In this age of mass information and all-encompassing media, we have the entire world at our fingertips. This has meant a lot of things, but for sports, it has led to an unprecedented level of sporting coverage available to us fans. Not only are there are television sports channels broadcasting virtually every sport in all parts of the world, but there are also countless resources available on the internet, both legal and otherwise, that allow sports fans to tune in to watch their favourite sporting events live.
With access to football matches higher than it has ever been, one would think viewership for those matches would be sky high. Although viewership has definitely gone up in absolute terms, it feels like the number of football fans who watch complete matches has not increased proportionally. You might ask me for statistics, and you would be well within your rights. I haven’t got any though. What I do have is a series of observations and trends that I have witnessed over the last few years through interactions on discussion platforms, blogs and social media.
Back in the day, a majority of football matches were not televised. So in England, for example, fans had to resort to the iconic BBC show “Match of the Day” to view extended highlights of all the action in the first division of English football (now the Premier League).
Now, even though almost every single football match is televised (and there are various ways in which a person with a working internet connection can watch any professional football game in the world), people have moved towards viewing short videos that shorten a match of 90 minutes to two- or three-minute clips. Entire football matches have been mostly reduced and shortened to bit-sized clips of just the goals, fancy flicks or tricks, or even funny GIFs of a player failing to control the ball or making a huge error (Danny Welbeck has been on the receiving end a few times too many). There has also been an increase in popularity for the “player compilation video” sub-genre in which an individual player is shown only in promising situations – usually them creating a chance or scoring – without any context of the rest of the performance or their off-the-ball play.
Funnily enough, football is a sport that’s mostly played off the ball. The great Johan Cryuff’s fundamental philosophy of playing football was having possession of the football, but he still emphasised about the importance of off-the-ball play:
“When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball three minutes on average … So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.”
Coincidence or not, it is interesting that these player compilations last, on average, three to four minutes. Unless you’re Lionel Messi. But then there’s always a “unless you’re Lionel Messi” phrase attached to most things in football. Anyway, I digress.
It’s not that I am against player compilation videos or am having a very random “yer da” moment, but if one of the most popular trends of enjoying or consuming football is in a way that completely reduces and adulterates its essence and principles, it begs the question. Are we moving towards a world where the upcoming generation of football fans will consume and discuss the game in flashes rather than in its whole, complete self?
I think we are already in that world. This is a world where blockbuster moments, GIF-able content, “hot takes,” and stats reign supreme. Stats, especially, are quite interesting in this world. They are used as the be-all-and-end-all in football debates. In reality, stats exist to supplement and confirm what you see with your own eyes. If they are used out of context or without paying any heed to the underlying causes or explanations of those stats, they can lead to, what I call, the “Mustafi effect.”
A few months ago, social media was rife with a statistical comparison between Shkodran Mustafi and Virgil van Dijk. This was when van Dijk was (rightly) being lauded as the best defender in the world, and the best player in the world after Lionel Messi. The point of the statistical comparison, which gained a lot of traction (thousands of retweets and likes), was that Mustafi had some “better” defensive stats than van Dijk. Therefore, it was argued that Mustafi was underrated and van Dijk was overrated. Mustafi most notably led van Dijk in “tackles won” and “interceptions,” as was emphasised by those supporting this comparison format. Never mind that football, especially defending, is more about what you do off the ball than on it. Never mind that Paolo Maldini, one of the best defenders of all time, emphasised the importance of positioning, awareness and reading the game when he said, “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.” Also, never mind that there are fundamental differences between Liverpool’s and Arsenal’s systems which means that the van Dijk has a lot less defending to do than the Mustafi. All these underlying causes are lost while the numbers dictate everything. More defending does not mean better defending.
For all intents and purposes, the comparison format might have just been a joke, but it still highlights a very worrying trend about stats being used as “facts.” If stats can be used to make Mustafi look like a good defender at the very least, then there is a problem. This is no slight on Mustafi, but even Arsenal fans agree that he is not cut out to be a defender for a top side.
If stats were all that mattered in football everyone would just check the final score and goal-scorers at the end of the match, but it’s a sport. It is meant to be watched, experienced, consumed – all in its entirety.
This new trend also means that the qualitative aspect of the sport has been demoted severely. It will be argued that someone who has scored, say, 25 goals will be categorically better than someone who has scored 20 goals. It does not matter that scoring a tap-in or a 30-yard volley are both registered as a single goal in terms of numbers. It does not matter that a defence splitting pass that tees up a striker for a one-on-one or a simple pass to a player who scores a screamer from outside the box both count as simply one assist.
And therein lies the problem. Quantitative stats do not show you the quality themselves. What they can do for sure though, is confirm and corroborate the quality you see with your eyes. “What you see” does not really matter when numbers enter the room. The way the game is being consumed and discussed now, with less and less people watching football matches, and it being easier than ever to put your opinion out in the world, whoever has the better numbers is more or less the better player. This is highly reductive, problematic and ignores the essence of a sport as complex and multifaceted as football.
The perfect example of this is Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian does not score as many goals as some of the best strikers in the world (he has never scored more than 20 goals in a league season). His excellence, instead, lies in world class positioning, link-up play, game intelligence and pressing. His ability cannot be fully explained by statistics due to the many intangible additions he brings to this Liverpool side, but Liverpool’s reliance on him is plain to see for people who watch the team regularly. Jurgen Klopp had high praise for Firmino, a striker who only scored 12 goals in the league last season in a team as high-scoring and attacking as Liverpool, which would be nothing flashy in a room full of numbers. The Liverpool manager said, “Mo Salah, world class, but not every day. Sadio Mane, world class, but not every day. Roberto Firmino, world class, pretty much every day.”
Another player on the wrong side of the numbers is Olivier Giroud. Although he was a regular for France in the 2018 World Cup, which they won, Giroud failed to take a single shot on target in the entire tournament. On the face of it, that’s extremely poor considering you would want your starting striker to score a few goals, let alone take some shots on target. The Frenchman does score a decent amount of goals considering the number of minutes he plays (he had 0.63 goals per 90 in the league in 2017/18), but his true abilities lie elsewhere. He is a unique, non-scoring striker. He is the facilitator that holds the ball up, occupies centre-backs directly, and allows players like Griezmann, Mbappe and (previously) Eden Hazard time and space to run at defenders. In my eyes, he was France’s most important player in the World Cup alongside N’Golo Kante despite failing at all the statistics and metrics of a regular striker. Last season, Eden Hazard expressed his delight at playing alongside Giroud because of how he benefited from it. He said, “Olivier’s a target man, maybe the best in the world; I think so. When he gets the ball he can hold the ball and we can go in deep with him, so for us it’s a pleasure to play with him.”
Players like Firmino and Giroud are victims of the dominant paradigm in today’s football world. To judge them based on statistics and numbers like other centre-forwards is to completely ignore and sideline the actual value that they add to their teams. These players never enter the conversation of being up there with the best strikers in the world because they don’t have the output. I’m not saying they are necessarily two of the best strikers in the world, but they should be praised far more than they are currently considering how important they have been to sides that won the two biggest trophies available in world football.
To contrast this recent phenomenon, back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Diego Maradona, Johan Cryuff and Michel Platini were touted as the best players in the world despite the likes of Gerd Muller, Ian Rush and Gary Lineker scoring many more goals than them. Same goes for Zidane and Ronaldinho in the ‘90s and early 2000’s. Back when numbers were not absolute and final.
It is quite the opposite now. With the engulfing and pervasive nature of social media, and the quick and fleeting way of modern life, we are now in a world where there are less football watchers but far more football opinions, which are getting more and more outrageous with each passing day.