by Paul

In January 2010, noted illusionist Derren Brown popularised a list that would be circulated into million of inboxes around the world forever more. Some enterprising fellow had compiled a list of several hundred things that the English tabloid, the Daily Mail, had decided would give you cancer. We all had a bit of a chuckle at this ridiculous scaremongering; it was plainly obvious that menstruation and bacon did not strike disease into you any more than breathing air did (they claimed that also). The crowning achievement of the list though was not in mockery but to show a deep truth about how we allow ourselves to be bombarded with information supported by no data, no historical observation and yet we take things at face value.

I often think of this list when hearing a particular phrase amongst the football community – “X is ruining football”. Those of you with keen Googling skills should check it out, but according to football fans or pundits, agents, money, Twitter, Michel Platini, Manchester City, the Olympics, artificial pitches, technology, lack of technology, Manchester United, diving, Lionel Messi, Antonio Conte, the Chinese Premier League, “Arabs”, lack of supporter services, too much supporter services, and the 20/20 Cricket game are all things that are ruining football. There’s more than I listed here. Much more. In fact, there are 4730 things that somebody thinks has forever tarnished the beautiful game.

The game as it is at the moment is not perfect but it hasn’t immeasurably changed in the way that it conducts business for half a century. True, the matchday revenue is now less important than the TV revenue and there’s more investment in and around the club but the basic ideals are pretty much the same.

I’ve been wondering why so many feel so bitter towards the state of the game over the last few years and have come to a simple conclusion: You are ruining football.

We have to examine exactly what football is as an industry, as it covers many different aspects. Primarily, football is an athletic, technical pursuit. The game itself is a complex game where actions have to be judged based on potentially thousands of different variables ranging from things like your position on the pitch to not so obvious ones such as the current ambient temperature; many things effect the decision making of a player. Whichever team has more players who make better decisions usually win. Football is also a game about the creation, exploitation and defence of space. It is also a business which employs experts in fields from nutrition to administration to photography and statisticians. It also produces its own content to the fans from websites, videos, office equipment and covers for your bedroom. Football is also an entertainment industry which has a product to sell in the form of the athletic, technical pursuit and the drama surrounding the will to win. It is no surprise, and very forward looking, that Manchester United recently declared themselves as an entertainment and media company rather than a football club; I agree with them, this is essentially what all major football clubs are now.

There’s a problem with the complicated nature of modern football and that specifically is the nature of the modern media. The modern media and modern football goes hand in hand, the fortunes of both intertwined to become almost indistinguishable from each other.

Football as an athletic competition is hard. The game relies on the exploitation of space and requires predictions not only for your immediate opponent but for every other player on the pitch, sometimes having to take into account external factors such as referee and linesmen positioning but also things like manager instructions from earlier, tactical consistency, who might be on a booking, who has a penchant for taking the player on the outside, etc. On average, you get about a second to collate all of these different variables and make a decision based upon them. Then, you not only need the mental faculties to make this decision to a world class standard, you also need the athletic control of your body to execute them flawlessly about 90% of the time. Football is hard.
Due to this, the media coverage of the game has always been almost impossible. It is easy to describe the events of a football match in purely reporting terms, X passed to Y who crossed to Z and the like but this misses the very essence of the game. As mentioned, the game is about space and we have some problems in accurately describing this. One of the problems is that journalists are given a pretty strict word limit to work to with, and a simple move such as “X passed to Y who crossed to Z” means that player Y and player Z potentially both found space. Who created this? How? Was it a player pulling a man out of position? Did player Y or Z find a gap themselves? Did they create it by body movement alone? Did Player X find the space for Y with an intricate pass?
Think how many words it would take to accurately describe what happened on the pitch, now think about the much more complex events. According to the Opta Data released by Manchester City, Arsenal were the most efficiently creative team in the league, creating a Big Chance (a chance Opta thinks someone should score) for every 58 touches in the final third from open play. How many words would it take to write down that sequence efficiently?

