The Greatest Substitutions Of All Time: The five best changes made in modern football history and the thinking behind them

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Published: 29 August 2020 - 1.00am

There are few greater satisfactions a football manager can enjoy in his profession than making a substitution that wins him the match. 

Rather than take the flak for not including the match-winner in his starting XI, the coach is hailed as a genius, his decision a managerial masterstroke.

Whether inspired through visionary tactical nous or a case of sheer dumb luck, a substitution that wins a match can change the course of football history. 

In four of the previous six Champions League finals, a substitute has scored. 

Here, btsport.com examines five of the greatest substitutions in recent memory and takes a deeper dive into the managers' thinking behind them.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer v Bayern Munich (1999 Champions League final)

The one that springs to everyone’s mind and for good reason: the second of the two famous goalscoring substitutes from Manchester United’s most glorious evening – the introduction of ‘Baby-faced Assassin’ Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Premier League and FA Cup winners United were 1-0 down to Bayern Munich at Camp Nou and running out of ideas, with their dreams of an historic treble slowly fading away. 

Sir Alex Ferguson had selected his first-choice strike partnership of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole to start, but with 23 minutes remaining he threw on another in Teddy Sheringham for winger Jesper Blomqvist. 

No change to the score 14 minutes later prompted Ferguson to make his second substitution - Solskjaer for Cole - as the Scotsman threw the proverbial kitchen sink at the German giants. 

United were awarded a corner in the first minute of additional time and goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel jogged dutifully up to the opposition penalty area. Second later, substitute number one Sheringham reacted sharply to Ryan Giggs’ miscued shot to steer United level. 

The United bench cleared and Sheringham ran to the supporters in ecstasy after the goal that saved his team’s skin right at the death. “The ‘get out of jail’ card has been played!” observed Ian Darke on commentary. 

Then, of course, it got even better. 

Two minutes later and United won another corner. Another David Beckham delivery was whipped in, substitute number one Sheringham flicked on and substitute number two Solskjaer instinctively stuck out a leg to arrow the ball into the roof of the Bayern net. 

The subsequent celebratory knee slide became an iconic image in United’s history as Schmeichel cartwheeled around his penalty area and half the Camp Nou erupted in a sea of red-shirted ecstasy. 

“He’s only gone and won the Champions League for them!” roared Darke.

More than 20 years on, Solskjaer's intervention remains firmly etched in football folklore and there is a strong argument that it is the most significant on this list.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is mobbed by his Manchester United team-mates after clinching the treble in Barcelona
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is mobbed by his Manchester United team-mates after clinching the treble in Barcelona

Robert Lewandowski v Wolfsburg (2015 Bundesliga)

When a manager brings on a striker with his team trailing, he hopes he’ll nick a goal to get his side level. Two goals would be a dream. So what about three? Four? Or even five? And how about in a spell of just nine minutes? 

The reaction of Pep Guardiola – a man who’d worked with Lionel Messi for four seasons – said it all. Mouth agape, eyes wide in disbelief, hands plastered cartoon-like to his forehead, the Spaniard watched as Robert Lewandowski scored his fifth goal in nine minutes against Wolfsburg. 

Lewandowski had previous. At Borussia Dortmund two years earlier, he’d scored all four goals in a thumping 4-1 Champions League semi-final first-leg win over Real Madrid – but this was something else.

Introduced as one of two half-time substitutes with Guardiola changing the system, it took six minutes for Lewandowski to draw Bayern level with a clinical finish from Thomas Muller’s pass. Fifty-two minutes gone and it was Lewandowski 2-1 Wolfsburg – an unstoppable low drive from outside the area.

Three minutes later and the Pole, first denied by the post and second by Wolfsburg goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, fired in his hat-trick at the third time of asking.

His fourth came on 56 minutes. Douglas Costa’s cross was lashed home as the striker arrived late into the box.

“I don’t think I’ve seen the likes of this in any football match before!” came the commentary from Guy Mowbray. It was about to get better. 

Lewandowski saved his best until last, the striker scoring an acrobatic volley from Mario Gotze’s centre that flashed past a helpless Benaglio and into the top corner.

“Oh no!” shouted Mowbray. “Oh my word! That’s the best of the bunch!”

Needless to say, Lewandowski's astonishing cameo remains the quickest-ever hat-trick (scored in four minutes), four-goal and obviously five-goal haul in Bundesliga history. 

Robert Lewandowski scores his spectacular fifth goal in just nine minutes of match action against Wolfsburg
Robert Lewandowski scores his spectacular fifth goal in just nine minutes of match action against Wolfsburg

Gareth Bale v Liverpool (2018 Champions League final)

Out of favour with your manager? Do exactly as Gareth Bale did in the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool. With an hour gone and Real Madrid level, Zinedine Zidane turned to his bench. 

Bale had been in and out of the Real starting XI during the 2017/18 season and in Kiev, for the second consecutive Champions League final, found himself named among the substitutes. 

Just past the hour mark and the Frenchman threw on Bale for Isco – the man selected ahead of him in Madrid’s XI. It took just three minutes for the substitute to prove his point with arguably the finest goal ever scored in a Champions League final. 

