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The Substitute Patterns of Bruce Arena

A.K.A. Alan Gordon as Savior Sub

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

"Bruce, hurry up and sub!"

"Bruce...sub!"

"Bruce, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!"

Sometimes it feels like Bruce Arena takes forever to insert a substitute, stubbornly clinging to the starting XI while watching Gyasi Zardes lose a lung in the 72nd minute.  But does Bruce really sub late?  And what are his tactics when he subs?  Is he using the same players, or does he change depending on the situation?

In a year where the LA Galaxy are starting to look like Goliath against a bunch of Davids (hopefully with a different story ending), taking a look at how Bruce subs will be a good indication of how he uses his bench down the stretch, and who might be plan B in case of dreaded injury.

Taking a look back at subs over time should also give an indication if Bruce uses the same substitute tactics, or if he has evolved as the team has changed.

HURRY UP AND SUB

For whatever reason, it seems like Bruce takes forever to make that first sub.  However, since 2011, Bruce has been very, very consistent as to the timing of his first sub - usually in between the 60th and 70th minute.

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015 (8/23)

Avg Min of 1st Sub

65

64

67

68

63

*regular MLS season, not including any injury related 1st subs

He's not afraid to pull the trigger for the first sub if needed, even with a stellar starting XI, be it with Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham, or Robbie Keane, Giovani Dos Santos and Steven Gerrard.

Bruce actually looks to be inserting the first sub slightly earlier in 2015, which could be a reflection of two things:  a) Gerrard and Dos Santos working their way to fitness and b) more sub options at Bruce's disposal with more depth (more on this below).

The 2nd sub steadily typically comes about 10-12 minutes later, waiting to see if the 1st sub impacted the game positively.

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015 (8/23)

Avg Min of 1st Sub

65

64

67

68

63

Avg Min of 2nd Sub

76

75

77

78

75

*regular MLS season, not including injury related 1st sub

Bruce doesn't sub 2 players at once a lot.  Usually it's a slow burn of 1, 2, 3.

His timing of subs over the last 30 minutes of games hasn't really changed much over time, with the possible exception of the timing of the third sub in 2015.  Recently, it appears like he's keeping that third sub as a time waster towards the end of the game more often.  This could be a reflection of the DP pool he now has at his disposal - not wanting to remove a potential big contributor at the end.  It could also be a reflection of LA's recent home form and blowout victories - no need for an earlier third sub when the scoreline is 5-0 and the opposing team just wants to go home.

Avg Min for Sub

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015 (8/23)

60th-70th Min

64

65

65

65

66

70th - 80th Min

76

77

74

74

73

80th Min+

85

85

86

82

89

*regular MLS season

What is eye opening though is the overall number of subs that occur in each of these increments of time over the course of a season.  This is where you see Bruce's tendency to wait.  In certain years (not seemingly tied to LA's W-D-L record) the highest number of his subs occur after the 80th minute.  Comparing his stats versus average sub patterns (using the EPL since MLS averages are not readily available), you can distinctly see that while Bruce uses his 60th to 70th minute sub almost around average, and relatively consistently over time (2014 a notable exception), he is still very much backloaded year over year.  This was especially true in 2014.

% of Subs

EPL Avg

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015 (8/23)

Pre 60th

20.1%

11.1%

15.1%

7.8%

11.2%

14.5%

60th-70th Min

22.2%

21.1%

22.6%

26.7%

13.5%

28.9%

70th - 80th Min

30.3%

30.0%

32.3%

26.7%

38.2%

26.3%

80th Min+

27.4%

37.8%

30.1%

38.9%

37.1%

30.3%

Record (WDL)

19-10-5

16-6-12

15-8-11

17-10-7

13-7-7

Bruce is not a fan of the halftime sub; he rarely does it unless injury or a major tactical shift forces it.  And in a surprise to no one, Bruce Arena appears to be risk averse and holds onto that last sub until you pry it from his cold dead fingers.

Finally, Bruce typically (>76% of games) uses all three subs.  2014 was again a slight exception with 38% of games using 2 or fewer subs, but the majority of games still had 3 subs.  In 2015 so far, Bruce is using 3 subs more often - in 85% of games through 8/23.  With US Open Cup and CCL play that is understandable, though those tournaments existed in prior years as well.

