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Thursday, March 10, 2011

How to Become a Famous Football Pundit


Posted on 10. Mar, 2011 by Liam Tomkins in Blog

As I sat watching Barcelona dismantle Arsenal on Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but salivate over their perfectly polished game. Of course, it’s easy to appreciate and respect them for the way they play, but it takes a certain level of intelligence to actually understand it.

Football is a very cosy community, and unless you’ve been brought up on the inside you’re very unlikely to ever get there. That is why pretty much every columnist, panellist and analyst these days is an ex-player. It doesn’t seem to matter how much they actually know about the game – if they’ve got the name, they’ve got the gig.

It takes an exception to prove the rule, and Tuesday’s exception was Rafa Benitez. The Spaniard sat just inches away from Graeme Souness and Jamie Redknapp in the Sky Sports studio, but in terms of knowledge the gap between the trio couldn’t even be measured in light years.

Souness and Redknapp were fine players in their pomp, but fine analysts they are not. Benitez, on the other hand, just oozes intelligence.

As the camera cut back to the studio at the interval last night, Rafa was seen to be clutching a small scrap of paper in his hand as Jeff Stelling quizzed him on the first 45 minutes. He had been making notes on the game in preparation for the half-time analysis.

He divulged in great detail exactly how Barcelona had come to acquire their lead, and why Arsenal had been unable to answer back – all the while referring to his notes to back up his points with facts. At full-time, too, he was on hand to analyse the action in tactical terms.

When asked by Stelling why the home side ultimately prevailed, Benitez claimed the key to their dominance was their use of the pitch as a whole. He explained how they were able to draw Arsenal into the middle of the pitch via Xavi and Iniesta, before taking full advantage of the space this created by firing it to the wide players who were hugging the touchline throughout. Those of a tactical persuasion may have found what Benitez was saying to be obvious and therefore may not have appreciated his two cents. As the camera panned onto the sweaty Souness, though, everyone was about to be given a reason to value an educated input.

The Liverpool legend, when tasked with answering the same question as Benitez, bumbled: “I, I think I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again…Barcelona are the best club side ever”. Thank you captain obvious.

Redknapp, too, took the easy way out when he pinned Barca’s triumph on the mesmeric Lionel Messi, before claiming that the Catalan giants had “literally passed their opponents to death”. I must say, I wouldn’t wish such torture on my worst enemy.

As he looked on at the other pundits reeling off clichés until they were finally saved from the embarrassment of being outed as idiots by the interruptions of the anchorman, you could almost hear Benitez thinking: ‘who books these guys!?’.

For the first time in a very long time I actually sat and listened to the panel’s analysis of the game on Tuesday. Not for the opinion of Souness or Redknapp, whose collective input is about as useful as a solar powered torch, but for Benitez, who brought credibility to an otherwise embarrassingly uncultured production.

It was refreshing to hear from someone who quite simply knew what they are talking about. Seeing as Sky Sports just fired their only analyst with half a clue I don’t see it happening again any time soon, unless they start hiring people based on their CV rather than their surname.

I think I know why there is such a shortage of educated and knowledgeable pundits in today’s media. It would appear that anyone with a genuine footballing brain (not literally, Jamie) remains in the game for as long as their ticker allows them to. Intelligent players go on to become managers, and most managers are far too busy to be made up like a princess for a date with Sky Sports. But to draft in a nobody just won’t do for the broadcasting giants, even if they are a tactical genius.

The only other option, then, is to call upon the established names of the game. How else do you explain Paul Merson?

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009