By Bob Pearce.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, football was rarely shown ‘live’ on TV. If you couldn’t go to the game, the next best thing was to listen on the radio as the commentator described what the listener could not see. ‘This player passes to that player. One player tackles another player. Someone shoots and someone else saves’. You could tell when the action was moving towards one of the goals by the change of gears in the commentator’s voice. Moving from interested, through excited, reaching ecstatic anticipation (and usually rapidly deflating un-fulfilment). It was the listener’s job to provide the pictures in our own imaginations.
I’d argue that with football coverage on TV today, what we have is the same radio style coverage, but with the pictures. The commentator continues to describe the same things. ‘This player passes to that player. One player tackles another player. Someone shoots and someone else saves’. Except now they are describing what the viewer can plainly see for themselves. It is still a commentator who reads the names that are printed on players’ shirts, and occasionally yells their name to indicate they are directing the ball towards the goal.
What is the criteria for a TV football ‘expert’? Are you a current or ex-player or manager? Yes. Do you have a recognisable ‘football face’? Yes. Can you behave yourself? Yes. Can you speak with an air of confident certainty in answer to any question we put to you? Yes. Are you fluent in football clichés? Yes.
One indicator of just how bland and stale TV pundit opinions are is the genuine surprise that is felt when something of actual interest and value is said. It is like looking at an endless wall full of charming but crude children’s paintings and suddenly finding a Van Gogh.
‘I thought he was half-decent today. *’
We are often told that these highly paid modern-day footballers should remember that they are role models to fans in general, and young fans in particular. I would argue that the lazy clichéd comments of TV ‘experts’ serve as a role model just as much as the players’ behaviour on the pitch. These ‘expert’ clichés are adopted and used as a means to convey knowledge of the game without having to consider their accuracy. TV coverage is the young fan’s introduction to the game. What are TV’s ‘experts’ educating them to believe is most valued in the game? Goals. Individuals. Effort.
‘Lots of energy, lots of work rate, lots of passion. That’s what fans wan to to see. Blood, sweat and tears for the shirt.’ *
Currently football coverage on TV is almost indistinguishable from game to game, from week to week. The same tired focus, with the same weary comments, like a diet of microwaved ready meals. If you listen closely you may even hear the microwave ‘ping’ as the theme tune ends. Football coverage on TV could be so much more.
John Walters (producer of the unique BBC Radio DJ John Peel) would often have to pound the table and remind BBC executives that “We aren’t here to give people what they want. We’re here to give people what they didn’t know they wanted!” Walters was only reminding them of what Lord Reith himself had set out as the aims of a public service broadcaster. Reith believed the BBC should always be demonstrating high quality, originality, innovation, while being both challenging and engaging. Part of the BBC’s role, said Reith, is to introduce viewers to subjects they might not know about.
‘A massive win.’ *
We should not lose sight of the different roles here. Fans are the paying punters so they are entitled to make judgements about what they get for their money. Pundits are are not punters. They are paid by the viewers to provide high quality, originality and innovation, while being both challenging and engaging. As such they should have their performance judged too. I don’t need pundits to make my judgements for me. What I want is for them to present relevant information and helpful perspectives and allow me reach my own conclusions.
For me the two simple guiding principles would be ‘Show me something I can’t see’ and ‘Remember, you are a role model’. Help me to look at the same thing and see something ‘new’. Offer me someone I can to aspire to become.
What I am proposing here is not a detailed ‘pitch’, but simply a handful of alternatives to illustrate just how stale the current approach is and the sorts of alternatives that can be conjured up with a little time and a bit of imagination.
‘Makes this a must-win game.’ *
As an absolute minimum I’d introduce a cliché alarm. Any commentator or pundit that uses a footballing cliché will be shown a yellow card, a red card, sent from the studio, and then given a ‘stating the bloody obvious’ ban, and even fined. I don’t want to hear their lazy words. Make an effort to have an original thought or you are off. Shouldn’t FIFA be declaring clichés from the mouths of TV role models to be a ‘cancer’ that is destroying football?
