you consider the fact that this was a competitive match from the Bundesliga, one of the Big Four European leagues.
Krul Saves the Netherlands
All of the subs so far have praised the impact of a player who scored in a crucial moment. Of course, soccer is not only about that, and it’s time to pay respect to a different kind of story.
In the 2010 soccer World Cup, the Netherlands were playing a hungry Costa Rican side in the quarterfinals.
It was a tight game, as Keylor Navas helped his side reached the penalty shootout. The young Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was having a great World Cup so far, but he had never saved a penalty in his career before.
This is why Louis van Gaal decided to bring in Tim Krul for the penalty shootout. He managed to save two of the shots by Costa Rica, and this was enough for the Netherlands to reach the last four of the tournament.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like that before, but it was no surprise to see Louis van Gaal try something like that. The man is not the most beloved coach in the history of the game, but he is not afraid of experimenting.
Many wondered why he didn’t repeat the move in the semifinal against Argentina. Once again, the match was tied and reached the penalty shootout. This time around, Cillessen stayed on the pitch, and the Netherlands lost.
Lord Bendtner Strikes
Some of you might actually remember that the Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner was once a promising young player for Arsenal before becoming a cult figure. His early career showed a lot of potential, and he scored plenty of goals under the guidance of the legendary Arsene Wenger.
None of them will be remembered more fondly by the Arsenal supporters than the one against bitter rival Tottenham in 2007. The Gunners were the much better team at the time but were struggling to find an opening.
It seemed like the game would finish 0-0, and that’s when Arsene Wenger decided to send Nicklas Bendtner in, just when Arsenal was about to take a corner. The tall striker scored instantly with a bullet header, and the crowd went nuts.
This was the first touch of the Danish player, and it came only 1.8 seconds after he came on. Talk about an impact sub! Up to this day, this remains a Guinness world record.
Bendtner’s career might have gone downhill after that, but I can’t see anyone taking away this achievement anytime soon.
Ricken’s Magic When It Mattered the Most
Lars Ricken is another player that probably didn’t fulfill his potential, but he has a place in the history of the sport for all the right reasons. In the 1997 Champions League season, his team Borussia Dortmund surprisingly reached the final of the competition.
The Germans were playing some exciting soccer without having the superstars some of the favorites in the tournament had.
A quick look at their opponent in the final, Juventus, is an excellent example of that. The Italians had the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps, Angelo Peruzzi, and Alessandro Del Piero and were the heavy favorites in the final.
Yet Borussia Dortmund was led by Ottmar Hitzfeld, who was one of the most brilliant tacticians at the time. He prepared the team perfectly well, and Borussia Dortmund took a 2-0 lead against all odds. Still, Juventus refused to give up and got one goal back thanks to Del Piero.
The Italians were pushing for an equalizer, so Hitzfeld felt he needed to do something about it. He decided to send out Lars Ricken, who was only 20 at the time.
This decision paid off after only 16 seconds, as the youngster scored one of the most memorable goals in Champions League finals to seal the game for Borussia Dortmund.
As Ricken stated almost 20 years later, he saw the Juventus goalkeeper Peruzzi come out high up the pitch in the first half and was thinking that he could surprise him if given the chance. This is why he decided to try a smart chip from 35 yards, and the result was beautiful.
Unfortunately for Ricken, this remained the best moment of his career. Still, it will live forever as one of the most successful soccer substitutions.
The Italian giant AC Milan has not been having the best period of its history in the past decade or so. Still, the team did have a couple of memorable moments, and one of the most exciting ones was produced by Kevin-Prince Boateng.
He was at the bench when Milan faced Lecce in the Italian Serie A in 2011. The opponent was leading 3-0 at half time, and the Rossoneri looked doomed. This was when Kevin-Prince Boateng was sent on the pitch, and he was eager to help the team.
What happened next is one of the most unbelievable turnarounds, as Milan managed to win the match 4-3. Boateng scored a hattrick, and not only that, but the first two goals were absolute stunners. He inspired his side for the victory, and this remains one of the best subs ever.
Chicharito Proves He’s a Super Sub
Javier Hernandez spent six seasons in Manchester United and scored more than 50 goals for the club. It’s an impressive feat, since he was on the bench for the majority of his career there.
The Mexican striker managed to build a reputation of a super sub that’s always capable of impacting games from the bench.
I don’t think there’s a better example than his performance against Aston Villa in the 2012-2013 season of the English Premier League. Manchester United was 1-0 down and struggling to break the club from Birmingham.
This was when Sir Alex Ferguson decided to send Chicharito out on the pitch, but Villa added a second almost right after that. With less than 40 minutes left, Manchester United needed something special to win the match.
