When I watched Match of the Day as a child, I always paid attention to the pundits’ analysis. Going into my following game, I would do the opposite of what teams or players had been criticised for on the show, and any player who wasn’t was an idiot. This would work until the following week where teams were hammered for the opposite of what the team last week had been criticised for. Already confused? So am I. Come to think of it, I think everyone on and off the pitch in my games tended to copy what they remembered hearing from the most recent highlights or live game they had seen.
The point is that expert commentary isn’t relayed in a way that is understandable to viewers – which include aspiring players, managers etc., or helps them learn more. By and large, coverage is laughably bad. False dichotomies are created every week e.g. whether a team should press or drop, play a deep or high line etc., and each possibility is criticised in a way that confuses viewers to an extent that they believe there is a right way to play football, but they’ve no idea what it is. The notable exception is the excellent Ford Monday Night Football, particularly by the outstanding Gary Neville, but this isn’t enough.
Moreover, mistakes and entire systems are described in a way so reductive that comments offer nothing more than a surface explanation of what happened. But context is often absent, as is an outline of why things happen.
The big worry is as follows: because live football and match highlights are such a popular source of entertainment for people who invest a lot of time and emotion into the sport – be it on the playing, coaching or supporting side – they keep mental notes of what is said and pass it on in their own circles as words of wisdom. The result is a generation of young players, managers and coaches at grassroots level, who don’t understand the game properly. Little wonder that English football is in such a mess when some of these people will go on to play higher.
My theory is that people don’t really understand what is discussed, but feel the need to say something, so repeat what they find most convincing.
As an example, what frustrates me the most is when teams get caught in possession trying to play out from the back. The pundits will nearly always accuse the team – usually Arsenal, Everton, Swansea or Liverpool of 2013/14 – of overplaying. Little or no attention will be paid to how the opposition pressed and forced an error, or how players failed to think 2-3 passes ahead and got themselves into the wrong positions.
Instead there will always be disbelief of why the player who lost the ball didn’t just knock it long. While this safety-first approach is sometimes necessary, it isn’t the only solution and ignores the likelihood that the ball will end up with the other team anyway. The amount of times I’ve heard experienced players and coaches at my level and even above bollock people in training and matches for “playing with it in the wrong area” makes me want to tear my hair out.
This recent MOTD video (watch from about 24 minutes) is good evidence of substandard analysis of defending: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGnkhkLdPi0. It concerns Crystal Palace’s 4-1 win at Sunderland in which Palace scored 4 goals 14 second-half minutes. Jermaine Jenas’ comments on the goals can be described as a mere brief summary of events. Yet it should be obvious to the viewer that nobody challenges Glenn Murray for the first goal, that he pulls out onto the right-back for the second, bullies the defence for the fourth and that Yannick Bolasie outpaces them for the third.
What doesn’t get mentioned is how Murray comes in off the fullback for the first, and his team-mate runs into the space created by the defender following him out to destroy the home defence’s shape. The second is similar, and the third comes from Sunderland trying to defend too high without enough pressure on the ball – Bolasie breaks his neck to run in behind the defence and Mile Jedinak who plays the long pass has a huge target area to hit. As the defence is facing in the opposite direction to which Bolasie is running, they’re never going to catch him, and that’s why they were vulnerable to pace on this occasion. That doesn’t take long to explain, and should be obvious to ex-pros.
The only message that an aspiring player watching the game could take, however, is to not get bullied or outpaced. But what can he do when in a foot race for a ball with somebody faster and stronger than him? Obviously not suddenly develop more pace and strength. Crucially, he hasn’t learned how to avoid ending up in situations where he’s isolated against a fast player, or when he should squeeze the pitch or drop off.
This brings me nicely to my next point. A manager or coach at a lower level may be encouraged not to play a high line against pace after watching that. But playing a high line also has its merits, at least in certain situations, such as keeping the opposition pinned back in their own half when you’re in control. At one of my old teams, we were leaking goals for fun as our defence was caught out several times a game with a high line, lacking pace and relying on catching the opposition offside (which is always suicidal).
In our next game, the gaffer decided we would defend deep at all costs and the fullbacks would rarely cross the halfway line. We went on to enjoy plenty of possession inside the opposition half, but struggled to recycle the ball as the back four was so separated from the midfield. When the opposition won the ball they took advantage of the massive gap and ran at our defence at will. As a result, we were spanked even more heavily than we’d been in previous games. It was a typical example of going from one extreme to the other, borne out of the apparent belief that a high or deep line was an either/or choice.
I could go on to compile a catalogue of instances where match events are insufficiently analysed, but my underlying sentiment will always be the same. I appreciate that passing comment on a game in respect to tactics and systems is a thankless task during and immediately after the game, let alone on 6 or 7 weekend matches in a highlights programme. Subtle things such as player communication and signals are also harder to observe on a TV screen, but it should be easy for ex-players to notice what system a team plays and certain instructions players have been given. The viewer is therefore entitled to expect a better interpretation of key events on the pitch.
Neville and Carragher have proven it can be done, albeit frequently with the benefit of an extra day or two to re-watch the games. And while I get that many people watch football for entertainment, such in-depth analysis doesn’t have to be boring – most fans love MNF. Unfortunately, most youngsters won’t be allowed to stay up to watch the whole programme, and other people often have other things to do during the week. It’s simply frustrating for those who understand there is more to a game of football than usually revealed, doubly so when people regurgitate this nonsense to leave it firmly ingrained in footballing culture.