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Jun 26, 2014

Subs' success a World Cup feature

It has been a World Cup of superstars, and it has been a tournament of super-subs. It sounds like a contradiction. Instead, though, some scorers -- like Lionel Messi, Arjen Robben and Neymar -- have been obvious attractions, while others have been held in reserve, emerging from the bench to make a difference.

They are already causing the record books to be rewritten. When Colombia's James Rodriguez scored against Japan on Tuesday, it was the 24th time a substitute struck in this tournament, eclipsing the previous highest total of 23, set in 2006.

Rodriguez was a rarity: an automatic choice who was held back because his side had already qualified. The others have tended to be examples of players granted limited time on the pitch who seized their opportunity to make an impact.

The tone was set by Switzerland in their opening game. They trailed Ecuador 1-0 before manager Ottmar Hitzfeld sent on Admir Mehmedi and Haris Seferovic to score. Lee Keun-ho and Alexander Kerzhakov traded goals as South Korea and Russia drew and, when Greece met Ivory Coast, Andreas Samaris and Wilfried Bony did likewise before Georgios Samaras, the exception who actually began the game, sent the Greeks through from Group C. There have been five games where two replacements have scored -- more on the others later -- and plenty of examples of pools being shaped by substitutes.

Take Group G. One of this World Cup's most dramatic goals and memorable celebrations came from John Brooks, the United States' reserve defender, when he headed the winner against Ghana. The second round of fixtures included two of the best games of the tournament, each influenced from the bench: Andre Ayew came on for the Black Stars to equalise against Germany before Miroslav Klose leveled with his record-equaling 15th World Cup goal. In Manaus, meanwhile, the USA were seconds away from sealing their place in the knockout stages when Portugal's specialist substitute, Silvestre Varela, converted Cristiano Ronaldo's cross.

Varela's late, late equaliser vs. the United States preserved Portugal's World Cup hopes.

Perhaps it is no coincidence those two games were staged in Fortaleza and Manaus, respectively. The heat, especially in northern Brazil, means reserves of energy, and reserves with energy, are vital. Germany manager Joachim Low's pretournament prediction is coming true: "The second half will bring another stage of the match; that's when the substitutes can make a difference. At this World Cup, it will be impossible to play an entire match with the 11 players who started."

So the 36-year-old Klose is used in short, sharp bursts. Low has kept some of his quickest charges, such as Andre Schurrle and Lukas Podolski, in reserve, but also the most experienced players, such as Klose and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Low's Belgian counterpart, Marc Wilmots, has taken the opposite approach and used the callow teenager Divock Origi as an impact substitute, and he has contributed to a unique start to the World Cup, which has seen all three of Belgium's goals scored by players who have come off the bench: Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens against Algeria and then Origi in the win over Russia.

In fact, ahead of their final group game against South Korea, the last Belgian to score in a World Cup game he actually started was Wilmots himself, who netted the winner vs. Russia in 2002.

"Half our winning goals in the qualifiers were netted by substitutes," Wilmots said a few weeks ago. It suggests Belgium have strength in depth. The alternative argument is that some of his first choices -- in particular, not beginning with Mertens against Algeria -- indicate a manager who is struggling to identify his best 11.

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But Belgium are proof that football is a 14-man game these days -- the 11 starters plus the three subs who are allowed. So, too, is one of Belgium's close neighbours. The Netherlands provide the other example of a game where two substitutes scored and are also alone in possessing a substitute who has scored twice. Memphis Depay, who got the winner against Australia, emulated Leroy Fer in taking his chance in a cameo against Chile.

It was the product of a patient plan. The Netherlands noticed Chile, who play a high-tempo pressing game, tend to tire in the closing stages. The raw Depay was unleashed in the final quarter of the game when the Dutch, who had focused on defence, displayed more intent. It is testament to manager Louis van Gaal's nous and offered a hint of how some knockout games may go if sides look to outlast opponents and then unleash attacking replacements.

It is a strategic use of the squad. Tactically, the dominance of one-striker systems is a reason why so many substitutes have chipped in with goals. The second striker -- whether Bony, Klose, Origi, Seferovic, Kerzkahov or Bosnia-Herzegovina's Vedad Ibisevic -- becomes the 12th man. Fellaini, who almost operated as a forward against Algeria, amounted to Plan B -- direct football, in his case -- in an instance of a newcomer offering something very different.

That is the classic use of a substitute. Now they have become more integral to managers' strategies, both to decide close games and to constitute the cavalry, as subs can replace three men who have become exhausted in the Brazilian sun.

And so this has become the year of the replacement, even if that title may be cemented only if it ends in fitting fashion. Substitutes have emerged to set up goals in the final (Patrick Vieira in 1998 and Cesc Fabregas in 2010) and score in shootouts (Alberigo Evani in 1994 and Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Del Piero in 2006) but none has netted on the biggest stage since Rudi Voller in 1986. If the last fortnight is anything to go by, he may lose that distinction in the next few weeks.

Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.