‘Show me something I can’t see’. Surely we can see all the ‘who is passing to who’ on-the-ball action. Why not leave us to do the ball watching and describe some of the off-the-ball action? The commentator could stop reading the names on players’ shirts as they receive the ball and begin describing something that we can’t see for ourselves. There is so much they could bring to the viewer’s attention about off-the-ball movement, the inter-play and cohesion between players, the stretching and compressing of space, probing and repelling, the changes of tempo, the split second doubts and hesitations, and occasionally where that ball thing fits into all of this constantly changing concoction. ‘Remember, you are a role model’.
‘Just three changes from the team that won last week.’ *
‘Show me something I can’t see’. When team line ups are shown at the start of the game, don’t just scatter the names across the pitch as though they’ll stay put for 90 minutes. Add a little animation to the formations. Show how the structure will change in and out of possession. Show the team breathing in and out. Not just with arrows. Let us see the roaming players dropping back and wide, the wide players cutting inside, while the backs push forward and wide. Bring it to life. Then, having shown that for both teams, let’s have them overlaid and see the two living and breathing formations interacting. You could even go as far as highlighting a couple of interesting zones and battles we can focus attention on.
Too often, ‘experts’ refuse to acknowledge their lack of knowledge about the thinking behind a substitution or tactical change and resort to questioning the competence or sanity of the manager with a dismissive comment. Is it acceptable to mock what you don’t understand rather than acknowledge you have reached the border crossing between your knowledge and ignorance? Let’s have someone who does know, so that we can come back to formations within the game to show what has been happening, when tactical changes are made (either by substitutions or the manager gesturing from the side lines), to show what changes this might make, and what to look out for. ‘Remember, you are a role model’.
‘Everton include 3 Manchester United old boys.’ *
The StatsZone chalkboards would be a great way to instantly demonstrate a tactical point, from where particular passes are received, the dominant passing combinations, the impact of a tactical change with ‘before’ and ‘after’ images. These could be used to rapidly convey tactical information mid-game so that viewers can be more aware of the development of the game. Use the periods when a player is injured and getting treatment for an expert to step up and succinctly explain a change in tactics that recently occurred, and illustrate it with a chalk board.
‘A team that look like they know exactly what they’re doing.’ *
When a manager is making gestures to players, rather than the commentator guessing like someone projecting human thoughts onto their pet cat, find someone who has a tactical understanding about what it is he could be communicating.
‘Possession exactly split down the middle. 50:50.’ *
Currently, any statistics used are simply data ‘droppings’ that are given no context or analysis. They fall well short of being information that we can do something with, as they lack anything of nutritional value which can be digested and developed over time into knowledge.
‘Show me something I can’t see’. The use of statistics should go way beyond possession percentages, number of shots, fouls, yellow cards, red cards, and corners, that are delivered with no context or meaning. At best they allow the ‘wise fool’ pundit their once-in-every-game opportunity to make their signature comment that the only statistic that really matters is the score. It is never explained why these are seen as the key performance indicators. That suggests to me that they are simply the numbers that are easiest to measure and so collect (the statistical equivalent of being paid to read the names from players shirts), but we have never stopped to ask if these really have any relevance.
‘And their lead is doubled.’ *
‘Let’s make statistics ‘sexy’? Let’s give the statistics the context and meaning needed to help us make use of them. Let’s have a statistician providing not just lists of numbers in isolation, but a wide range of visual illustrations of relevant statistics at various stages of the game. They could start with basic pizza charts of possession that are maybe broken down further into zones where possession has taken place, which player has possession, which player to player combinations are the most frequent, or any other views that may play a big part on whether possession is being used effectively. Let’s have the possession versus space battle demonstrated and explained for all to see.
When there’s something wrong in the commentary, who you gonna call? Myth-busters!
