Why is my substitute player under-performing?

A lot of attention is usually given to starting players within a football team. This is a common and understandable practice, since those are the players who have more playing minutes within a season, hence being more important to that particular team. However, football season is long and injuries, illnesses, suspensions, bad performances or even transfers are likely to occur throughout the competitive year, making the reserve/substitute players a crucial part of a team’s success. Are clubs missing a piece of the puzzle?


A standard weekly schedule with match on Saturday starts with a day-off on Sunday (ie, MD+1 or the day after the match) or recovery session, depending on logistics and/or head coach’s preference. On Monday (MD+2) the team comes in for a light active recovery session (or they might have day-off depending on MD+1 choice). On Tuesday (MD+3) the team is exposed to a medium intensity training session with technical emphasis, and Wednesday, or MD-3, represents the most physically demanding training day of the week, which may result in some fatigue in the squad. On Thursday (MD-2) overall training load starts to drop, with more emphasis in tactical aspects, and Friday training session (MD-1) serves the purpose of activation and refinement of some tactical details for the match on Saturday.

Standard weekly schedule of a football team. Credits: http://www.complementarytraining.net

If we analyze the microcycle previously detailed, we can observe that the week is composed by 3 mini-blocks: RECOVERY (MD+1 and MD+2), LOADING (MD+3 and MD-3) and TAPER (MD-2 and MD-1), resulting in a pyramid-like loading distribution throughout the week, culminating with the highest load during Saturday’s match. In a practical way, this means that players only get exposure to somehow physically demanding training sessions 2 times in a week, plus a match, in a best-case scenario. Worst-case scenario may include long travel, Cup/European competitions during the week, family issues, marketing events, training pitch conditions, etc.

A player who starts on the bench, may achieve 20 to 30 minutes of play, in average. Some may play only 5 minutes, and others may not play at all. For those players who didn’t accumulate minutes of play during the match, this means that they will be without physically demanding training stimulus for 5 consecutive days (MD-2, MD-1, Match Day, MD+1 and MD+2). While this may seem like a perfect situation for the head coach because the players are not fatigued, it may have catastrophic repercussions for physical conditioning of those players. If we sum up consecutive weeks without significant minutes of match play, we end up with only a couple of demanding training sessions during an entire month.

Small sided games do not seem to provide a similar physical stimulus when compared with match demands

Those players will become most likely unfit, resulting in increased injury risk, as this is being continuously backed up by scientific evidence. (Malone et al., 2018a; Malone et al., 2018b; Malone et al., 2017a; Malone et al., 2017b). We know that low chronic training loads are associated with increased injury risk, and it leaves the players more prone to spikes in training loads, which is one of the most important injury risk factors. (Carey et al., 2017; Windt & Gabbett, 2017; Gabbett, 2016; Hulin et al., 2016; Hulin et al., 2014). Basically, these substitute players are not ready for the demands of the game, simply because they haven’t been exposed to sufficient training stimulus. So, instead of saying that the player is not able to perform well because he is lacking “game rhythm”, we may say that he is not able to perform well because he is not training enough, hence he is not fit.



Due to real world’s uncertainty and randomness, although there is a plan for players who will be in starting 11 and on the bench, injuries, illnesses, and other unpredictable factors may force the head coach to change the initial plan, hence the reason why those players who are normally substitutes cannot be exposed to high training loads during the days preceding the match (normally MD-2 and MD-1). 


Those players who didn’t accumulate minutes in the match need to be exposed to similar physical demands as it would happen if they played 90 minutes. This match-like exposure should occur as soon as possible, in order to avoid accumulated fatigue later in the week during the days preceding the next match. 

Three options to achieve this goal: (1) SIMULATED-GAME SESSION within the squat or even friendly game for the non-utilized players, (2) NON-SPECIFIC PHYSICAL SESSION and (3) COMBINATION OF BOTH.

I’m an advocate of the third option, where players who didn’t accumulate match minutes should be exposed to match-like situations and physical conditioning drills, during either MD+1 or MD+2 (depending on team schedule and day-off choice), in order to allow substitute players to be exposed to a similar physical stimulus as they would have if they played an entire match. This way, we would ensure that those players achieve their external load targets for that training week (e.g.: total distance, high-intensity running distance, sprint exposure, accelerations/decelerations, repeated high-intensity efforts, etc.). GPS-unit devices and software, as well as Sports Science staff, are crucial for this kind of analysis, in order to make sure that players reached their physical targets.