TYPES OF SUBS

LA is losing...more offense is needed, does Bruce withdraw a defender?  On average the answer is no.  In the last 5 years, the most times Bruce has removed a defender to chase a win was back in 2013, and that was a total of 5 times.  In the last two years (‘14/'15) Bruce has removed a defender a grand total of three times.  He doesn't like to impact his defense, so if he's removing a defender, bad things have happened.

As for what position is being subbed out, Bruce's subs don't appear to be related to position.  Instead, he has a high rate of subbing in/out certain players:

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015 (8/23)

Top Players Removed (#games):

Barrett (14)

Magee (18)

Jimenez (13)

Ishizaki (15)

Vayrynen (10)

Angel (12)

Jimenez (12)

Villarreal (9)

Husidic (15)

Villarreal (8)

Top Players Inserted (#games):

Stephens (12)

Stephens (17)

Stephens (12)

Gordon (9)

Gordon (15)

Lopez (11)

Barrett (11)

Jimenez (12)

Ishizaki (8)

Buddle (9)

Husidic (8)

Hoffman (8)

When you have 3 famous DPs, people (rather than positional) subs make sense.  To do the math:  Bruce rarely subs a defender, and obviously not a GK, 3 DPs are usually a no...so that leaves three other players as the odd man out.  Low man on the totem pole underperforming midfielder, or forward, is therefore removed.  Which makes the current squad so interesting for subs - which high performing player is removed?  Odds are Lletget, Zardes or Gerrard, the latter only due to age.  This is a good problem to have rather than the obvious subs of yester year.

In 2011-2013, Michael Stephens was Bruce Arena's security blanket.  Of all his sub appearances, 68% of them were when the team was winning.  He came in to help shut the game down, not really be creative (in contrast to his current role in Chicago).  Bruce no longer uses a midfielder the way he used Michael Stephens for 3 years.  In the last two years, Alan Gordon has become Bruce's go-to sub.

DEPTH OF SUBS

The biggest area where Bruce has seen dramatic improvement is the number of quality subs available to him.  This demonstrates the growth of MLS, the changes in roster and salary rules enabling more depth, and the success of LA's youth players.

Arena has gone from having to rely on Chad Barrett, Paolo Cardozo, Pat Noonan and Bryan Jordan, to Alan Gordon as super sub, and a plethora of young midfield options that previously saw time, or were raised with Los Dos (Villarreal, Garcia, Walker, Maganto).

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015 (8/23)

Players Inserted (#games):

Stephens (12)

Stephens (17)

Stephens (12)

Gordon (9)

Gordon (15)

Lopez (11)

Barrett (11)

Jimenez (12)

Ishizaki (8)

Buddle (9)

Kirovski (9)

Villarreal (10)

Villarreal (10)

Husidic (8)

Maganto (6)

Cardozo (9)

Noonan (9)

Garcia (8)

Hoffman (8)

Walker (6)

Jordan (8)

Buddle (9)

Courtois (6)

Friend (6)

Garcia (6)

Mastroeni (6)

Zardes (6)

Vayrynen (6)

Villarreal (5)

One note:  the youngsters typically get time when the team is winning.  That's Bruce developing them at a slow pace.  In a draw or loss, the subs are typically Gordon and Buddle.  He goes with the veterans.

SUB SUMMARY

Reviewing the last 5 years, Bruce Arena's sub patterns boil down to a risk averse, practical manager that doesn't play tactical games:

  • Rarely subs at half time unless forced, very few major half time shifts
  • Average time of first sub typically in the 60th-70th minute
  • 2nd sub comes 10-12 minutes later
  • Keeps subs towards the last 20 minutes of games
  • Uses third sub to manage game out and kill time
  • Typically uses all three subs, and in sequential order (very few duos)
  • In 2015, Alan Gordon is sub #1, especially if LA is pushing for a win
  • Better variety of subs used in 2014-2015
  • Expect the kids during wins, not when chasing games (the exception here is Villarreal, but he has been injured)

All of that said, sub patterns may be different in the back half of 2015 with the inclusion of Dos Santos and Gerrard.

This is classic Bruce Arena:  practical, great man management, and relies on his very well prepared starting XI to get the job done.  And if they don't do it in the first half, apparently the half-time hair dryer treatment and tactical shifts with the same personnel do wonders (see:  NYCFC game).

It's hard to call Bruce Arena a tactical sub genius, but it's also hard to disagree with his results.  MLS Cup or bust.