Coach Mista, Atletico Ottawa

Atletico Ottawa substitution rates: Does Mista trust his bench?

When a longtime rule changes, it forces adaptation.  Last year most soccer leagues changed the number of substitutions allowed per team per game, expanding from three to five (plus an extra for concussions now in the CPL).  That’s a big change!  Teams and coaches had plenty of experience and analytics on when and how many substitutions were optimal under the three-subs rule.  But five subs?  That’s new and uncertain.  Coaches are adapting in different ways.

In this article I’ll look at the substitution rates for each Canadian Premier League team for the 2021 season (up to August 20).  Do some clubs and coaches use more substitutes than others?

I used CPL’s Centre Circle Data – a great free source of authoritative CPL data.  I assessed how many substitutions each team makes per game, and how many minutes each of those incoming substitutions tends to play.  For those who want details, I used median instead of average for minutes per sub because the data were likely skewed – most subs happen in the second half, but a few happen early in the game (mostly due to injury).

So, how are teams subbing this year?

Scatterplot showing each team's substitution rates, with their logo as the team's data point. On the y axis is number of minutes played by a typical substitute. On the x axis is the number of substitutions made per game this year. Atletico Ottawa is at the top-left of the graph, with few subs per game but lots of minutes for those subs. The rest of the teams are much closer together.

Atlético Ottawa stands out from the rest of the teams.  They’ve made only 3.7 substitutions per game – way fewer than anyone else (so they’re on the left side of the graph).  But the few players they sub on tend to play quite a few minutes (so they’re at the top of the graph).  This suggests the team makes few substitutions, and tends to make them earlier in the game than other teams do.

Why does Atlético Ottawa make so few substitutions?

Is it a fluke?

Nope.  Atlético made the fewest subs per game last year too.  At the 2020 Island Games, Atlético used a paltry 2.7 substitutions per game, while every other team used at least 4.0 subs per game.  So it’s not just a one-year blip – this is a pattern under Head Coach Mista.

Do Atlético’s bench players suck?

That was the prevailing explanation last year.  The expansion team was assembled in a hurry, so they filled out their roster with some players of lesser quality.  They were one of the worst teams in the league, and many of those players no longer play in the CPL.  For more about Atlético’s off-season roster turnover, and other teams’ turnover rates, see my The Other Football story on sub rates here.

But Atlético’s roster isn’t as bad this year. Their bench players include legitimate CPL players such as Zach Verhoven, Tevin Shaw, and Brian Wright. So why do they still avoid making substitutions?

Is it an Atlético global tactic?

Maybe?  Atlético Madrid used among the fewest substitutions per game in Spain’s La Liga last year (stats from FBref).  It’s common for teams in the same club family to play a consistent style.  Maybe the Atlético family generally uses fewer subs?  Seems more likely to be a coincidence to me, but it’s possible.

Is it a money thing?

I don’t know how CPL player contracts are generally structured, but pro soccer players sometimes get bonuses for games played.  By using fewer substitutes, the club might pay fewer bonuses.  But the savings are miniscule for a global superclub like Atlético, and it would risk making players unhappy, so I doubt this is the reason.

Is it a Mista thing?

I think it’s a Mista thing.  And I don’t think it’s a good thing.

Atlético Ottawa is often trailing near the end of the game, and they look … tired.  That’s why I did this analysis – it seemed to me like Mista rarely used all of his available substitutions even when the starters were clearly dragging.  So I looked at the numbers and sure enough it wasn’t just my imagination; Mista doesn’t use his subs much.

I don’t get it.  He has Antoine Coupland sitting on the bench.  He’s young and raw, but he can make creative plays like this nice outside-of-foot flick pass (video clip taken from OneSoccer’s broadcast).  You’re losing anyways; give Coupland the minutes to possibly develop into a valuable player – isn’t that why Atlético got a CPL team in the first place?

It’s time to ask questions about Mista’s strategies in general, beyond just substitution rates.  The team is in last place.  They’ve scored the fewest goals for and allowed the most goals against.  They have discipline issues (more red cards than any other team; more penalties conceded than any other team; even Mista has been ejected from a game).  And other than their energetic home opener, the team just looks flat.  All this despite the team having the benefit of practicing at Atlético Madrid’s top-notch facilities before the CPL season while other teams weren’t even allowed to gather. Yes, Atlético are missing several important players due to injury and visa issues, and this certainly weakens their depth. But other teams have these issues too.

On top of all this, Marc dos Santos was recently fired by the Vancouver Whitecaps.  He used to coach the Ottawa Fury, and already there is speculation about whether he could replace Mista (a substitution!) if Atlético don’t improve soon.

Maybe it’s actually good to use as few substitutions as Mista does. He knows soccer better than me. But every other coach in the league also knows soccer better than me, and they all seem to believe more subs is better. Given their records (and their coaching experience), I trust those other teams’ coaches. Mista’s doing something weird, and he doesn’t have the coaching credibility for me to believe he’s onto something good.

Feature Image Credit: Canadian Premier League / David Chant