World Cup substitutes not scoring as much at Russia 2018 but still making an impact
As Russia's maiden World Cup kicked off, Denis Cheryshev became the first substitute to score in the opening fixture in any of the tournament's 21 editions. Then his teammate Artem Dzyuba became the second.
When Cheryshev doubled his tally in the 5-0 rout of Saudi Arabia back on Matchday One, it meant that six of the World Cup's past eight goals had been scored by substitutes. Before the Russian trio, there was Mario Gotze's decisive strike in the 2014 final and Andre Schurrle's brace in Germany's 7-1 semifinal thrashing of Brazil -- a run of goals interrupted only by Oscar's least consoling of consolation goals for the Selecao and Iury Gazinsky's header against the Saudis.
Part of it conformed to a trend. The temptation is to think the greatest prizes should be determined by the greatest players. Actually, they can come down to players not deemed worthy of a start.
Eder got the Euro 2016 winner after coming off the bench, just as the substitute Gotze scored in Brazil two years earlier. Andres Iniesta's 2010 final winner for Spain involved three substitutes: Jesus Navas, Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas. Two of Italy's successful spot kicks in the 2006 final shootout against France came from those who did not start.
Football's transformation into a 14-man game has long been complete, yet it is also reflected at the start of tournaments. Since Mexico's Juan Basaguren became the first substitute to score at a World Cup in 1970, they have been more prolific. There were 14 goals from replacements in the group stages in 2010 and a remarkable 20 in 2014; it was a total that reflected the alchemy of Champions League-winning managers such as Ottmar Hitzfeld and Louis van Gaal and that year's World Cup finalists, in Joachim Low and Alejandro Sabella. Perhaps, too, it showed the significance of fresh legs in the Brazilian heat.
There have been only 10 goals by substitutes, and just seven since that Russian flurry on the opening day, at Russia 2018. The scoring charts have been dominated by starting strikers, not their replacements, even if that could have been different had Michy Batshuayi taken the chances to register a hat trick in his bit-part role for Belgium against Tunisia.
And yet the influence of the men held in reserve is not declining, it's just more indirect. The trend is for substitutes to make a difference, even if it is not often reflected in their personal goal tally.
Germany are a case in point: Julian Brandt hit the post in each of their first two games; Mario Gomez's penalty-box presence was a reason why Marco Reus could equalise against Sweden. Though of course neither could stop the defending champions crashing out against South Korea.
Brazil's 2-0 victory against Costa Rica was secured by two starters, in Philippe Coutinho and Neymar. Yet they were supplied by substitutes: Roberto Firmino winning the header when his former Liverpool colleague broke the deadlock and Douglas Costa giving the world's most expensive player a tap-in with his cross.
Olivier Giroud made France more cogent and coherent when he came on against Australia, even if the decider, debited to Aziz Behich, stemmed from a Paul Pogba shot. Ruben Loftus-Cheek made a difference for England against Tunisia without a direct role in Harry Kane's late goal.
The obvious temptation is to look at the number of goals scored by substitutes, but there have been some significant assists, too.
Keisuke Honda found the net as a replacement against Senegal, but he provided Yuya Osaka's winner for Japan against Colombia. Carlos Sanchez, another set-piece specialist, took the free kick Jose Maria Gimenez headed in for Uruguay's decider against Egypt. Perhaps 2018's most important substitutes with be support acts and creators, not finishers.
In fact, significance of the substitutions has been shown by those that failed. Once again, Germany are emblematic: Overloading with attackers failed against South Korea, and instead created space Shin Tae-yong's side exploited at the other end. Apart from the glimpses of Cristian Pavon's talent, Jorge Sampaoli's other changes for Argentina have been utterly ineffective. Poland's were still worse: Jan Bednarek was involved in the comical second goal Senegal scored against the underachievers.
While history suggests there will be a far more significant goal scored by a substitute in the final or the semifinal, this already looks to be another tournament shaped by the men who began on the bench.
As Group B came to its dramatic conclusion, injury-time goals scored by two replacements, Iran's Karim Ansarifard and Spain's Iago Aspas, cost Portugal top spot in the group and sent the 2010 winners into what looks the much easier half of the draw. Should Spain reclaim the World Cup, substitutes will certainly have exerted an impact, both direct and indirect.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.