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Why more Premier League goals are being scored from the bench than ever

Bournemouth's Justin Kluivert celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Crystal Palace at Vitality Stadium on April 2, 2024 in Bournemouth, England.(Photo by David Horton - CameraSport via Getty

There are between eight and 10 games left for each team in the Premier League, so it is debatable whether we have even reached the fabled business end of the season. Yet a record has been broken, with nearly a quarter of the campaign’s games still left to be played.

With the goal scored by Justin Kluivert for Bournemouth against Crystal Palace, there have now been more goals scored by substitutes this season than any other since the Premier League was founded in 1992. Kluivert’s goal took the total of goals scored by substitutes to 133 for 2023/24, overtaking the previous record of 132 that was set last year.

This is not one of those statistics that present an unsolvable riddle, for two main reasons. The first is the introduction of five permitted substitutions per team, a rule change brought in for last season and gleefully embraced by well-stocked managers and their nine-deep benches. The second is the extension to the traditional 90-minute run-time of a football match to closer to 100 on average, largely thanks to the thrilling and necessary addition of lengthy VAR checks to a sport that seemed to be muddling on acceptably without them.

The beneficiary is the humble ‘supersub’, a descriptor that is usually applied to players who scored one particularly memorable goal after coming off the bench, usually for Manchester United. Think Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the Champions League final of 1999, Michael Owen in the Manchester derby of 2009 or Federico Macheda in the only game you can ever remember Federico Macheda playing in.

Predictably it is only Solskjaer who features in the all-time list of goalscoring Premier League substitutes, his 17 off the bench putting him joint fourth with Nwankwo Kanu and Daniel Sturridge. Javier Hernández, the artist formerly known as Chicharito, is third with 19, Olivier Giroud second on 21 and Jermain Defoe leads the way with a 24 off-bench goal total that looks unlikely to be beaten any time soon.

Of the still-active contenders, Marcus Rashford appears the best bet to break into the top ranks with 13 goals as a sub to his name. Time for him to buck down his ideas and start playing badly enough to lose his place in United’s starting XI.

This season the top goalscoring subs are Harvey Barnes (Newcastle), Joao Pedro (Brighton) and Scott McTominay (Manchester United) on four goals each. Leon Bailey (Aston Villa) and Brennan Johnson (Tottenham) rank highest when combining goals and assists, having scored twice and assisted four times each.

‌Those assist numbers have equalled the all-time record of four in a season, so Bailey and Johnson have a chance to put down a marker in the all-important race to be named the most useful substitute for goal provision in the history of the league. All together now: “Most assists in a season off the bench / you’ll never sing that.”

One man earning his place on supersub Mt Rushmore is former Reading striker Adam Le Fondre, who set the all-time record for best goalscoring season for a substitute in 2012/13, scoring eight goals for his team. A comforting memory for Reading fans during their current travails. Shame they were relegated.

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