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Substitute Correa is better than starter Correa

Not for the first time, Ángel Correa came off the bench to save Atlético on Sunday. But that doesn’t mean he should start.

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Real Betis are a tough nut to crack. Just like school bullies pinch a rucksack, pass it around, lob it over their victim’s end and never plan to return it, the Andalusian club are stingy in possession of the football.

In the first half of Sunday’s LaLiga match, Atlético Madrid really struggled to seize possession and, on the few occasions when they did win the ball back, they couldn’t do anything with it. By the interval, they’d had just 34 percent possession and managed zero shots on target. Betis hadn’t tested Jan Oblak either, and it seemed like this fixture was destined to finish 0-0, as it had last season.

But then Ángel Correa appeared. The Argentine was brought off the bench for Thomas Lemar in the 57th minute and he made the difference, helping to set up a decent Nikola Kalinić chance moments after coming on before he scored the game’s only goal — a 74th minute strike from distance, sent low into the bottom corner.

That goal means that 12 of the 23-year-old’s 27 goals for Atlético have come as a substitute. This is quite an amazing statistic, given how many more minutes he has racked up as a starter than as a sub over his Atleti career.

Since he made his debut in 2015, Correa has played 5,115 minutes over 72 matches as a starter, good for 15 goals. He has played 2,056 minutes over 78 appearances as a substitute. Crunching the numbers, that means he scores a goal every 341 minutes as a starter — and as a sub, he scores one every 171 minutes.

For him to be exactly twice as prolific as a substitute than as a starter is no coincidence. Ángelito’s game is significantly about getting past his man and either cutting inside or jinking his way to the byline, so when he comes on in the second half he can take advantage of tired legs and — perhaps most importantly — tired minds. After others have swatted, shaken and sweated over the pickle jar for the first hour of a match, Correa comes in at the end and coolly clicks open the lid.

When he is named in the starting XI, it’s much more difficult for Correa to make an impact. For that reason, those calling for Correa to start more frequently might want to take a deep breath and pause. Even Diego Simeone touched on this in his own way after Sunday’s 1-0 win.

“It can be very even at the beginning of a match when it’s 10 outfielders versus 10 outfielders, so the changes that the teams fighting at the top can make can make the difference,” he explained. “The teams at the top are made stronger by the players we have on the bench.”

El Cholo also pointed out that “the coaches are the ones who know the players better than anybody.” If he wants to use Correa as an impact player off the bench, then it’s for a reason. It’s because at least at this stage in his career, Correa is a better substitute than starter.