Adam Le Fondre: how to be a super-sub

by | May 29

With help from Premier League-record-breaking striker Adam Le Fondre and ground-breaking substitution coach Sammy Lander, xGenius dives into the winning mentality of impact substitutes – and how coaches can cultivate it.

Football is changing. With more added time and more substitutions, coaches are on the lookout for ‘super-subs’. One player who knows all about what it takes to be genuinely effective off the bench, to strike fear into opposing teams when he enters the pitch is record-breaking striker Adam Le Fondre. 

“Come hell or high water, if we were drawing or losing in the 60th minute, the gaffer would always bring me on.

“When you’re coming on as a striker you’re trying to make a difference. You know you have to be a star.”

The rise of the phenomenon is clear: this has been the season of the super-sub, with the likes of Harvey Barnes and Scott McTominay rescuing crucial points off the bench, and terms like ‘impactor’ becoming staples in the vocabulary of top bosses like Mikel Arteta. Opta’s data shows that 13.6% of Premier League goals have come from the bench this season – eclipsing last year’s record of 12.8% – and there have been 50 more substitute goal involvements than last season. We might be entering a new era of the super-sub, but what gives these players their winning mentality?

Specialist Sammy Lander says getting footballers to succeed in this role, or even accept it, is challenging. Lander started as the world’s first substitution coach at AFC Wimbledon and has since consulted with the US Men’s National Team and worked with clubs in the Premier League and worldwide – all of whom want to know how to turn their fringe players into game-changers.

“It’s very tough to convince a player that they might be an impact player because that’s not what they’re in the game for, they’re in the game to play minutes. That’s their identity.

“You can have a player who is technically ready, can hit a great diagonal ball, he’s in the best shape of his life, he understands the pressing shape –  but if he feels like rubbish, he’s not going to go on and perform.”

So what changes someone’s mindset from crestfallen cameo to instant impactor? xGenius spoke to Adam Le Fondre, who holds the record for the most substitute goals in a single Premier League campaign, to unpack the winning mentality that allowed him to change games off the bench. 

At Reading FC, Le Fondre’s abilities were renowned. His tally of eight substitute goals in the 2012/13 Premier League season remains untouched a decade on, and he played a critical role in Reading’s promotion the season before, topping the club’s goalscoring charts (as he did in each of his three years there) with a dozen.

The natural assumption is that a striker scoring at that rate would be a dead cert to start – but he played only one full game in the second half of that season as they pushed for promotion, and was willing to accept that role. He explains that the team’s collective culture helped.

“We were all fighting for the same cause.

“Sometimes you have to put other people in front of your own needs because the collective goal is far more important than your individual one.

“I can see what the end goal is, it’s getting to the Premier League. It’s not starting a game.”

Lander says explaining the rationale behind team selections, and ensuring subs feel valued, can make a world of difference.

“(Players) don’t necessarily know that they’re a good substitute so they just think they’re a substitute because they’re not good enough. Sometimes it’s about sitting down and saying ‘Well, the reason we actually want you to play 20 is this is your data, this is how big you are, this is the impact you’re having and it’s actually really benefiting us.’

“It’s making them feel like they are the best sub in the world.”

Lander says using the terms ‘match-winner’, ‘impactor’, or ‘energiser’ can shift their attitude, as can adjusting how their role is presented.

“The amount of time given can be ‘you’re only going to get 20 minutes’, or you can phrase it as ‘I’m going to give you 20 minutes to try and win us the game’.”

Once players have bought into the role, there’s the small matter of making their minutes count. Le Fondre was certainly productive off the bench, scoring five goals across three games in just 69 minutes in January 2013 (earning him the league’s Player of the Month award). For him, confidence is key.

“I’ve been that sort of player throughout my career where, from starting or sub, if I get half a chance, I tend to turn it into a goal. That was the sort of thing that was oozing out of me, the confidence in what I’ve trained for all my life – just being ready for that moment and embracing it.

“My best preparation was that I’d visualise before a game the instances I would like to happen, and the chances we’d create and me scoring those goals.

“Everyone knows what manifestation’s like – that happens and the chance falls for you and you hopefully put it away, you win the game. And then you look like a hero.”

If managers can unlock the mentality that helps players like Le Fondre thrive, we might yet see more heroes emerge in a new era of the super-sub…

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