To sub or not to sub? Rafa and the Big Bench Debate

The conversation was heated – at least on one side. The journalist, somewhat stereotypically propping up the bar, wanted to know what Rafael Benitez was thinking of when he used (or rather failed to use) his substitutions on Wednesday night.

To sub or not to sub? Rafa and the Big Bench Debate

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May 10th, 2013

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“Rafa – at 2-1 you had the choice to make: a positive substitution to win the game; or you could have chosen to close the game out. You chose neither and ended up drawing. Do you think that was an opportunity missed?”

Certainly most of the crowd who had paid to watch Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Tottenham had thought it was an error, and made those thoughts very clear for all to hear. Chelsea, looking exhausted for much of the final half-hour of the Premier League fixture, was desperate for fresh legs.

In the event, their interim manager used only two of his three opportunities to mix things up, and one of those was the introduction of the much derided Yossi Benayoun in the 85th minute. Frank Lampard, meanwhile, sat straight-faced on the bench: watching the minutes of his Stamford Bridge career tick away, and his side surrender yet another once seemingly unimpeachable lead.

Benitez’ response to the charge from the fourth estate, that he had wasted his options, was predictably unforthcoming. Answering a question with a riddle, he said: “Do you think that you are better in attack if you play with five strikers or with one striker?”

Asked as to why he failed to give Demba Ba a crack of the whip in place of Fernando Torres, invisible for almost all of the second half, he would say only: “Maybe I had another idea.” We’re still waiting to see what his idea was.

Benitez’ substitutions have been a cause of rancour ever since his arrival in this parish.

When that was announced, a friend who covered the Spaniard’s reign at Anfield told me to expect: “Substitutions that change nothing.” And the proof has been there: in seven months, it is hard to recall a single unforced switch that improved Chelsea’s standing in a match.

The capitulations from strong positions have, meanwhile, been a common theme. A manager has only limited ways to change a game that is in progress, and the substitution is obviously paramount among these.

The success and failure of the Chelsea boss, as a species over the last ten years, has been so indelibly linked to the importance of the tactical switch that it is a wonder Roman Abramovich doesn’t announce his own changes in personnel by way of the fourth official’s board.

Claudio Ranieri was fired after a night of madness in Monaco, which saw Scott Parker ending up at right-back. Jose Mourinho spoiled the club with his ingenious changes: the momentary 4-2-4 a specialty of the Special One – though not always a successful switch. When Carlo Ancelotti was experiencing his ‘Bad Moment’, I have it on good authority that senior club figures were tasked with compiling a report on his ineffectual tactical changes.

But none of those were as tactically impotent as what we saw from Benitez on Wednesday night. Or, indeed, what we have been seeing from him for much of the season.

Sometime in the next six weeks, Chelsea are expected to announce a new manager. Whoever he may be, he had better know how to use his bench to full effect.


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