Punditry in football is now problematic for Premier League consumers

“Hmmm,”

GRAEME Souness stares up to the ceiling. He tilts his head. He sighs. “The boy’s gone over softly there”. He takes a second pause, raising his hand in exasperation.

A light flickers in Roy Keane’s eye. The left side of his mouth curls. His brow drops. He’s ready. He knows it’s time to strike.

“Look, let’s not beat around the bush. He’s soft. They’re all soft, to be honest with you — mentally. If you think they have the desire, the heart, the work rate to compete for league titles, you’re living in cuckoo land.”

Micah Richards twirls in his chair. He cannot contain himself, either. The hilarity is too much. He rolls his neck back and roars to the sky, clasping his hands together as if the force alone will offset the punch of his laugh.

It is a made for TV spectacle, a symphony of grouchiness masquerading as honest, good-faith analysis.

Can you guess the moment? Is it Mohamed Salah running through on goal and being pulled back by his shirt? Is it another antiquated Paul Pogba discussion?

It’s neither — it is a fabrication, a creation of the writer. And yet the fact that it could exist, that you likely formed an image in your mind of the exact time and place and moment (the match, the specifics), that you were most likely toggling between a series of options, is indicative of the modern approach of football analysis. It is a generic formula. Wind up the toys, pick the subject, and watch them go.

There is a great divide taking place across sports broadcasting. There is the generic old-school, sport-talk radio-style broadcasting of the old-school: Grab a couple of cantankerous, back-in-my-day types and flank them with a dithering interviewer.

Then there is the other: The smartest guys in the room vibe, those who are in the know, and who, at the highest level, can explain it in an easy to digest way for a mass audience. There is Monday Night Football and then there is Super Sunday, two shows that fall under the same umbrella — Sky Sports — but are polar opposites in tone.

The quality is dependent on what you the viewer want out of broadcasts. Are you looking for informed analysis with a splash of fun? Or do you want the ‘fun’ the bids at viral moments dressed up as analysis?

To call it a culture war would be to go a little too far, but it’s indicative of this moment we live in. Audiences are segmented. Broadcast companies are reaching for anti-intellectual virality over intellectual vitality.

Everything feels a bit stale. Networks must hit all the beats: The dodgy refereeing decision; the ex-player refusing to criticise his mate; the ex-player letting you know how different it was in his day; guess-work about a player’s mindset over the specifics of his positioning. He just didn’t want it enough.

More and more punditry feels like a microwave meal. It’s prepackaged, made for Instagram engagement rather than informing the live viewer. We’re still treated to the occasional sit-down meal on Monday nights, all kinds of goodies littered across the menu. But that the Carragher-Neville-led enterprise stands apart from the rest of the crowd continues to be an indictment of the way the game is covered in this country.

The question is: What do we want from punditry? Do broadcast companies spoon feed controversy because that’s what the audience wants? Or are such controversies — that can often tip over into abuse — a result of the way modern punditry is mainlined into the homes of the football-watching public?

***

“I expect Southampton to potentially play more of a 4–2–2–2 without the inclusion of Minamino and move away from a flat-bank, in order to try and penetrate between the attacking third lines a Newcastle side which can drop off under pressure.”

A slight paraphrase, but the attention is nonetheless sharpened by the insight, not by the fact it is female. Lucy Ward spent most of her career at Leeds Carnegie as well as Doncaster Belles, whilst also having a spell as head of education and welfare at the Leeds United Academy until 2016.

All of this matters not — there are no qualifying boxes to tick here. In an industry where many of its most booked turn up carrying the knowledge of their own ego and nothing else, what gives anyone the right to analyse the game through our screens is a concept which was lost with the irreversible harm done by the closed eyes and ears when Richard Keys and Andy Gray were at their most destructive.

Inclusion in this very form becomes less about race, gender, and ethnicity and more about culture. What should rightly offer a platform to Ward and others is their evident knowledge and passion for the game in line with an unwillingness to pander to those who believe they have something to prove by not being part of an established genetic makeup.

Punditry has made strides, but ask yourself whether or not you sit entirely comfortably when a female is placed in a studio filled with the toxicity of the dressing-room banter brigade, or “way back when” men? Or whether you’re certain the happy-clappy jovial persona’s of Micah Richards and Ian Wright, who are making really valuable contributions but being overlooked as a result, aren’t indirectly manufactured by years of the same issue still being present.

When Karen Carney deleted her social media account after making a comment about Leeds United’s promotion to the Premier League, owner Andrea Radrizzani was hailed for upholding the actions of the club by claiming:

“I take the responsibility of the Club tweet,” he wrote on Twitter. “I consider that comment completely unnecessary and disrespectful to our Club and particularly to the fantastic hard work of our players and coaches who were understanding on the pitch for the last two championship seasons by all stats.”

