Beware the banalysts and the blight of banalysis

By Paul Gardner

The usual tripe from the TV commentators this past weekend: “The more they can get the ball, the more they can create.” Or how about “Both teams want to win”? There was plenty more such pathetic stuff -- but of course, you listen to a lot of it as you want to get some insight as to what’s going on.

A forlorn hope, on the whole. You can hear plenty of lengthy and supposedly learned analysis of action that you’ve just seen -- mostly you won’t recognize the commentator’s version of it.

Banalysis is my term for that sort of analysis. It is delivered by a banalyst, who evidently sees his job to be one of making everything more complicated and abstruse than it really is. The very opposite of clarification.

The banalysts should harken to Edgar Alan Poe: “what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound.”

In fact, as anyone who has watched more than a dozen soccercasts must know, there is not much in the game that readily lends itself to the faux --intellectual approach of the banalysts.

Time and time and time again we hear the same old keys to understanding: they’ve got to use the width of the field, they’ve got to be careful when they attack not to expose themselves at the back, they’ve got to get their crosses in (we get a lot of that because crosses are the staple of the English game and so many of the banalysts we hear are Brits), they’ve got to slow the game down, or speed it up ...

Take those few keys, liberally sprinkle them with incessant use of the word “little” (a little back heel, a little chip, a little give-and-go, a little nudge, a little trip, a little pass), add plenty of “little bits” (a little bit too aggressive, a little bit too high, a little bit too easy), and you have just about the full range of the banalysts’ view.

One more thing, though. This question of making runs. That features a lot. “What a great run!” is much heard, even when the run turns out to be sterile, with no effect on the game at all.

It’s wondrous strange why there should be this adulation for runs, even abortive ones. Running -- isn’t that what soccer players are expected to do? How long would a player last in the game if he didn’t move about? A “run” can be taken to mean movement that covers some noticeable distance, and that is performed at some speed. Short bursts of acceleration don’t really qualify.

“Smith is making a run!" pants the banalyst -- and yes indeed, here comes Smith charging down the flank, no doubt expecting to get a pass. He may not. There may be better options. Possibly better runs made by other players. Or maybe the player with the ball will choose to play a quick 1-2 with a teammate hovering only a yard or two away ... no run involved in that.

That last example is very much on my mind right now -- thanks to Shep Messing, who is the TV analyst for the Red Bulls. Not a banalyst, Messing is better than that -- but during the Red Bulls-Toronto game, Messing came up with a splendid example of over-emphasizing the importance of runs.

After Bradley Wright Phillips had scored the opening goal for the Bulls, Messing -- having had time to watch the replays -- told us that BWP had “made a good run ... if [he] doesn’t make the run he doesn’t get the goal.”

Messing is absolutely specific: “As [Mike] Grella was collapsed upon [by Toronto defenders], Bradley Wright Phillips made a good run ...” As I couldn’t recall such a run, I played the goal back -- quite a few times -- looking for it.

I’m starting the action at 26:05. The Red Bulls’ Anthony Wallace has the ball, on the left, some 35 yards from the Toronto goal. At this point, BWP is near the right corner of the Toronto penalty area, edging along the 18-yard line toward Grella, definitely not running.

Wallace passes the ball infield to Felipe who pushes it forward to Grella, centrally placed, just outside the penalty area. No movement from BWP. Grella tangles with Toronto defenders Josh Williams and Ahmed Kantari at the edge of the penalty area. This is Messing’s key moment ... but BWP is barely moving, never mind “making a run.”

Grella then manages -- at 26:14 -- to slip the ball past the defenders, on the ground into the area, a pass of maybe 5 yards for BWP, who responds at once, moves maybe a foot or two, controls the ball, then shoots it into the goal -- at 26:17.

Absolutely no sign of a run there. Indeed, in the 12 seconds of that action, there isn’t barely time, and surely no space, for a run. I can start the action 16 seconds earlier, at 25:49, when Toronto’s Michael Bradley has the ball, only to give it away to Felipe, who gives it to Dax McCarty on the right, gets it back, then gives it to Wallace. During that brief exchange, BWP ran a few paces back toward McCarty. That was all.

Apologies for all that detail, but how else to reveal that Messing has invented out of thin air a “key” play that never happened? This is, I’ll admit, somewhat unfair to Messing, who is far from being the worst offender when it comes to over-elaboration.

I guess this fantasizing is the natural result of the air of superiority that descends upon TV commentators. They feel obliged to spot clever things that the hoi polloi are too dim to notice. And evidently, if those clever things don’t exist, then they need to be invented.

A determination to see the game in terms of “runs” must lead to misinterpretation. In the particular instance of BWP, I think his sharp, instinctive reactions in the penalty area, short bursts of acceleration, cool and quick thinking, are much more central to his goal-scoring, goal-poaching game. Of course, his movement is vital, but its subtlety gets lost in that crude “making a run” designation.

15 comments about "Beware the banalysts and the blight of banalysis ".
  1. jim bitterling, August 17, 2015 at 10:17 p.m.

    a sportcaster is the prime example of " stating the obvious "

  2. Mike Jacome, August 17, 2015 at 10:20 p.m.

    Pail Gardner banalizing the banalists.

  3. Kent James replied, August 18, 2015 at 9:40 a.m.


  4. Joe Linzner, August 17, 2015 at 10:45 p.m.

    Exactly on the money but if you really think about that is the kind of banalities the American soccer fan expects. Not only from a sportscaster but from the coaches that coach the teams. Anytime a coach actually deals in reality he is talking to much and shifting blame and talking to make himself look good. I generally turn the sound low enough where I cannot hear the caster and the noise of the crowd drowns the out completely. The non sequiturs are more than banal they are downright asinine. Even when they are patently wrong they assert their masterful understanding of the game. The sad part is that there are some people that actually understand the finer points of the game.... Both for actually being field players, in my case mid. and fwd. who have experienced actual games at higher levels. Heck I even played keeper in a pinch, without gloves (hated them and soft hands require no gloves) and have broken fingers as proof.

