Dan Zeqiri returns for the second of his weekly Wednesday columns. This week: how narratives come to be established in football…
Applying crude reductionism and offering simplistic reasons to explain the results of football matches is nothing new, I’m sure. However, in the social media age, this habit seems to have imbedded itself into the discourse of footballing analysis and commentary. Not just from social media users either, but from some journalists and broadcasters too. There is a desire to draw a clear cut conclusion from every result and/or to use that result to vindicate one manager while invalidate the ideas of the other.
Furthermore, certain results have been used to demonstrate the demise of whole styles of play as well as the rise and fall of whole domestic leagues. Identifying trends and patterns is an important part of analysis, but all too often the main priority of match reports and post-match analysis seems to be fitting the result into a wider narrative. This is frequently a narrative that’s been established before the season has started, or has been developed over a number of seasons. The result is the over-emphasis of some factors, while other factors that don’t fit the narrative are completely ignored. I think this is a dangerous trend.
On Sunday, we had a great result for those who want to follow the widely accepted narrative. Chelsea beat Arsenal 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal were beaten away by a top four team once again. Jose Mourinho got the better of Arsene Wenger for the seventh time in twelve meetings. Cesc Fabregas set up the second goal, against his former club. Diego Costa scored. Mesut Ozil played badly. It all neatly fitted the narrative that dominated the pre-match discussion.
All of these events described above are categorically true, I don’t contest that. Indeed the reason narrative, and its close relative the cliché, survive is because they contain elements of the truth. The problem is, they don’t purvey the whole truth. If you’re willing to use your eyes and take each game on its merits, explanations can be found that the consensus narrative fails to notice.
Let’s return to Sunday’s game. Much was said pre-match about Arsenal’s lack of a defensive midfielder, and I do not dispute that they need one. However, in the match itself Mathieu Flamini, who has made some bad mistakes of late, was one of Arsenal best performers. In fact Arsenal’s 5ft something midfield three of Flamini, Wilshere and Cazorla were compact, and aggressive in the tackle. They enjoyed playing against the 4-2-3-1 in the first half, and Chelsea had some problems dealing with the extra man. Chelsea gained much more control when John Obi-Mikel came on. Perhaps missing the running power of Ramires, it’s a struggle to remember an example of a Chelsea midfield player steaming through the heart of Arsenal. Arsenal were not over-powered in there, contrary to what the popular narrative (including myself) expected. Yet TalkSport’s main phone-in post match asked fans to phone in with ideas for defensive midfielders Arsenal could have signed.
If you’re willing to use your eyes and take each game on its merits, explanations can be found that the consensus narrative fails to notice.
Arsenal’s defensive qualities were under the gaze of the pre-match narrative too, following the drubbings they were handed last season. They conceded two goals which can and should be dissected, and it’s not my intention to show that Arsenal were perfect defensively. But the fact of the matter is, Arsenal have not contained a top team to the paucity of opportunities they restricted Chelsea to on Sunday for a long time. Chelsea had five attempts at goal. Not five attempts on target, but five attempts at goal. You will have to wait until the next eclipse to see Chelsea so have few attempts on goal in a Premier League game at Stamford Bridge.
The bedrock for Chelsea’s success against Arsenal, including on Sunday, is the fact they have negated what the consensus narrative takes for granted. That is to say, the fact that Arsenal are an extremely dangerous offensive team. Since Mourinho’s return to the league, Arsenal have met Chelsea three times and have yet to score a single goal. That is the reason why Chelsea have been able to beat Arsenal on what seems a regular basis. Yet look around the newspapers this week, and see if you come across any articles on Arsenal’s need to improve as an attacking unit. There won’t be many.
You will have to wait until the next eclipse to see Chelsea have so few attempts on goal in a Premier League game at Stamford Bridge.
Diego Costa has been outstanding and has justified every penny Chelsea paid for him. However, despite his splendidly taken goal on Sunday, over the combined 180 minutes he’s played against Kompany/Mangala and Mertesacker/Koscielny he was, for whatever reason, very quiet. Both centre-backs stayed touch tight to him and it seemed to work for long periods. Perhaps that’s something for people to bear in mind the next time he’s described as ‘monstrous’, a ‘machine’, ‘superhuman’ or ‘unplayable’.
This is only a local example. The desire to impose narratives, rather than note them, has been present for some time. When Spain were knocked out of the World Cup, following Real Madrid’s defeat of Guardiola’s Bayern in the Champions League, many heralded the death of tiki-taka. Quite how the demise of something as nebulous as a style of play can be charted I’m not sure. Perhaps an ageing Xavi, issues of motivation following recent success, the lack of pressure on the ball from high up the pitch and the issue surrounding accommodating a striker of Diego Costa’s type would have made for more persuasive explanations.
This type of analysis can be found every single weekend. It’s not going to go away, because its natural for us to seek patterns and make sense of what often seems a complicated, messy and thoroughly unpredictable sport. But we need to be vigilant about whether to trust the narrative of the consensus. Look out for the generalisation, the cliché and the non sequitur. Narratives can be traced by looking back on the past, not forged by shoehorning current events into a storyboard of your choice.
You can follow Dan on Twitter: @ZeqiriDan
image courtesy of guardian.com