Not one single word he uttered came close to unravelling what the original post had done — being that it opened Carney up to scores of sexist vitriol from the same men who would start a sentence with “I’ve nothing against females in football, but”, back in the days when pubs were still a thing.

To simply retort with the fact that anybody can be criticised on social media only further adds to the problem of ownership placed. If Carney was male, there would be no reference to her gender. But that she is constantly told to put the kettle on is systemic of how much this is an issue we continue to bivouac in. Regardless of Radrizzani’s words, the attention is drawn regardless by those spectators who see the likes of Carney as out of place — away from the familiarity of a studio or commentary box inherently dominated by white males.

The hardest square to now circle is to find the way to organically navigate away from what the game has created beyond the pitch. That we’re still talking about whether someone is male, female, black or white in the context of the conversation typifies the ongoing arbitrary approach to solving it.

Therefore, there is maybe no answer other than to continue to do the right thing and hope that lessons are learnt and considered with minimal damage when wrong occurs. It is a continuously forward moving process, it has to be.

For that reason, the likes of Carney, Wright, Richards and Ward would be right to retort that the fight for inclusion is a collective one, but there are some fights we don’t have to win in by early knockout because they do a fantastic job at holding their own in whatever environment they are placed in and whatever subconsciously placed narrative at occasionally bestowed upon them.

***

It adds value in real-time, because it makes you feel like what you’re both closer to the action and that what you’re watching really matters, regardless of the spatial disconnect between yourself and wherever the actual event is taking place. It adds value in retrospect, too, because commentaries become inextricably linked with specific moments in time.

Take Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career alone, for instance. We remember it predominantly because of his once-in-a-lifetime talent that enabled him to do all the incredible things he did on the football pitch, but certain landmarks are forever remembered for the words which immediately followed them at the time.

Mellor…lovely cushioned header…for GERRAAAAAARD! Ohhhhh you beauty! Riise…charged down by Cafu…in towards GERRARD! Hello, hello! Here we go!

There’s nothing particularly special about those words per se, but over time they’ve become audio portals into the past: Raw, spontaneous reactions to iconic events which we watch and listen back to with so much fondness to this day. More recently, of course, there’s the three words ‘ corner taken quickly’ which hold their own unique place in the history of Liverpool Football Club, among countless other examples.

From a non-partisan perspective, the ‘Balotelli…Agueroooooooo!’ line from Martin Tyler is indisputably one of the all-time greatest Premier League moments of all-time. The goal itself is the source of the drama, but the commentary profoundly shapes the memory of it.

Obviously, not all games have great moments, and, as such, iconic commentary usually isn’t possible. It’s entirely dependent on the outcome, and only the most thrilling and dramatic games yield such reactions. There’s not a great deal any commentator can say to polish up the dreariest of goalless draws in which neither team comes close to scoring a goal.

But what commentary should never do is detract from the viewing experience. It can be mundane or somewhat dull from time to time, and that’s entirely understandable. Not every game needs a brilliant backing track. The problem comes when commentary actively makes watching football worse.

Anyone who watched Liverpool’s 4–1 defeat to Manchester City through Sky Sports’ coverage will have had to sit through the opening 45 minutes of Gary Neville and Martin Tyler incessantly grumbling about how dreadful the game was, and how much it failed to live up to expectations.

Now, first of all, the first half wasn’t dreadful. It wasn’t great, but it was in keeping with how these games often tend to go in the early stages: tight, edgy, tactically intriguing, both teams patiently figuring each other out. But even if it was dreadful, the role of Neville and Tyler isn’t to compound that to the TV audience and tell them just how awful what they’re watching is. They could, for instance, seek to explain why either manager had adopted a cautious approach to begin with, but they choose not to.

Neville hasn’t always been like this. His analysis on Monday Night Football is generally astute and well-articulated. On commentary, however, he’ll slip into a totally different character — especially when covering Liverpool or Manchester United — whereby he almost appears to follow a script which requires him to pick holes in everything he sees, giving the impression he gains very little pleasure from the enterprise. As a viewer, that’s not what you pay for.

At times, it almost feels as if the back-and-forth ‘banter’ exchanges between himself and Jamie Carragher take supersede the actual football match, as if they feel a need to compensate for the fact these games lack any of the emotional intensity and atmosphere that would usually be present with supporters in stadiums.

