FC Barcelona were 1-0 down to Deportivo Alavés, and Ernesto Valverde turned to the bench quickly. He had decided to completely change his fullbacks. Off went Lucas Digne and Nélson Semedo, in came Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. A little bit later, off went Philippe Coutinho for Paco Alcácer. And a little after that, Luis Suárez scored. And twelve minutes later, Lionel Messi scored. A 2-1 win for Barça precipitated by a change from Valverde.
It’s not the first time this season, either. Valverde has managed to turn around so many games with his tactical adaptations, that he’s developing a bit of a reputation as a substitution master.
Against Villarreal last December, the score was 0-0. Valverde introduced Paco Alcácer and later Aleix Vidal for Denis Suárez and Paulinho. Four minutes after the second substitution, Luis Suárez scored, and then 11 minutes later so did Messi. 2-0 the final scoreline.
In the 1-1 draw against Atlético Madrid, Sergi Roberto was brought on when the score was 0-1 to Atléti. He ended up assisting the equalizer.
In an earlier game against Aláves, he brought on Alcácer in the 57th with the score still very tight - just 1-0 to Barcelona. In the 66th, he assisted Messi.
But perhaps no other game shows Valverde’s mastery in subs than Barça’s 2-1 win over Getafe. Geta were winning at the end of the first half, but Valverde subbed in Denis for Iniesta. And in the 52nd, Denis would score the equalizer. Then, in the 77th, Valverde brought on Paulinho for Ivan Rakitić. The Brazilian would score a brilliant winner just 7 minutes later.
Valverde’s Barcelona is marked by much stronger second halves than first halves. To an extent, you could argue it’s coincidence that substitutions are being made and Barcelona are improving, since the subs are made in the second half and Barcelona improve in the second half generally.
But we’ve seen many times Valverde’s players from the bench have a direct impact. It’s not always a goal or an assist - though it certainly is that sometimes - but players coming from the bench change the match in substantial ways.