AS Roma (ITA) Strength & Conditioning examples

Coaches may argument that a simulated-game training session is enough to achieve those targets. However, from an empirical and practical perspective, this is not black and white as it could seem. Indeed, scientific research, as well as real-world data collected daily within the clubs, are giving us information that football-specific drills (even when 11 vs 11 in a training situation) do not guarantee the same physical exposure as in matches (Malone et al., 2015). One good example is related to sprint exposure during training drills, where players achieve in average only 82% of their maximum sprint speed (Djaoui et al., 2016). 

This is why I believe in a combination of both sport-specific drills and strength & conditioning approach to this issue. Strength & Conditioning sessions would include linear sprints, also known as top-ups, and conditioning drills, such as HIT variants (aerobic and/or anaerobic power/capacity), in order to approach match demands, avoiding deconditioning for the substitute players. Additionally, since force production is one of the most limiting factors in football players in a general way, this session is the perfect opportunity to add an extra maximal strength session in the weight room, making it possible to increase physical qualities even during the competitive period.


Injuries do not happen only due to bad pitches, inadequate warm-ups or bad luck. Also, players who don’t have a lot of match minutes accumulated don’t perform badly just because they lack “game rhythm”. It may be the case that they are just unfit and are not being exposed to a sufficient training stimulus. The solution should be identified within a multidisciplinary team, where directors, head coach, Sports Science/S&C staff, medical staff, and even players are included.


  1. Carey, D.L., Blanch, P., Ong, K., Crossley, K.M., Crow, J., & Morris, M.E. (2017). Training loads and injury risk in Australian football—differing acute: chronic workload ratios influence match injury risk. British journal of sports medicine. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2016-096309
  2. Djaoui, L., Chamari, K., Owen, A.L., & Dellal, A. (2016). Maximal Sprinting Speed of Elite Soccer Players During Training and Matches. Journal of strength and conditioning research. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001642
  3. Gabbett, T.J. (2016). The training—injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2015-095788
  4. Hulin, B.T., Gabbett, T.J., Blanch, P., Chapman, P., Bailey, D., & Orchard, J.J. (2014). Spikes in acute workload are associated with increased injury risk in elite cricket fast bowlers. British journal of sports medicine, 48 8, 708-12. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092524
  5. Hulin, B.T., Gabbett, T.J., Lawson, D.W., Caputi, P., & Sampson, J.A. (2016). The acute:chronic workload ratio predicts injury: high chronic workload may decrease injury risk in elite rugby league players. British journal of sports medicine, 50 4, 231-6. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2015-094817
  6. Malone, J.J., Michele, R.D., Morgans, R., Burgess, D., Morton, J.P., & Drust, B. (2015). Seasonal training-load quantification in elite English premier league soccer players. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 10 4, 489-97. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2014-0352
  7. Malone, S., Roe, M., Doran, A., Gabbett, T. & Collins, K. (2017). Aerobic Fitness and Playing Experience Protect Against Spikes in Workload: The Role of the Acute:Chronic Workload Ratio on Injury Risk in Elite Gaelic Football. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. March;12(3):393-401. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2016-0090
  8. Malone, S., Owen, A., Newton, M., Mendes, B., Collins, K., & Gabbett, T.J. (2017). The acute:chonic workload ratio in relation to injury risk in professional soccer. Journal of science and medicine in sport, 20 6, 561-565. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2016.10.014
  9. Malone, S., Hughes, B., Doran, D., Collins, K. & Gabbett, T. (2018). Can the workload–injury relationship be moderated by improved strength, speed and repeated-sprint qualities? Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2018.01.010
  10. Malone, S., Owen, A., Mendes, B., Hughes, B., Collins, K., & Gabbett, T.J. (2018). High-speed running and sprinting as an injury risk factor in soccer: Can well-developed physical qualities reduce the risk? Journal of science and medicine in sport, 21 3, 257-262. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2017.05.016
  11. Windt, J., & Gabbett, T.J. (2017). How do training and competition workloads relate to injury? The workload-injury aetiology model. British journal of sports medicine, 51 5, 428-435. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2016-096040




Luís Mesquita is a physiotherapist and strength & conditioning coach. Professional experience in high-performance sports in Portugal and in China, in terms of rehabilitation and development of physical qualities in elite athletes of a variety of sports. He has worked for FC Porto (Roller Hockey), Shijiazhuang Everbright FC (China Super League), EXOS and Chinese Olympic Committee. Currently he is co-owner and S&C coach in Centro de Treino Jesuitas.



One thought on “Why is my substitute player under-performing?

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