Football fans have always loved being entertained. Consequently, the players who aspire to do this have always been adored. The likes of George Best, Thierry Henry, Johan Cruyff, and Ronaldinho are prime examples of players who have done this at the elite level and are remembered with great adoration and fondness in the football world.
Even players that never quite cut the elite but show a desire to entertain and get fans off their seats are always spoken of fondly. The likes of Adel Taarabt, Yannick Bolasie, and even the lesser spotted Jay Emmanuel-Thomas have special places in nostalgic fans’ hearts due to their desire to entertain. After all, football is supposed to be fun. However, in a changing football landscape with statistics, efficiency, and, ultimately, winning at its core, is football losing its great entertainers?
Football should be watched with the eyes. Ultimately, football is entertainment and an element of that seems to be being lost in the modern era. That’s not to say football is not entertaining. It is perhaps more fast-paced and competitive than it has ever been, and the remit for the majority of teams in at least Europe’s top five leagues is to play attractive football; although this often goes out of the window when a relegation battle looms. It is the individuality that has perhaps been lost. The theatre of showboating, the drama of risking a trick when a pass is a simpler, safer, option.
Showboating has often been branded as arrogance, and to a certain extent it is, but is there anything wrong with that? When Cristiano Ronaldo first came to the Premier League as a skinny teenager, he made fans around the country take notice through his confidence and, at times, sheer audacity. He would stand up players far more experienced and with far more standing in the game at the time and proceed to tease them with his quick feet and multiple step overs, often with the simple aim of making his opponent look foolish. Many hate it, you get abuse off of rival fans, but you are entertaining the masses, and your own fan base will love you for it if used at the right time. Ronaldo soon learnt when the right time was however, and there is no doubt that the early confidence displayed when he first came to English shores has allowed him to elevate himself to the very top.
The showboating has faded from his game, with Ronaldo recognising that to get the number of goals he craves so dearly then he must sacrifice his work outside the box. In doing this he has become arguably the most devastating goalscorer in history. Ronaldo’s career can almost be counted as two careers; one as a tricky winger and the other as a ruthless centre forward who does all his work in the width of the 18-yard box.
Ronaldo evolved, as football did, to focus more on statistics and records. This is where the shift lies. Football has never been as analysed and as watched as it is now. There are more games on television than ever before, more coverage of matches than ever, and more analysis than ever. 15 to 20 years ago, assists were barely a factor of conversation. An individual assist may be applauded by fans but there wasn’t the running total and tallying up of assists as there is now. Attackers were discussed in terms of goals and goals only. Now there are not only assists, which are often combined with goals to create ‘goal contributions’, but also expected goals (xG) which players are also assessed against. This is a statistic based on how likely a player is to score a chance in a game. If a player is scoring less than the xG then they are seen as underperforming of course, but if there goal tally is higher we are led to believe they are performing above and beyond how they are predicted to in terms of output. This is, of course, far from an exact science and is constantly being revolutionised, but is a prime example of the shift to statistics and analysis in football.
These statistics are often manipulated to provide a desired narrative. If you are making a case for a certain player, a striker for instance, then saying that they have ‘15 goal contributions’ sounds far better than ‘they’ve scored ten goals this season’. On the other hand, it can be used as a stick to beat a player with. A player can have an impressive season which is recognised by those that regularly watch them. However, what if their stats don’t reflect that? The narrative is then almost too easy to shape. For example, in the 2019/20 season, Emiliano Bundía of Norwich City was in inspired form but was ultimately unable to help keep the Canaries in the Premier League. He finished the season with seven league assists but just the one goal. Eight goal involvements across a 38 game season. However, Buendía was playing in a poor side that finished bottom of the league and found goals hard to come by. If you wanted to switch the narrative though, Buendía created the fourth most chances in the league that season despite the fact he played in the worst team in the division. Buendía is a very talented player, anyone that watches him can see that, but statistics could lead you to believe he has performed disappointingly in the Premier League to date. It will be interesting to see if his numbers improve following his transfer to Aston Villa ahead of the new season.
Efficiency is Key
Football finds itself in a strange position. It is arguably more results driven than it has ever been, such are the fine financial margins. The difference in income of just one league position alone can have a huge impact on a club, let alone the difference between getting relegated, or qualifying for the Champions League, for example. And yet, despite the cut-throat, result-oriented nature of the industry, the emphasis on entertainment and style of play is more prominent than ever before. However, this takes the form of a team responsibility more than it does on individual moments of brilliance. A goal kick used to be a long punt upfield to a tall striker. Now it is viewed by most as an opportunity to start an attack: playing short to a defender in the six-yard box who then draws in an attacking player to press him before moving the ball on, thus creating gaps in the opposition.
