5 Things we learned from lazy match reports

Jonny Singer returns with five critiques of lazy match reports…

1. Last month I had the pleasure of covering the Africa Cup of Nations for a couple of news outlets. Going to matches, travelling around Equatorial Guinea, interviewing players and getting to know, and watch, better and more experienced journalists was an experience I’ll never forget. But as well as all the fun and games (and hard work) there were some tough experiences, not least during the semi-final between the hosts and Ghana.

You might think, from the media coverage, some of which I contributed to, that this was a terrifying experience. It was not. None of us in the press box felt in any danger, though one photographer did take quite a nasty blow from the crowd.

However, it was quite a raucous, panicky environment – and in such environments, mistakes can be made. What was reported as tear gas, turned out to be smoke bombs. The height of the helicopter over the stadium varied from six foot to 40, depending on accounts. We, as journalists, had a duty to report – but we did so with the understanding that what we were providing was imperfect. Re-watching video footage would eventually prove that what we ‘saw’ with our own eyes was, at times, inaccurate.

All of this makes it even more ridiculous that one of the articles that a colleague was asked to write was entitled ‘five things we learned’.

This was not a time for analysis. At the time we didn’t have any idea what we were witnessing in terms of the bigger picture – that would come with time and perspective. To try and tell the world ‘what we’d learned’ was at best futile, at worst grossly irresponsible.

2. It’s an extreme example, but the above story illustrates just how crazy the now omnipresent ‘five things we learned’ articles are. The moment a game ends is the chance to report what happened. If possible, one should carry through some narrative into those events, putting them into context. The very best will be able to spot patterns and offer rudimentary analysis.

But that’s all that can be offered. Rudimentary analysis. Not a full-scale study of the game. No-one can have all the answers seconds after the full-time whistle. That’s why managers go away and review the tapes, why teams have dozens of analysts employed to suck out the lessons of the game.

Asking someone, who usually spent most of the game staring at their laptop trying to write 1000 words, to analyse what went on, is like asking a chef to prepare a meal without using any heat. They might be the best chef in the world, but basically what they produce is still going to be a salad. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a salad, but you can’t pretend it’s a three-course meal).

3. The current trend for replacing match reports plays on the idea that everyone has access to television/streaming, so no-one needs to be told only what happened.

This isn’t a bad thought. Pure match reports are rarely just to inform any more, but rather to reinforce what people have already seen. What football journalism needs is writing that goes beyond that, writing that explains rather than reports, that analyses rather than describing.

But instead, we get the former posing as the latter. Instead of offering proper analysis, news outlets – from ESPN to the BBC, the Mirror to the Telegraph – produce content that pretends to analyse, thus excusing them from returning to the game later and actually offering something new.

The overall standard of analysis in British football journalism thus falls to almost zero, to the point where match of the day’s ‘showing the goals again and talking over them’ spiel is thought of as insight.

We pretend to have all the answers as soon as the game is over, thus fixating on the really obvious – how many of those articles mention anything other than the performances of the goalscorers and the most blatant of tactical adjustments? Any deeper understanding is lost.

4. After this week’s game between PSG and Chelsea, the BBC published this list:

1. Thibaut Courtois is pure class
2. Cahill feeling pressure from Kurt Zouma
3. Mourinho prefers to rely on his old faithfuls
4. Ivanovic is a big-game player
5. Matuidi could have been at United

Genuinely. Three unbelievably obvious points, two (points one and four) which were known well before the game, one (three) which was evident an hour before kick-off, one which may not even be true (two) and one which had already been revealed on the radio during commentary (five).

So the five things we learned, according to that article were a) self-evident to anyone with the slightest knowledge of football who watched the game and b) already known before you read said article.

I don’t blame the piece’s author – there are 380 Premier League games in a season, 125 in the Champions League, along with plenty of interesting fixtures in European leagues and cup football. If you were to actually learn five things from all of them, you’d need a brain the size of a stadium to hold all that knowledge.

5. You may notice that the spacing of numbers in this article is almost entirely random. Like in almost all ‘five things we learned’ articles. Because this article is a rant with numbers thrown in, just as most of them are basically match reports which have done likewise.

Dressing those reports up as analysis “listicles” doesn’t do anything to make them more insightful. The numbers mostly end up being useful places to put a picture before, and occasionally for a writer to chance the subject – but you know what? Journalists have always been perfectly capable of doing that using words. Numbers are basically superfluous in this situation.

So the next time you decide whether to read a straight match report or try the ‘five things we learned’, remember, they’re basically going to say the same thing. But if you click on the one pretending to be analysis you’re offering the outlet you read it on the opportunity to think it has answered the questions that need to be answered.

Read the match report, enjoy the snap judgements compiled into a narrative. Draw your own conclusions. Then wait for a considered piece to decide what, if anything, you’ve learned from the game.

@Jonny_Singer; @The_False_Nine

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