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Football Punditry – Not Everyone’s Ball Game

If there’s one thing I expect Robbie Savage to know something about, it’s bone jangling challenges. And in his latest article for the BBC Sport website, he didn’t disappoint. Savage offered the most enlightening analysis yet of Callum McManaman’s horror tackle on Newcastle full back Massadio Haidara in the second half of their clash last Sunday, one which looks to sideline Haidara for a period with knee ligament damage.


Savage describes the mindset of a player as he enters a ’50-50’ challenge, of that split second decision made whether to commit to the tackle or shy away. Once committed, Savage argues, a player primarily wishes to win the ball, and secondarily wishes to avoid injury themselves.  McManaman went in aggressively to give himself the best possible chance of doing these two things. He quite clearly mistimed his tackle, and in retrospect, it looks, at best, a wild and high lunge, but let’s not carried away. Modern football, played at such exhilaratingly high speed, is likely to amplify mistimed and erratic actions. A horrible tackle? Certainly. Full of malice? Probably not. He probably just needs to learn how to tackle better. Not that that’s any consolation to Haidara.

This sort of simple, well-explained insight should be what we expect of ex-pros, but it is so often frustratingly shortcoming. Consider the deification of the pundit Gary Neville. It’s hard to remember that he was a snarling, irritant of a full back in a previous life. His analyses on Sky Sports are informative and full of insight – telling us things about football we cannot know ourselves as mere spectators – and his passion is believable. When he bemoans poor defending it’s clear this stems of the unshakable high standards set throughout his career.

JOe Hart's tackle or Demba Ba's dive?
Joe Hart’s tackle or Demba Ba’s dive?

Then there’s the issue of diving, so infuriatingly a black and white issue to pundits, fans and referees alike. A few weeks ago, when Man City met Chelsea at the Etihad, Demba Ba ran clear on goal and attempted to round Joe Hart but overran the ball. He dangled a leg out at Joe Hart, who duly took him up on his offer and clipped Ba, who fell to ground and won a penalty. On Match of the Day 2 later that evening, pundits Pat Nevin and Alan Shearer discussed the foul. Both agreed that it was a penalty, but Nevin described how Ba played for it, hanging out his leg and inviting Hart to bring him down. Still a penalty, but clever forward play. Shearer simply wouldn’t have any of it. It was a foul, he said. No room for discussion, as he shut down the debate from Nevin. This level of glib paucity is unwelcome from such a fantastic ex-player. Neville himself further expanded on this topic in a fifteen minute masterclass on Sky, explaining how it can be both a foul and a dive.

It is exasperating that these eye-opening pieces of analysis from ex-players are so few and far between. When a player retires and moves into the media, it is an opportunity to bestow the accumulated wisdom of their lengthy playing careers. All too often, we instead get platitudes and tired old stories. Neville has been liberating in this sense, unafraid to ruffle some feathers to get his point across. As Michael Owen retires this week and announces his expectation to move into a media role, I look forward to his insight into strikers, goal-scoring and movement in the box. I hope that we get it.