At best, it confirms what we already know. At worst, we get a range of puzzling, tiresome and predictable off the cuff takes.
In the better cases, co-commentators provide insightful, reactive musings to what we are watching as the game progresses. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher are probably the best of a bad bunch, when they can put their blatant biases aside. In fact, many fans would argue that their brazen partiality only adds to a sense of authenticity and honesty. If you can come to accept it as inevitable, this doesn’t always detract from their ability to think and talk objectively about the game when absolutely necessary.
But since the return of football, the role of the co-commentator — and a particular task they are seemingly obliged to undertake — has become excruciatingly predictable and a personal bugbear. To demonstrate the point, we can examine two recent examples, the former a pertinent one in terms of the most common variety of man of the match selection; the latter rather harder to explain.
Both point to an overarching conclusion, that the co-commentator’s man of the match selection is an outdated concept, in need of more thoughtful, stat-based consideration or of scrapping altogether.
We are all familiar with how it goes. Like clockwork, approaching the 90th minute and however much stoppage time will ensue, the main commentator hands over to his right-hand man. It is then that the so-called ‘expert’ who has presided over the match determines who has been its outstanding performer, so often reverting to type. ‘I’m going to have to go for *insert name of most recent goalscorer*’.
Perhaps it has just been more noticeable since the break, although the suspicion has always been there. Almost invariably — there are exceptions which we will come to — it is predictable to guess who our gantry expert will select as their star performer. Basically, whoever has had the most recent telling impact usually takes it (note: the chances of a player being given the award increase by approximately 90% if they score between the 81st and 85th minutes).
It feels even more rigid and predictable with the post-restart division of two halves into four quarters — the absurdity of the water breaks is another debate, and something that Neville himself has bemoaned repeatedly while on air — and there is often a formularized pattern to the gantry team’s appraisal of events.
The first instance relied primarily on the eye-test and tangible perception of the way the game was playing out rather than statistics. To any of the 6.4 million viewers who tuned into the BBC for Norwich vs Manchester United in the FA Cup quarter final on June 27 — the most-watched UK football match since football’s return — there was a leading candidate for the accolade in a game devoid of much entertainment and quality stretching over more than two hours.
Jermaine Jenas joined Steve Wilson for BBC’s coverage of the quarter final at Carrow Road, and ultimately opted for United captain Harry Maguire as man of the match. It felt unjust, and was a knee-jerk decision made in the almost immediate aftermath of Maguire scoring the tie’s decisive goal and taking his side to Wembley.
Sure, Maguire’s stats were impressive (100% aerial duels won and five clearances to supplement his winning goal) but as already outlined, this was a case in which having watched the game was more instructive than merely relying on statistical data, which can sometimes be deceptive.
Norwich goalkeeper Tim Krul made a succession of outstanding saves, particularly in the second half of regulation time, first beating away Marcus Rashford’s curling effort and then competently getting his body behind a fiercely swerving effort from Paul Pogba when the Canaries were firmly under the cosh. His most impressive stop, though, came in the dying embers of the second period of extra time, as he leapt across the goal to thwart the England central defender not long before his decisive strike.
Krul kept his side in the game, with a chance of getting to penalties for the second successive round and progressing to their first FA Cup semi-final since 1992. Context complemented the trusty eye-test in this case, and the majority of viewers would surely have plucked for the Dutch goalkeeper as the game’s outstanding performer.
It would be refreshing if the commentators occasionally strayed from blindingly obvious recency bias. A week on from United’s progression into the cup semi-finals, former Arsenal and England striker Alan Smith made a similarly strange choice while commentating on Chelsea’s 3-0 Premier League victory over Watford at Stamford Bridge. It was another example of a slightly baffling selection, premature albeit different from the more common variety typified by the Maguire-Krul situation.
In response to being told he had been named Sky Sports’ man of the match — this time prematurely awarded by former Arsenal and England striker Alan Smith — Mason Mount chuckled and presumably echoed the sentiments of the majority of fans who had tuned into the game.
“I’m quite surprised I got man of the match, to be fair…I was just trying to keep the ball ticking over”. He very nearly added a “I didn’t do anything special” too, before refraining from unnecessary self-depreciation.
And therein lies the point. Mount didn’t do anything spectacular, but a certain former Chelsea Premier League winning midfielder was impressed by his first-half performance, noting how his “pass between the lines made all the difference for that (Chelsea’s first) goal”. It certainly wasn’t a performance outshining his team mates, though, who the 21-year-old would refreshingly go on to cite as more befitting of the plaudits than himself. “I mean, Ross (Barkley) got a goal and an assist didn’t he, and the other boys Oli (vier Giroud)…”.
There was, admittedly, a later acknowledgment that the game’s star performer had been named prior to the third goal being scored. Even so, had it been named after that goal was scored, the recency bias would have undoubtedly confirmed Barkley as Smith’s man of the match, when there were more deserving winners.
A combination of the aforementioned eye-test and some reliable statistics confirm one of Mount’s references as playing a starring role. According to data from fbref.com, Barkley had 80 touches, completing 63 of his attempted 71 passes at a rate of 89%. Christian Pulisic put in another strong performance — typical of his form since the restart and praised by Lampard post-match — as he completed 91.9% of his 37 passes.
Perhaps more tellingly, though, and a better marker of his contribution to Chelsea’s attack, the American made 45 carries with a progressive distance of 293 yards. He drew the foul for Chelsea’s second goal from the penalty spot just before half time and was a constant thorn in the side of Watford.
Pulisic played out the duration of the game alongside Barkley while Mount was replaced in the 76th minute. Much of the play from both of the former creative outlets provided Chelsea with significant forward thrust; in their own ways, Barkley’s punchy passes and Pulisic’s persistent drives towards goal had more influence in Chelsea’s victory than Mount.
While there may be an element of over-analysis here, there is also an admittance that this is hardly one of the game’s great problems. As earlier stated, it is merely a personal bugbear, but can grate on the overall viewing experience of Premier League games (which, for what its worth, noticeably improved in this game with the more appropriately timed and realistic sounds in response to in-game action). Yes, I’ve watched a lot of football recently.
The point still stands, though, that we may well be approaching a point of redundancy in the presence of a co-commentator. How often do they add groundbreaking or thought-provoking perspective on a game, using their position of privilege and significant vantage point in the stadium to enhance the viewer’s understanding?
It has become increasingly rare and is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, given its fixture within the coverage of games and its inexplicable oddity or predictability. It usually depends on the ‘expert’ level of commentator we are lucky enough to have describe the action to us.