A Fine Line Between Genius and Insanity

There seems to be a recent trend of managers making substitutions they believe will give them an advantage during penalties, such as subbing out goalkeepers, or bringing in cold players straight off the bench just to take penalties.

This trend is hardly new. Sir Alex Ferguson did it during the 2008 Champions League Final, bringing in Anderson in the dying moments of the game specifically to take a penalty during the shootout. Another former United manager, Louis van Gaal, famously brought in backup keeper Tim Krul to face penalty kicks during the Netherlands’s 2014 World Cup quarterfinal match. When Krul went the right way on every single kick and stopped two, allowing the Netherlands to advance to the semifinals, it cemented van Gaal’s reputation as a bold, unpredictable and eccentric genius — something he’d spend the next couple years living down at United.

More recently, Ole Gunnar Solskjær tried it, bringing Alex Telles and Juan Mata off the bench towards the end of extra time during last May’s Europa League Final in order to take part in the shootout. The next month, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were summoned off the bench by England manager Gareth Southgate to take penalty kicks — only to become targeted for abuse after they missed.

It’s not clear what’s driving this. Maybe these managers have studies or advanced stats showing that their percentages go up if they replace a keeper or bring in a more reliable kick taker, regardless of his condition. Or maybe it’s a psychological ploy meant to unnerve the opposing team. Either way, it’s an odd tactic, especially since it adds to what is already a pressure cooker of a situation. By making such a provocative and attention-grabbing move, a manager isn’t just setting himself up to be remembered as a genius if it works out and a fool if it doesn’t. He’s also putting a giant target on the players he brings in off the bench, ensuring they’ll be remembered as goats if they come up short.

On Sunday, Manchester United were on the receiving end. Clinging to a 2-1 lead going into second half stoppage time, Man Utd seemed set to secure three big points before Luke Shaw was penalized for a questionable handball. Former United manager David Moyes then brought in West Ham captain Mark Noble to take the spot kick. Maybe it was mind games — although why he’d feel the need to do that against David de Gea, one of the worst penalty kick stoppers in top flight football, is anyone’s guess. Maybe he had so little faith in his other options that he felt like he needed Noble, one of the most reliable penalty converters in the world.

Either way, the move put a ton of pressure on both Moyes and Noble — and may very well have taken it off de Gea, whose shootout nightmare against Villarreal was still fresh in everyone’s minds. Solskjær even admitted that he was resigned to dropping points before Dave saved his first penalty since 2016, touching off wild celebrations from United fans, players and staff and preserving a hard-fought 2-1 victory over a game West Ham.

It’s been refreshing to see a seemingly rejuvenated de Gea look close to his best again. Over the last couple of years, there have been a few too many stories about his shortcomings, decline in form and lack of confidence. He’s been one of United’s standout performers so far and has already saved 5 vital points with excellent performances and timely saves against Southampton, Wolverhampton and now West Ham. On Monday, he’ll deservedly steal the headlines from Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored in his third straight match for United; Jesse Lingard, who put his match losing error on Tuesday against Young Boys in the Champions League behind him, scoring against his former club with a brilliant screamer that proved to be the match-winner; and Solskjær, whose substitutions and tactics once again came under fire after Tuesday’s loss.

But there will be plenty of column inches for David Moyes, who finally secured a big win for Manchester United eight years after he succeeded Sir Alex Ferguson. The former Chosen One faced the music after the match, and to his credit, stuck to his guns and defended his designated penalty kick taker. “We’ve missed a few recently so I thought I’d take the opportunity to bring Mark on,” Moyes said after the match, while calling his captain “one of the best penalty takers in the Premier League and Europe.” “That is what happens in management. You have to make big decisions and sometimes they go and sometimes they don’t.”

The other story of the match was the officiating. While Shaw was deservedly penalized, as the new handball rules still didn’t excuse his outstretched arm, there was plenty of controversy concerning two non-calls on Ronaldo. We were told that the refs would be more lenient this season and rely less on VAR. In particular, clubs were informed that refs would crack down on “soft” penalties and let defenders get away with more physicality in the box.

Luckily for United, the non-calls didn’t end up costing them the match. I’m sure that, during the course of the season, there will be a match (maybe even several) where the new rules will cause the team to drop points. In a long season, it’s inevitable. Long term, you wonder if this hands off approach when it comes to calling fouls will cause superstars to reconsider coming to the Premier League. Hopefully Erling Haaland doesn’t mind getting scythed down in the box and then being accused of diving.

Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

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