I want statisticians who challenge the media created myths and show they are based entirely on guesswork. Maybe they can present their evidence to the supposed ‘expert’ and ask them to offer some kind of explanation of why the facts don’t match their repeated claims? After a few weeks of having their lazy comments held up for close examination it would create a situation in which these ‘experts’ may think twice before they open their mouth. ‘Remember, you are a role model’.
‘There was no doubt in Mark Clattenberg’s mind.’ *
‘Show me something I can’t see’. Do we need pundits giving vague and ill-informed comments about how they ‘feel’ about a refereeing decision? Their default starting point is to presume the ref and linesman were likely to have got it ‘wrong’, while the ‘expert’ requires the benefit of hindsight and multiple camera angles to eventually and grudgingly admit that the ref got it ‘right’ with one look and in real time. I’d argue that his constant drip, drip, drip questioning of the referee’s decisions throughout every game, season after season, is serving to erode and undermine the authority of referees at all levels in the game.
Why not have a qualified referee to comment? They know the letter of the law. They know the spirit the law. They know the realities of the human judgements referees make. They will have the experience to know what it is like to make yellow and red card decisions, make an offside judgement, whether a tackle was a foul, when to play an advantage, the type of message that is being given when the referee speaks to a player, and the type of response the fourth official will give to the manager chewing their ear on the side lines. ‘Remember, you are a role model’.
‘An unsung hero. He doesn’t get mentioned enough.’ *
‘Show me something I can’t see’. Isn’t one of the deadly sins of football ‘Thou shalt not be caught ball watching?’ Isn’t that precisely what the TV cameras are guilty of? Camera angles tend to remain with the ball at the centre of the frame. This is interspersed with close-up shots focused on specific players but still with the ball as the central focus. This suggests the ball is the most important thing in the game. It ignores the importance of space and team cohesion almost entirely. It does not allow us to view the movement and timing of the 21 players who don’t have the ball. It does not show the vulnerable space that is becoming exposed for the counter-attacking team to exploit when they seize possession. The camera is focused on the ‘now’ of the game when it could just as easily focus on possibilities of what could happen ‘next’. Let us see the passing options, the ‘windows’ of vulnerable space being prised open and slammed shut.
There could be overviews of the zone showing how space has been created with players making runs and ‘magnetic’ fields around them showing how they are attracting players, a trail left behind the ball’s progress that changes colour to show the change in pace of the ball. ‘Remember, you are a role model’.
‘It just didn’t go in for him.’*
‘Show me something I can’t see’. Why not have a sports psychologist who can comment throughout the game on what an individual player’s body language may indicate about their mindset. Let us know what to look out for to know it has changed. Let us know how this may be impacting on others in their team. Let us know how this may be impacting on the opposition both individually and as a team. Describe a player’s response to a moment of poor judgement or plain bad luck. Describe a player’s apparent mindset and confidence when executing a free-kick, clear cut chance or particularly from both perspectives at penalty shoot-outs.
With so much else to talk about, do we really have time for the sidekicks to the commentator anymore? Someone whose job description seems to be 1) all-seeing judge with total confidence in your opinions, 2) mind-reader who has no doubt that the thoughts you project on to people are reality, and 3) a ‘bit of a character’ who can frequently tell me things that I can see for myself are just plain not true. Aren’t these similar requirements for the job of the ‘expert’ that sits on the park bench, drinking cider, and muttering about the pigeons?
‘167 Manchester United goals. 8 of them have come against Everton.’ *
And we wont have time for the trivia that commentators compile and then scatter through their commentary like confetti, delivered in a tone that suggests that apparent coincidences and data from a random selection of historical circumstances have some kind of significance and meaning (this player, as part of a number of different teams, has scored against this club when it has been represented by a number of different groups of players). They may as well have astrologers giving observations based on a player’s zodiac signs.
