Fenno on Sport

Paul Fennessy examines whether commentators’ opinions are still relevant in modern footballDoes the opinion of football pundits really matter? Case in point: in October 1973 ITV’s resident football pundit, the-then Derby County manager Brian Clough, famously labelled Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski “a clown” just prior to England’s crucial World Cup qualifier against Poland at Wembley.England had to win in order to avoid a humiliating exit in the qualifying stages of the World Cup – a tournament that they had triumphed in only seven years previously. The match ended 1-1 and the hosts were denied a victory largely owing to Tomaszewski’s heroics. This occasion was one of the many instances of a pundit getting it spectacularly wrong. But of course, in an opinion-dominated industry, such mistakes are inevitable.Nonetheless, misguided analysis and inaccurate facts are arguably more prevalent than people would expect from so-called ‘experts’. For instance, prior to their recent fixture against Aston Villa, Mark Lawrenson described how Tottenham would lose on the basis that their defence was inept. This assumption does not seem unreasonable, especially as several other commentators have expressed a similar viewpoint of late.Yet a closer examination of the facts reveals these opinions are misguided. Tottenham have conceded 25 goals so far this season, meaning their defensive record is slightly better than average compared with most Premier League sides. Moreover, their attack is not as proficient as many people assume given that they have scored only 31 goals this season – fourteen less than Arsenal, twelve less than Manchester United and three less than Bolton.Another common presumption is that Arsenal are perpetual victims of an overly physical and unfair approach when confronted by less technically gifted opponents. However, commentators seem to underestimate the extent to which the Gunners engage in unsporting behaviour, as they currently possess the third worst disciplinary record in the league – with a total of 38 yellow cards and five red cards.In addition to Arsenal, five of the bottom seven teams in the disciplinary table are Manchester City, Bolton, Sunderland and Newcastle. Therefore, five of the top eight teams in the Premier League also have five of the league’s worst disciplinary records. This finding suggests that possessing a lack of discipline does not necessarily prevent teams from achieving success.In fact, having an overly cynical streak may indicate a team is willing to get stuck in to their opponents and they may accordingly benefit, owing to such an aggressive style. It could also be deduced that referees are not punishing these teams sufficiently and are consequently allowing cheats to prosper.Furthermore, there are countless reasons provided as to why teams drop points. After Chelsea’s recent loss to Arsenal, Andy Gray speculated that Carlo Ancelotti’s side might lack the “hunger” which they once possessed. Meanwhile, many blamed Manchester United’s failure to beat Birmingham on a controversial goal that observers believed should have been disallowed. And of course, there is the England football team’s continual failure to make a substantial impact at major tournaments – arguably since Euro ’96 and before that, 1966. There are simply too many excuses to mention that are routinely given for their recurring mishaps.One of the reasons rarely given, which each of the three teams aforementioned cases of underperformance have in common, is that all their matches in question took place away from home. Commentators have a tendency to underestimate the extent to which this factor influences the outcome of games. To take one example, if the current Premier League table was based solely on home games, Manchester United would be top by a comfortable margin of six points. Conversely, if the league were based purely on teams’ results away from home, United would only be in fifth position.While most analysts are occasionally prone to making slightly misguided judgements, there are some who commit glaring gaffes on a regular basis. The always-entertaining Eamon Dunphy – who, in fairness, goes out on a limb more often than most when making predictions – is the most infamous exponent of this ignominious habit.Dunphy’s highlights include citing Nani as a player who will never be in a Champions League-winning team, despite the fact that he had indeed played a part in United’s 2008 CL success. He also endeavoured to lambast Michele Platini in the build-up to the 1984 European Championships. The Frenchman subsequently made a significant contribution to his team’s victory in the tournament, scoring nine goals in five games. In addition, his regular dismissals of Cristiano Ronaldo, indisputably one of the most effective footballers in the world on account of his incredible goalscoring record, created widespread derision among footballing fans.Admittedly though, statistics are not always a reliable indicator of the performance of a player or team. For instance, the fact that Manchester United conceded the least amount of goals in the league last season would suggest that Edwin van der Sar was the Premiership’s best goalkeeper. However, it could also mean he was the most untested goalkeeper in England owing to the excellence of his teammates.Therefore, such anomalies show why Mark Twain was right to lament “lies, damned lies and statistics” and why opinion has an undoubted place in football, regardless of pundits’ unreliable assertions.