Reading's win over Brentford on Tuesday was a tale of two substitutions. Firstly, the decision taken by Jaap Stam not to alter his team in the face of the visitors' pressure at 1-0, and secondly, the decision to make a triple change when 1-2 down, thus inspiring a comeback victory. Which side you focus on is probably based around having a glass half-full/half-empty mentality, but whether the Dutchman is making the right calls mid-game is up for debate.
One of the first things to note with Stam is that he's a young manager, inevitably due to fall into mistakes and trial-and-error processes, especially as he learns the division. But, the art of game-changing substitutions is perhaps more of a knack than a process of experience, and it can be a very telling insight into a manager's wider approach.
To construct this article I took a random straw poll of ten Reading games, ten Championship teams, and ten Premier League teams from their games at the weekend. All kinds of results, all kinds of teams (if you want a bigger sample size, be my guest). The myth this busted is that Stam does not make late substitutions, relatively.
Across all three samples, the average time of substitutions was startlingly similar; 70 minutes for Stam and the Championship, 69 minutes for the Premier League. So, the same, then, within the margin for error.
What differences were noticeable were that all ten Championship teams used all three subs available each time, only two top-flight teams decided against their final change, and Stam opted against six of his 30 substitutions across the sample. This included a 1-0 defeat to QPR (one sub used), and 1-0 wins against Birmingham, Cardiff, and Rotherham, and a 3-2 loss to Derby.
The Derby performance in particular bears much resemblance to the recent Brentford victory. The Royals took the lead and lost it, conceding on the 63rd and 74th minute to go two goals down before a double change on the 75th minute. Both games beg the question of whether earlier subs would have prevented the quickfire concessions to the opposition at similar points in the game - Brentford themselves scored on the 63rd and 66th minute.
Not wanting to use all his changes is reminiscent of Nigel Adkins' policy at Reading, the ex-Southampton boss who famously shunned his bench entirely in a 2-1 loss at Norwich in 2013. This kind of stubborn confidence as the game progresses, often in the face of a negative scoreline, suggests a lack of pro-activity. And yet, when Stam does decide to up the ante, the results are often positive.
As in Tuesday night's game, victories occurred in almost of all the games where the Dutchman swaps out his starters early on. Wins at home to Huddersfield (46th, 53rd, 70th minute subs), away to Bristol City (54th, 66th, 83rd), and Rotherham (28th, 90th) contrast with the disappointing results against Barnsley (0-0, 46th, 82nd, 91st) and Leeds (0-1, 62nd, 78th, 87th).
If we're to take something away from this straw poll, it's that Stam's substitutions generally make an impression on the game and yet he seems reluctant to use them. My concern lies in the fact that, as the season draws to an end, fatigue and key fixtures reduce the margin for error in these decisions. Leave things too late against Brighton, Newcastle & Co. and, as we've seen, they will punish you.
But, aside from the other factors such as his starting XI choices, it appears that Stam does know what needs to be done to make an impact, providing he actually does it. The big positive to consider moving forward is that Reading's January transfer business has seen their threat off the bench go from decent to substantial, providing Lewis Grabban isn't put at left wing-back or some other such nonsense.
All this boils down to Stam's inexperience as a manager. As we can all attest, there's something in him and he's likely to only get better, but the remaining games this season leave a fair amount of uncertainty that his Midas Touch will crop up at the right moments to push Reading towards promotion.