And Hernandez provided. He scored three goals and led his team to a dramatic 3-2 victory. He required some luck for his second, as the ball hit a Villa defender, but credit to the Mexican striker who beat the opponent almost single-handedly.
Gotze Wins the World Cup
I wasn’t sure if I should include this one, but the sheer importance of the occasion is why I decided to go for it at the end. In the 2014 soccer World Cup final, Germany and Argentina were close to reaching the penalty shootout.
Gonzalo Higuain missed a couple of good chances for Argentina, while the Europeans were fairly quiet after trashing Brazil 7-1 in the semis. And still, they managed to strike in the extra time.
Gotze entered the pitch in the 88th minute and took his chance seven minutes before the extra time ended. He used his chest to control the ball and send a beautiful strike with his left foot. This was enough for Germany to win the World Cup.
Three out of Three for France
We already mentioned the stupid Golden Goal rule earlier in this post, and another final of a European Championship was decided by it.
In 2000, the reigning world champions France faced Italy in the title decider of the EURO. Despite having the likes of Zidane, Henry, and Vieira, the French team went behind in the 55th minute after a goal by Marco Delvecchio.
The Italians are notoriously tough in such situations, and France was back against the wall. The coach, Roger Lemerre, used all three of his substitutions in this match, and they all played a part.
Wiltord was introduced in the 58th minute, and about 20 minutes later, David Trezeguet entered the pitch as well. This wasn’t enough, as France was still unable to find the net when Robert Pires entered the game in the 86th in a desperate attempt to salvage the chances of his country.
The team was trying to find a chance, and it all looked lost until Wiltord scored right at the death to send the game into extra time.
In the 103rd minute, it was time for the other two subs to shine. First, Robert Pires made a brilliant run on the left wing and crossed the ball to Trezeguet. The striker hit a sublime half-volley to score and end the match with a Golden Goal in France’s favor.
This is the perfect example of how important your substitutions are. Often, they can make the difference for a whole generation of players.
Messi’s Crazy Debut
All of the examples so far are of positive substitutions, but there are some negative ones that will raise your eyebrows as well.
Let’s start with the international debut of Lionel Messi, who’s widely regarded as one of the greatest to ever grace the game of soccer. The Argentinian is truly brilliant and has done wonders for Barcelona, but he failed to achieve the same success with his national side.
Perhaps his international debut was a clear sign for things to come. The little magician had already shown his enormous potential for Barcelona and Argentina’s youth squads. This is why he got a call to play for the senior team of his country in 2005.
Messi was named on the bench in the friendly against Hungary and entered the pitch in the middle of the second half. Only 40 seconds later, the Argentinian was sent off after throwing an elbow against one of his opponents. A debut to forget, for sure.
In Messi’s defense, he was only 18 and basically a kid at the time. Also, his shirt was pulled by one of the Hungarians, and he simply tried to shrug him off. Still, it was a shocking substitution.
Stevie G’s Last Derby Against Man United
Steven Gerrard is a true legend of Liverpool and has been one the most successful players in the modern history of the club. He had an exceptional career, and the highlight is the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul.
However, the end of Gerrard’s time in Merseyside was extremely disappointing. He had the chance to win the English Premier League in 2014, but he slipped in the most important game of the season, and the club finished second.
The next year was the last in Gerrard’s Anfield career. The iconic midfielder was on the bench in his final derby against bitter rivals Manchester United. Still, he was sent to help his team after the break.
Gerrard was probably overexcited to show his commitment for one last time, and this cost him dearly. The skipper was sent off in less than a minute after deliberately stepping on the legs of Herrera. It was a sad end of a player who probably deserved better.
As you already noticed, the coaches often bring in players for penalty shootouts. Having a guy who is capable of keeping his composure in the toughest moments could be the difference-maker.
This is probably what Antonio Conte expected from Simone Zaza. The forward was brought in the EURO 2016 quarterfinal against Germany. The game was tied, and the penalties would be the decider at the end.
Conte sent Zaza out shortly before them, hoping that the striker’s fresh legs would help him score. What followed next was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Zaza made some weird tricks with his legs before kicking the ball and then completely missed the target.
The player became an instant meme and the laughing stock of the internet. This miss marked his career and is probably one of the reasons Zaza failed to progress. As the man himself admitted, he was traumatized by the horror penalty.
This is my list of the most amazing substitutions in the history of soccer.
I’m quite certain I’ve missed other incredible stories, as there are so many of them.
This is why I would love to see your suggestions for substitutions that should be remembered. Feel free to add them in the comments below.
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