They livened up once the goals started flying in throughout the second half, but the first half was emblematic of an increasingly prevalent issue which has seeped into Premier League coverage in recent years, and this season in particular: manufactured, pre-determined and static narratives which bear little reality (or relevance) to events on the pitch.

A commentator will decide, for instance, that Thiago ‘slows Liverpool down’, and they’ll hammer that narrative through regardless of what the evidence suggests. They won’t interrogate it in any detail, but because it sounds like an intriguing or controversial viewpoint, they’ll harp on about it anyway. They know full well it’ll generate conversation online, too, and probably go viral.

It’s this drive to draw sensationalist conclusions or make outlandish claims — see Roy Keane and Graeme Souness as prime examples of ex-pro pundits who’ve morphed into caricatures of themselves, jousting for who can give the most outrageous ‘take’.

Good commentary hasn’t just disappeared, of course, and it’s not every commentator or pundit who falls into these traps every game. It’s not a Liverpool thing or a Sky thing, either.

Increasingly, though, it feels like the balance between strong, entertaining, well-informed commentary and the inverse has shifted in the wrong direction.

***

When the biggest, baddest company in the western world rolls up to the biggest, baddest sports league, you could be forgiven for expecting… something, anything. But that is the point of Amazon’s broadcast-style: it’s not supposed to feel different. It’s supposed to look just like the Sky broadcasts or BT broadcast or NBC shows or wherever it is that you watch games.

By not looking different, by hitting all the checkpoints — the same presenters, the same pundits, the same make-up of a panel (an ex-pro from each side) — the move to streaming feels less intrusive. It’s comfort food.

For a large section of the British population, as much as they will bemoan the price and service of the two key cable providers (Sky and BT), have become accustomed to firing up their boxes and watching matches uninterrupted. They hit a button. They scan the planner. They press play.

Moving to streaming, certainly for football’s key money-making demographic (30–55 males), is somewhat of a gamble. It’s why the likes of Apple, Netflix and Facebook, the largest companies on the planet, and the future of the entertainment world, have just dipped their toes into live events. They understand what the leagues want: They want certainty. They want a certain aesthetic.

The big wigs at Amazon Sport have been happy to play ball. Their NFL broadcasts look just like the sedated products you receive from Fox Sports — down to the same producers, cinematographers, and broadcast duos. The company made the same move with the Premier League. See, we’re not a threat. We come in peace. This is the future, once everyone has migrated to a streaming world. And we can run the operation just like BT and Sky.

It feels like a missed opportunity. The same old faces; the same old voices.

Even in the wild west of the internet, sports leagues have little time for difference. Their league is a cathedral (a money churning one) and thus must be protected at all costs. No swearing. No comedians on commentary. Maybe the odd second screen experience here and there — a nerdy, stats-based simulcast for the Champions League final, for instance — but by-in-large stasis.

And that’s fine. Connectivity issues aside, Amazon’s move into full-time Premier League rights-holding, brought on in part by the pandemic, has been a success. The app is easy to use. Games are simple to find. The company’s main commentary team, Ally McCoist and Clive Tyldesley have proven to be the best one-two punch in the business. They bring an informal, don’t-we-all-love-football-style, with McCoist default Everyman style beguiling a rapid football brain and a coach who is up to date with all the latest tactical and analytical trends. Fun, insightful, informative, the duo has everything.

But what about those second, third, and fourth teams? Or what about multiple teams in multiple games?

Amazon’s banner point of difference when their Premier League coverage first launched: No commentary team.

It was a brilliant idea. With the click of a button, Amazon boosted the crowd sound and cut the mics of the commentary team. It was intended to replicate, as best as possible, the feeling of being at the match. As the ball flowed and moved across the pitch, the sound undulated with the crowd rather than sitting in a monotonous drone. Obviously, it didn’t re-create the feeling of being at Anfield, but it was a welcome reprieve from some dour commentary teams.

With no crowds at present, the no-commentary option is out. What should be available, though, either through the red button or online companion streams, is a host of different options, at least for a couple of games — and if not in match, at least a succession of different panels around the match.

There are a bunch of streams that could draw in new audiences or give a better, more customised experience to the current audience:

An analytical broadcast: Bring in the likes of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher — or even nerdier nerds like the folks at StatsBomb — to offer Monday Night Football style analysis in-the-moment. Or get out-of-work coaches — not those doing hello-owner-I’m-here-let-me-manage-again kinds, the kind who really care about the craft of teaching.

A podcast-y type: The NBA has tried this option to great success. They bring in a successful podcast team and hand over the reigns of the broadcast. Everything is a little more laid back, with stories wrapped around the broadcast and game rather than all the focus being on the specific 90 minutes.