Marcelo crossed from the left but the ball arrived behind Bale, who peeled away from his marker and propelled himself into the air with his back to goal. 

The Wales international caught it brilliantly with his left boot, looping the ball over Loris Karius' head and into the top corner in one acrobatic movement.

If his first was a moment of genius, his second will be remembered as a moment of madness. With Karius having already gifted Karim Benzema Madrid’s opener, he repeated the trick as Bale tried his luck from fully 35 yards. 

The former Tottenham man’s luck was in. The shot went dead centre of the goal but Karius inexplicably punched into his own net to seal a 3-1 win for Madrid and with it their 13th crown. 

“I was obviously very disappointed not to start the game,” said Real’s match-winner after the final whistle. “I felt like I deserved to start… The best I could do was to come on and make an impact and that’s what I did.” 

Putting it rather mildly. 

Gareth Bale is introduced for Isco during the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool

Lars Ricken v Juventus (1997 Champions League final)

One moment and one moment only made Lars Ricken a household name in European football and an icon in Dortmund: his sensational game-clinching goal in club football’s biggest showpiece event.

Ricken went on to make more than 300 appearances for Borussia Dortmund, winning three Bundesliga titles and two German Super Cups. But nothing the midfielder accomplished during his one-club career would match what he achieved as an 18-year-old in Munich. 

Dortmund headed to Berlin’s Olympiastadion as massive outsiders against a Juventus side who’d won the Champions League the year previous. But two goals from Karl-Heinz Riedle in the first half had seen the underdogs race into a 2-0 lead. 

The holders halved the deficit through Alessandro Del Piero in the 65th minute and were in the ascendancy when Ottmar Hitzfeld turned to his bench and threw on Ricken for centre forward Stephane Chapuisat, with Riedle having already been withdrawn.

Ricken was left out by Hitzfeld despite scoring in the semi-final second-leg win over Manchester United at Old Trafford. But instead of sulking, the teenager watched the first 70 minutes from the substitutes’ bench with an eye on the Juventus goalkeeper. 

“I noticed that [Angelo] Peruzzi was often standing too far from his goal,” Ricken recalled. “I came into the match with that in mind, thinking: 'Peruzzi is too far out of goal, Peruzzi is too far out of goal'."

Just 16 seconds after his arrival, the teenager raced on to a through ball from Andreas Moller and found himself in space, 30 yards out from goal and with the ball at his feet. 

The Dortmund academy product, with his first touch of the ball, bent a right-footed shot over and around the stranded Peruzzi and into the top corner.

The lob sealed Dortmund’s first and only European Cup win to date and remains the quickest goal scored by a substitute in a Champions League final. 

Georginio Wijnaldum v Barcelona (2019 Champions League semi-final second leg)

Georginio Wijnaldum and Liverpool arrived at Anfield on the evening of 7 May 2019 trailing Barcelona 3-0 from their Champions League semi-final first leg and with little hope of progressing to a second successive final. To make their task even more difficult, both Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino were unavailable through injury.

“Being honest,” full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold recalled, “we knew there was a very slim chance of anything happening against Barcelona.”

Yet Anfield on European nights is a cliché that stands on solid grounding and when Divock Origi bundled the ball home inside seven minutes, belief surged through the ground and the nerves crept into Barcelona’s team, with memories of a similar collapse away to Roma the previous season ringing in their ears. 

The momentum the Reds built started to slow in what remained of the first half and Liverpool were indebted to Alisson to keep the visitors from drawing level on the night. 

Andy Robertson picked up a knock in the opening period and was withdrawn by Jurgen Klopp at half-time for Wijnaldum, who’d started the first-leg defeat but had been dropped to the bench at Anfield.

Wijnaldum is Liverpool’s unheralded hero, a crucial cog in Klopp’s system who doesn’t draw the same fanfare as some of his more glamorous team-mates. “It’s not my fault if he goes under the radar,” Klopp has said of the Dutchman. “He is the perfect midfielder!” 

The former Newcastle man seized his moment in a sensational start to the second half. After Reds old boy Luis Suarez missed a gilt-edged chance to make it 1-1, Liverpool countered and Alexander-Arnold crossed for Wijnaldum, who was arriving late in the box. His shot was too hot for Marc-Andre ter Stegen to handle – 2-0. 

Two minutes later and Wijnaldum repeated the trick, rising highest to head Xherdan Shaqiri’s cross past Ter Stegen. “Oooooohhh it’s three!” cried Darren Fletcher on the BT Sport commentary. “Gini Wijnaldum: the Champions League hero!” 

Origi’s second 11 minutes from time sealed the deal and Liverpool had come back from the dead.

“I was really angry that the manager put me on the bench,” an emotional Wijnaldum said at full time. “We believed from the start that we could win 4-0, even if people from the outside thought it wasn’t possible.” 

Wijnaldum’s place in the XI for the final was well and truly nailed down and the story had a similarly happy ending, with a 2-0 victory over Tottenham handing Liverpool their sixth European crown.