  5. John Soares, August 17, 2015 at 11:24 p.m.

    Thank you Paul. Unfortunately it won't get anywhere. I don't know if it's the "bosses" or the analysts BUT it seems these guys believe it's THEIR show and fight each other for "voice" time even thought as you say. They really have nothing to say....most of the time. Sadly many of the international/foreign games have adopted the "technique". What ever happen to the "Play caller" calling the play, I like to hear the players name because often the TV is too far away. OR I may not know the players well enough to recognize hem. As to the commentator; WAIT; one comment every few minutes is enough. More often than not it seems we tune in to a chat....interrupted by a game.

  6. Sam Falco, August 18, 2015 at 7:31 a.m.

    Can we add "the most dangerous scoreline" to that list? And ban it?

  7. Charles O'Cain, August 18, 2015 at 8:59 a.m.

    Banal Brit Bashing, PG's speciality. I for one am thankful we have a few British announcers (think Arlo White) who can present intelligently, construct a sentence successfully and refrain from the logorrhea that seems to afflict most American commentators. Is Paul really certain that the banalities of which he complains are confined to broadcasts in English? Does he listen for them in Spanish language broadcasts (domestic or European), or those in German, French, Italian or Dutch? My suspicion is that a certain degree of banality goes with the territory of the sports broadcast of any type. Who among us has not longed for a broadcast option with sound but no commentary whatsoever.

  8. beautiful game, August 18, 2015 at 9:03 a.m.

    Listening to the majority of the MLS winded commentators, one wonders why they don't get the essence of the game. For example, a blatant giveaway is "intercepted", and as for Twellman citing that Martins had a "poor touch" lobbing the keeper before scoring is pure nonsense by someone who played the game and should know better. And how about a galaxy defender in the attacking zone has a poor touch and knocks the ball over the opponents goal line and it's a "clearance". Listening to these yokels really indicates how little they know about the game and its nuances. And what about the silence on a boot up field to no one in particular. Now add the 30% percent of game time video dedicated to back of the head shots and hip-hopping from one player to another during dead balls and one has a sense that the big picture is not relative.

  9. Kent James, August 18, 2015 at 9:51 a.m.

    Paul, methinks thou doth protest too much. Of course commentators occasionally say the obvious (they are doing an unscripted show, and they are expected to say something), and sure, they probably speak a little too much (they should allow a lot of play without analysis), but those are probably true of every sports telecast. I actually like hearing the analysis of people who have some expertise. I don't always agree with it, but they sometimes make some good points, which can change the way I see the game. I think what it comes down to with Paul, is that he believes that soccer is all instinct and artistry, and no intelligence and analysis. And I disagree with that. Sure, there are instinctual artists (Messi, Maradona, etc.), but they are rare. And the rest of us mortals have to use our brains to try to figure out how to play the game most effectively. And good coaches see the game in ways most people don't, and are able to exploit weaknesses in their opponents. Good analysts are able to bring out the more subtle aspects of the game for their viewers. And there are a few of them, so give 'em a break, Paul...

  10. Vince Wallace, August 18, 2015 at 4:38 p.m.

    My all time favorite is when a British crew gets a Barca game and they continuously discuss the "possession without a purpose" and then add "this is what I would do".

  11. Daniel Clifton, August 19, 2015 at 9:43 a.m.

    I have to agree with PG on this one. I quite often do what Joe Linzner suggested, turn the sound way down so I don't have to listen to the so called analysis. I would like to hear someone tell me something that actually is a teaching moment about the actual game being played before me. It is a rare moment. I usually watch games on Fox Soccer2go where there is only one announcer. These announcers seem to take themselves less seriously. Plus they don't talk as much and let the action speak for itself.

  12. beautiful game, August 19, 2015 at 10:28 a.m.

    American sports commentators are full of wind and yada-yada about everything other that matters. A few words at the right time is part of the game. otherwise, they are killing the game. Time to have one commentator and eliminate the current discussions centered around pettiness.

  13. Charles O'Cain, August 20, 2015 at 12:08 p.m.

    Excellent idea: single announcer to sparingly describe the action, with no running analysis (save this for halftime and post-match review). Lots of crowd noise for atmosphere. For those who are interested, PG can tell us what really happened, several days lated and in print, open to comment and rebuttal.

  14. Kenneth Barr, August 21, 2015 at 11:16 p.m.

    “The more they can get the ball, the more they can create.” Here Paul Gardner has punctured that hackneyed idea that possession is everything. It isn't how much of the ball you have, it's what you do with it when you have it. I'm so tired of the percentage of possession statistic, it is completely meaningless. How about a stat that reflects the efficiency of possession as it relates to goals scored? That might wake a few of the TV snoozers, er, pundits up.

  15. Ramon Creager, August 24, 2015 at 3:19 p.m.

    I don't remember when giving us possession stats became such a fad. Not only is it what you do with possession, but the stat is almost always provided stripped of all context. If Barca play Levante in La Liga, your banalyst will remark on the poor possession of the Levante side, and note that if they can't increase this figure they will certainly lose. But of course, if they can't increase their player budget they will also certainly lose. So teams like Levante, Getafe, etc. will unfailingly opt not to play a suicidal possession game against the likes of Barca and RM. No news there.

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