Another problem they have is that they do not possess the football brain to recognise and analyse things that they see in front of them. I’m not stating that journalists are idiots, this extends to fans and the general public too. Football is a technical and academic pursuit played by world class athletes with world class footballing brains, to think that we may always understand why a goal was scored in real time is just arrogant. For a laymen to understand the events that led up to the goal properly, they must rewind it and watch it again, possibly in slow motion, then try to spot what happened. Then they have to go further back and work out why that happened. Sometimes, they have to watch the entire game up until that point to understand why a defender followed an attacker this time instead of keeping position. This level of rigour is beyond many people, simply because they don’t care. It’s not important to understand the exact nature of every single goal or corner or shot that occurred against your team, that’s the job of the club’s staff. It’s your job to pack the stands and scream your heart out every Saturday.
This is a somewhat unfulfilling answer for many of us, so the media turns to the worst job in football – the pundit. The job of the pundit is to fill in the information that we miss. They understand what happened as they have that brain garnered from decades of experience in the game at the highest professional levels, then can use 10 minutes to explain it in a language that viewers around the world can understand. Great plan from the media really, experts analysing other experts; the only tiny problem really with it was that it is bo***cks.

Modern football watchers are not living vicariously through the football player, they are living through the eyes of the football manager. They see the entire pitch, they can watch the interchanges between players, where their tactics might be going wrong, argue about the merits of certain players, etc. When you put players, experts in split second decision making and the ability to execute it technically, into the chair of analysing the performance of every player on a team, you do them a disservice. You create a culture whereby the pundits have to consider whether or not a wing back is out of position in a 3-4-2-1 after playing their career as a centre midfielder in a 4-4-2. Each position in a tactic has its own functions to perform in numerous situations. It’s impossible for a player to know them all. Again, this is the job of your club’s staff. The job of a player is to know their own role, know their opposite number and get onto the pitch.
So what do they do? They resort to the same ideas as journalists do, they resort to easy clichés that don’t actually tell you anything at all.

I want to give a brief mention here to Gary Neville, who is possibly my favourite pundit at the moment. Neville has the time and the machinery to really analyse what he wants to and show it to the public, which many have called a revelation. People should remind themselves that Gary Neville is a pretty great right back and wasn’t exactly considered football’s greatest brain. Imagine what an Arsene Wenger or Roberto Mancini or Alex Ferguson or a Jose Mourinho could teach with the same equipment, the same time and the same willingness to share.

And that’s the point. You are ruining football through both inaction and lack of rigour. We not only allow these drones spouting easy clichés about defences and transfers and players personalities, we actively remember and recycle them as our own opinion. There are millions of uninformed football fans now who seemingly have little grasp on the game but follow it constantly. With this focus on the personalities of players, and the cliché ridden atmosphere of football analysis in the media, we have allowed football to be presented to us (thus analysed as) an entertainment business rather than a technical pursuit.

To give you a good anecdote, I will admit to something. I used to quite like WWE wrestling, well into my mid to late twenties. I enjoyed the athleticism and the technical purity of trying to “have a good match”. Then wrestling changed. It changed from a purely technical pursuit to something called Sports Entertainment. Sports Entertainment looked at the sport, and decided to wrap it in a very light wrapper of drama, to create tensions between the participants and increase attendances. It worked. As time went on, the entertainment side went through the roof and the sports side took a backseat as technical sports are a niche and entertainment is inclusive of all. They made a s***load of money and millions around the world still watch WWE programming despite fully acknowledging it as both fake and now having in-ring interviews fully pre-scripted and vetted.

I wonder how long it would take a certain organisation to think to itself that if they could control the excitement levels through predetermined results then they could attract a larger viewership and sponsorship base?

There is a massive chasm between the presentation and reality of modern football. Gary Neville and programmes discussing technical points are a step forward, Pardon The Interruption and Sunday Supplement which are designed to inflame are a step backwards. We have GOT to remove these talking heads from our screens and replace them with people who actually analyse the game using evidence. These talking heads would be laughed out of any major professional club in the world with their somewhat ridiculous opinions, focus on physicality and childish causality.

With the release of the full Opta data from last season by Manchester City, and their attempts to create an amateur Football Analyst community, we have the beginnings of a revolution in the information that we demand from our media sources. Bloggers on Opta Pro and the like have shown us that we can start to look at games ourselves so that the cliché spouting pundit is not a crutch to our understanding. Statistics aren’t everything, but they are something. To keep up with the speed of movement in modern football and modern sports science, we must also demand the same speed of movement from the media; whether that be articles in the newspaper, interviews in a press conference or pundits on the TV.

The entertainment aspect is starting to steal our technical aspect of the game, and unless we start to demand it back, it will be lost again and football will become the industry only of people born into it with new ideas, a rare commodity.