Youtubers: Some already run companion streams and draw monster engagement. It would be silly for the traditional broadcast companies to overlook their success. Why not bring back ?

Fantasy Football: With games rattling along at all times, there would be plenty of people who would want a broadcast that jumps around games and provides a fantasy football element.

Comedians: Some days, you’re in the mood for super nerdy, tactical discussion. Some days, you just want to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Grab a comedian or two. Get outsiders. Get people who love the game. We’re not talking about the League of Their Own types here, but people with actual observational talent and ability. Grab Bill Burr. Get the Football Ramble boys. Or let Peter Crouch conduct his brand of nonsense. There’s no reason why you can’t have something like this in an accompanying stream:

You can build the broadcast around it. The Football Ramble takes over Super Sunday.

There is all sorts of innovation to be had around the way matches are broadcast, so long as the football clubs and governing bodies relent.

The one thing the broadcasters can control independently, however, is who talks on the games, both in the pundit studio and commentary booth — or at least who talks on companion streams away from the sanctioned “real” matches. They should look to bring in fresh voices that would inject some kind of authenticity into what could quickly devolve into a fairly antiseptic product.

***

Along with Liverpool.com you also probably follow the team and the reporters who cover it on social channels. You might subscribe to the club’s official YouTube channel, or fan channels that cover and follow the team with the same vigour and emotion as you. Your podcast feed is probably littered with Liverpool products. It is the same for fans of other clubs, whether they follow Brighton or Southampton or Arsenal. They get their club shot into their arms like a content IV drip.

In US sports, given the sheer volume of games in baseball, basketball, and hockey, this is the norm. The majority of content creation is local. A ton of it is in-house. The Red Sox, FSG’s baseball team, own and operate the New England Sports network, the only place you can catch Red Sox games, unless, of course, the team is due to play on one of the national TV channels — the Red Sox being a big team might play on national TV once a week (or one in six); other teams might go a month without a national TV slot.

You can see football following this trend line. National voices cannot chart all 20 Premier League teams to the same level as a voice that focuses solely on one. There just isn’t enough time — there is a reason Liverpool.com exists!

There is a financial angle here, too. Sift through the latest rounds of leaks surrounding the proposed European Super League — headed up by Liverpool’s ownership group — and you will find something interesting buried in the fine print:

In the streaming age, sports are the only product during a significant live audience. You have to watch matches live in order to be a real part of the conversation. And people crave being part of that conversation.

It’s why sports right packages are pushing ever closer to the tens of billions. TV companies and streaming giants need eyeballs in order to sell ads. And the big ad revenue is in live products. Those companies with a stack of live viewers have the winning hand.

The Premier League has been a pioneer in this sphere. All the other top sports leagues, including the NFL and NBA, look to the Premier League for guidance and assistance.

Baked into that Super League proposal is the clear next evolution: Premier League teams selling their domestic rights as a collective in order to maintain their bottom line; the richest of the richest selling off their own Super League package, on their own TV channel/streaming service in a race to the top. May the biggest fan-base win.

FSG have previous for this, of course. They know how to own and operate a successful sports television network. Plus: John Henry owns the Boston Globe, New England’s paper of record.

(Henry’s purchase of the Globe remains a contentious issue. He likes to point out that he purchased the globe as an individual, not as part of the Fenway Sports Group. That the most respected journalistic entity in the region happens to cover the team that he owns and therefore him personally is just a happy coincidence).

Premier League rights sold as a bundle to a major TV/Streaming partner. A Super League bundle sold to a major TV/Streaming partner. An LFCTV Streaming/Broadcast service owned and operated by the club itself.

What does that mean for you, the viewer? What does that mean for punditry?

It means that football fandom will move into ever-increasing echo chambers. Supporters will gather together as always for major matches. But week-to-week, through the slog of the domestic season and European competition, fans will be pushed off into their own universes.

There will be a Pravda-like element: Those on LFCTV covering live Liverpool games will not have the same sense of objectivity as those who do not take a paycheck directly from the club. But it also has the potential to produce better analysis. Rather than a recently-retired ex-pro rolling up to Sky HQ to string out half-time cliches, you may get a dose of the Neil Mellor goodness, a thoughtful, smart, creative analyst who studies Liverpool on a day-to-day basis and delivers high-quality, team-centric analysis; someone who understands the specifics of the team and the club culture.

It’s a system that would be journalistically bankrupt, will push supporter bases further apart, encourage less interactivity, yet increase the quality of coverage on a team to team basis. Is that a trade-off worth making?

Originally published at https://www.liverpool.com on February 14, 2021.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.