And what do we get from an interview with a player or even the manager after the game? Do we really expect them to reveal their thinking? Isn’t it more realistic to expect them to be like a poker player who wants to keep his cards close to his club crest? At best they’ll repeat a series of guarded footballing clichés. At worst they have to endure an inquisition on a some current media invented speculation. Is there really any point in talking to him at all? What is that giving the viewer? Why not give the time to one of our panel to ‘Show me something I can’t see’.
‘That’s when you want your keeper making these big saves. In these big moments.’*
Do we really need a ‘Man of the Match’ award? Really? Even putting aside the award criteria which dominates the judgements currently (scoring goals or ‘hard graft’), the very idea of the award encourages a focus on individuals over teams. If we feel the need to be giving out awards in every single game, even ‘Partnership of the Match’ would at least be a step in the right direction.
‘That is one he’ll certainly remember.’*
And if ‘Man of the Match’ is to go then ‘Goal of the Month’ should go with it. It encourages and perpetuates a view that goals are the key part of any game, and again they are attached to the individual that was the last person to touch the ball before it entered the goal. Month after month, season after season, it continues to dismiss the team work, the space creation, the timing, the passing, the delivery that led to the final touch being in a position to be delivered. If we really cannot live without the need to select the ‘best’ of something and put an award in its hand, at least move to something like ‘Move of the Month’, even if it doesn’t result in a goal! It would show the finest interplay of team work, co-ordination, manipulation of space, precise timing, and changes of pace.
Who will these role models showing me something I can’t see be? Will it be a current or ex player or manager with a recognisable ‘football face’? Or will it be someone from the infinitely deeper meme pool of non-current and non-ex players and managers with a ‘nobody face’? I really don’t care where they come from. I’d be happy to have musicians, chefs, engineers, architects, scientists, you name it. If they can add a fresh way to describe and think about maybe how players work together, or perhaps the interplay of parts, or even the construction of the formation. All I ask is ‘Show me something I can’t see’ and ‘Remember, you are a role model’.
‘Letting him know he is in a game.’ *
What is the role of the host in this new format? I’d suggest it is to have the ability to question the experts further to drill down into the detail and implications of their comments, and to be able to summarise and re-present them in every day terms.
Would we need all these new experts for every game? Not necessarily. There could be a squad of panel regulars that could be rotated. There would be different perspectives for each game, which allows the exciting potential of different combinations of perspectives rubbing up against each other to produce new and fresh insights.
‘A couple of big performances.’ *
Some may argue that football fans could find these types of changes ‘boring’. I’d suggest they are ‘bored’ right now. It could be argued that all this extra information would be giving away too much. Revealing too many secrets. ‘Letting daylight in on the magic’.
What is it that we think will be revealed? The game is taking place in public, sometimes watched by millions around the world. Do we really think that highly paid opposition managers are watching TV coverage praying that someone is going to reveal the secrets to them of how to do their job?
What about that nagging doubt that all this detailed scrutiny of the each game will take the magic out of it?. Just stop to think about what that statement means. Isn’t it like saying don’t tell me there is no Santa Claus? The ‘magic’ will be taken from the game if we ‘understand’ how it works. Really? Are we any less amazed and awed with a scientific explanation of how the universe works compared to a version that says ‘Well Brian, God done it’? Just ask yourself which of those two points of view is the more likely to lead to discovery and result in progress?
‘What a vital touch.’ *
As a wise person must have said at least once, ‘The act of observing a thing changes that thing’. I’d suggest that not only could TV coverage be an important factor in the future evolution of the game, I’d go as far as saying that the current ‘pop-pop-ding’ ready meal coverage is actively inhibiting the growth and development of the game.
To finish I’ll blatantly copy and paste what I said earlier. What I am proposing here is not a detailed ‘pitch’, but simply a handful of alternatives to illustrate just how stale the current approach is, and the sorts of alternatives that can be conjured up with a little time and a bit of imagination.
* All quotes from Match of the Day 2, 10/2/13