Some Thoughts on Football Analysis and the Emotional Content of the Game

For those who have not yet seen it, The Blizzard have very kindly posted a video of the Q&A session they hosted at Club Wembley in March of 2012.

I listened to it lying down, headphones on, at 3am, but there was a moment that made me sit bolt upright and let out an excessively loud ‘what?!’

It was the way in which Dave Farrar asked the question, “To what extent had Jonathan Wilson’s book ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ spawned a monster?” The way he implied that analysis these days is completely tactical is something I do not recognise at all.

The discussion starts at 26.30 in the video and lasts about 9 minutes. The general points that tactics are not the only thing that should be seen in football, and that other aspects are required to make them work are ones I agree with. But I was preoccupied with how Farrar asked that question and what Philippe Auclair said in agreeing with him.

Perhaps when limited to the press room, or the internet, Farrar is right. However for the majority of fans[1] most of our interaction with football, for better or for worse, occurs via television, where the analysis, at least in Britain, remains largely incident-based: goals, major chances and contentious refereeing decisions (at least one of which must be thoughtlessly labeled ‘the moment that changed the game’). As barely needs repeating, focusing on at most three minutes of action to analyse and explain the remaining 87 is an extremely ineffective way of doing things.

Incident-based analysis will always place the focus on individuals, and as a consequence the build up to games is mostly limited to who the key men are (normally the most famous players) with at best a brief explanation of why; that is to say how they fit into the system of their own team in order to damage the system of the opponent. Football analysis in Britain will probably never stray far from these individuals[2], so this aspect of the game does not need defending at this point in time. The tactical side of football continues to be underplayed, but whether we focus on incidents, individuals or systems, we must not forget the aspect that Philippe Auclair said should come before any of them: the emotional content of the game.

It is rather easy to forget when watching a sport as fluid as football that it is entirely mechanical, whether it is being viewed with incidents, individuals or systems in mind. The latter was very neatly expressed by Jonathan Wilson in ‘Inverting the Pyramid’. Football, for Valeriy Lobanovskyi, was

“A system of twenty-two elements – two sub-systems of eleven elements – moving within a defined area (the pitch) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two subsystems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one were stronger, it would win.”[3]

One riposte to this way of thinking is to point out that sometimes the better team does not win, but then you have to start asking yourself what ‘the better team’ is. And we owe to the scientists of Kiev a good definition: “A team that makes errors in no more than 15 to 18% of its acts is unbeatable.” In other words, if you defend and attack more efficiently that the other team then you were by definition the better team, even if they have 80% of the ball.

On an individual level, the game is just as mechanical. Whether you are watching an amateur player shank a free kick into the stands, or Marco van Basten score a volley from an absurd angle, you are witnessing nothing more or less than the laws of physics in action. Barry Hulshoff, in an interview with David Winner, explains how defending can, and should, be done mathematically[4].

A very basic version of this mechanised football is what people who don’t believe in football[5] see when they see a man kicking a ball to another man who kicks the ball past another man into a net. They’re right; this is all that football is. We can see the finer details of these mechanical processes because we watch a lot more football, read a lot more about it and talk about it incessantly. But the real difference between us and them is that we have a connection to the emotional content of the game.

A failure to explain or even highlight systems and their importance is a major, often infuriating, drawback to watching football on television. But just as neglected in the age of bluster, hype and sheer volume, is the emotional aspect of football. Next time you watch a game that you don’t have a particular interest in, listen to how much of the time the commentators spend talking to each other as one might expect of two men in a pub, or repeating clearly pre-prepared lines that, even at their most apt, are not as effective as letting the game itself influence what they say (and at their worst are about as offensive as it gets, as those who have listened to Peter Drury will know). Neither idle conversation nor reheated gruel that was cooked up in a hotel room the previous evening benefits the viewer as much as silence.

Rob Smyth and the great Barry Davies discussed in Issue Two of the Blizzard how commentators should watch, but not talk over, the first replay of an incident so that they can analyse it and better explain what they have learned over the second replay. You can extrapolate that idea to commentary generally. If a colour commentator talks all the time (and they do talk ALL. THE. TIME) then they cannot be watching the game and analysing the systems enough to explain them. By the same token if a lead commentator talks all the time (and they do talk ALL. THE. TIME) then they cannot immerse themselves in the game’s emotional progression, or even something as basic as how the game they are watching makes them feel.

The best commentators all let the game they were watching take charge of their emotions, from Herbert Zimmerman who “just described what he saw, and then – grippingly – what he felt”[6], to Thierry Roland, who peddled a fine line of appropriate expletives at highly charged moments, to Davies himself, who “rarely got overexcited, so when he did you knew it was the real thing”[7]

Without a good explanation of the systems at play we will not have a complete understanding of football as a process, of why team A were able to beat team B. But without a link to the game’s emotional content we simply will not care at all. When it comes to correcting the appalling state of televised football in Britain both deficiencies must be fixed urgently.

As if by the hand of fate, the question that followed the tactics one in that Blizzard Q&A session was about wealthy owners, and to what extent we care about our teams when they, in all senses, no longer belong to us. This is a very important question for me because, as I hope I have shown, football without emotion is nothing but a mechanical process, and a fairly dull one at that. A year ago when my team, PSG, were bought by QSI I voiced my concerns about what that would mean for the development of the club. What I had not anticipated was that my emotional connection, my caring, would be washed away by this torrent of money. How this happened will be the subject of my next essay.


[1] By fans I mean everyone who watches football, wherever they are and however they do so. I urge you to read Brian Phillips’ piece on the bogus concept of ‘The Real Fan’ in Issue Five of The Blizzard.

[2] See any number of articles and chapters about British football’s obsession with Roy Race characters, especially Scott Murray’s piece in Issue Zero of The Blizzard.

[3] Inverting the Pyramid p236 (Wilson)

[4] Brilliant Orange p67 (Winner)

[5] As I like to call them. My own missive on football-as-religion in which I explain this will appear later.

[6] Tor! p126 (Lichtenberger)


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