Manchester United's goalscoring subs could prove the difference in title race
Anthony Martial has scored half as many league goals as fourth-place Newcastle. He has more than Everton, Swansea and, of course, goalless Crystal Palace. He has three which, respectable as it is, would not be remarkable but for one fact: they have all come as a substitute.
The Frenchman is averaging a goal every 21 minutes as a replacement in the top flight this season. It is an unsustainable return, just as it is nigh-on impossible that Manchester United will carry on averaging a goal a game from a substitute in the Premier and Champions Leagues. Which, with Marouane Fellaini striking twice and Marcus Rashford once in cameos, they are currently doing.
United's blitz of late goals -- nine of their 16 in the Premier League have come after the 79th minute --reflects many things: a relentlessness, the physical strength to overpower opponents in the closing stages and a strength in depth. Few managers are able to bring on substitutes who may end up costing £60 million; in Martial, Jose Mourinho can.
Yet it also points to managerial input. It is one thing to have good players on the bench, another to select the appropriate ones, at a suitable moment in the match and against the right opponents. If United have begun the season in form, so has Mourinho. His substitutes delivered six league goals last season; they have produced four already this.
And the astute deployment of replacements can be a sign of a manager at his sharpest. As much as the players warming up on the touchline, he can be the game-changer, the 12th man, a figure able to alter a match long after it began.
Roberto Martinez appeared to have such an alchemy in his first season at Everton when a series of substitutes delivered nine goals and an extra 15 points; by his last few months, when he brought on Oumar Niasse to turn a 2-0 lead against West Ham into a 3-2 defeat, that golden touch seemed to have deserted him. Likewise, David Moyes' signature substitution for United was to bring on an attacker, move Antonio Valencia to right-back and concede because of failings at the right-back position.
Mourinho may seem his antithesis, affecting games in the right way. In his first spell at Chelsea he forged a reputation as a master of substitutions. His second match in charge was won by Joe Cole, a replacement, with a goal five minutes after his introduction. Mourinho, with his clinical, analytical brain and ability to be able to identify what was wrong and how to remedy it, used his intellect to turn match-winner.
So did a successor. Even before Antonio Conte's revelatory change to 3-4-2-1 last season (which, typically, came courtesy of a substitution in the 3-0 defeat to Arsenal), the Italian showed his prowess with influential changes. His first two wins required late interventions from Michy Batshuayi, who set up a goal on his debut and scored on his second appearance.
It may be a sign of a confidence in their powers and a control freak's determination to alter proceedings at every point that Mourinho and Conte are two of the most proactive substituters in the business. The Portuguese made 113 out of a possible 114 changes in the Premier League in 2013-14; the Italian went one better last season, making his three permitted substitutions in all 38 games. Because Chelsea were ahead so often and because he wanted to reinforce his defensive structure, Conte made more negative changes than most. Defenders Branislav Ivanovic (seven substitute appearances), Kurt Zouma (six) and John Terry (three) and defensive midfielders Nathaniel Chalobah (nine) and Nemanja Matic (five) were summoned to protect leads they had.
Yet the impact of scoring substitutes tends to be more evident. They highlight the impact of managers who, like their sides, have begun the season well. Sean Dyche, Marco Silva and Tony Pulis have each shown their influence on the game continued long after their team-talk ended by sending on a player who struck.
All of which may render the identity of the manager who could claim to have used his substitutes most effectively last season a little surprising: Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman has long been accused of being too passive but Arsenal's replacements, often Olivier Giroud, scored 10 league goals last season. Perhaps it is simply a sign they were chasing so many games that attacking changes were necessitated.
Like Fellaini, the Frenchman conforms to a new breed of super sub. Whereas United are indelibly associated with poachers, in the form of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Javier Hernandez, now impact subs often tend to possess an aerial threat. Martial, with the pace to outstrip tiring sides and exploit the space they leave behind as they pursue equalisers, has given Mourinho a two-dimensional threat from the bench.
More than most, Mourinho has long seen football as a 14-man game. The concession to conservatism in ageing has been a delay in introducing the 13th and 14th men. He used to make earlier tactical changes than most -- he famously removed both Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips after 26 minutes at Fulham in 2006 -- and such decisiveness can backfire. His Chelsea exited the FA Cup at Newcastle in 2005 when Mourinho made a triple half-time change and then Wayne Bridge went off injured two minutes later. Now he tends to hold at least one substitution back. Mourinho's replacements used to make an earlier impact. Now they are the late specialists. And in a title race that threatens to be close, that, the substitutes scoring those late goals or the manager bringing them on could prove the difference.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.