While there is an emphasis on attractive football, there is still a growing clamour for efficiency. This is where statistics and analysis rear their heads once more. The old saying goes ‘your opponents can’t score if they don’t have the ball’. This rings true now more than ever, with possession often perceived as dominance. Whilst this may often be the case, there are anomalies. Teams who are very comfortable to concede the bulk of possession in favour of springing counter-attacks on their opponents. They may not have the ball, but they are in control. Leicester City won their 2015/2016 Premier League title with this very principle. They were about as efficient as a team can be, often having around 30-40% possession in their odds-defying season.
Leicester’s efficiency with the ball was the key. In a world of expected goals, statistics and hyper-analysis, ways to improve efficiency are the pot of gold. If a team is scoring at a rate equal to, or higher than, their xG then they will win more often than not. Performing below their xG and they will drop a lot of points in games where they are the dominant team. Brighton have been the perfect example of this under Graham Potter. Easy on the eye, the Seagulls create numerous chances but lack the cutting edge to finish them off.
Players are coached to keep possession of the ball, even if it means playing backwards and starting again. By recycling the ball, a team can start again in their bid to pull their opponents out of shape and find spaces to attack. This could, of course, be done by manipulating space to beat a defender with a piece of skill as we have seen from countless great entertainers of the past. However, if you are playing the percentages, this has a lower success rate than keeping the ball; even if it means retreating further from the opponent’s goal.
Similarly, putting the ball into the box from a cross often yields more success than trying to thread a ball through the last line of defence. Even if a cross into the box is initially unsuccessful, the second ball can drop to an attacking player. Therefore, the likelihood of creating a chance is greater from a cross, whether that be directly or indirectly. Crossing has been seen as something of a dying art in recent years but, used correctly, can be incredibly useful. Burnley are one side in the Premier League who thrive off of playing the percentages of crossing the ball and picking up second balls, wreaking havoc in the opposition box.
Even shooting from range appears to be becoming increasingly less common. Again, going back to statistics and the emphasis placed on data analysts within football clubs, the data will show you are more likely to be successful the closer to goal you get. It seems obvious and, in a way it is, but football is a game played with emotion and when the crowd are simultaneously shouting ‘shoot’ it’s a difficult demand to ignore. Though if a player has been shown data that only 12% of their shots from over 25 yards hit the target, for example, then they may think twice before trying from range. That’s not to say a defender striding into midfield is always able to resist the urge to shoot wildly from range, but it does seem to be becoming less common. How many of the great goals would we be deprived of if the game was played purely based on probability. It must be re-iterated that football is, ultimately, entertainment. It can be analysed, broken down into statistics, shown in graph format, but the human nature of wanting to excite is something that should always be encouraged. Football fans always loved a maverick entertainer, and they always will.
Neymar Last of a Dying Breed?
So, in this new age where statistics rule the roust, are football’s great entertainers at risk of becoming extinct? Arguably, Neymar is the last of a dying breed. He is a player with remarkable output, but the thing that makes him so enjoyable to watch is his incredible ability with the ball at his feet. He seems to be able to invent skills as he goes to get himself out of the tightest of situations. At the start of his career he was labelled a show pony; someone who did skills for the sake of doing them without the end product. He was even called a ‘YouTube footballer’ by Joey Barton on Twitter as he started making a name for himself. What is the problem, though, with making football entertaining to all who watch you? With Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez to guide him, he became far more effective at Barcelona, in what is arguably the best front three of all time. The skills remained, but Neymar was producing goals and assists for fun and winning titles.
Neymar divides opinion. While his close control and ability is pure theatre, his theatrics when fouled are difficult for fans to accept. He is a product of the great Ronaldinho, although Ronaldinho spent far less time rolling around the ground. Ronaldinho was adored and genuinely seemed to have fun every time he stepped onto a football pitch. He is best remembered for his wide, beaming, smile while playing. It goes back to the point that football is supposed to be fun. In the mid-2000s there were few fans in world football who would argue that Ronaldinho was the most entertaining player to watch. If he played now, however, his statistics would no doubt be used as a weapon in any argument against him. Ronaldinho was far more than statistics and they could never tell the full story. That’s not to say his statistics weren’t good, in fact they were still very impressive. In his prime at Barcelona Ronaldinho managed 70 league goals in 145 games, as well as 33 goals in 97 appearances for his country. Considering Ronaldinho was a winger, these are impressive numbers.
Historically, Brazil have always been the most intriguing country to watch. The natural ability on display always feels like a treat to watch and, for football purists, it is how the game should be played. Whenever a team plays good football or attacks with flair it is always the phrase ‘it’s just like watching Brazil’ that is used. Pele, Sócrates, Garrincha, Kaka, Ronaldo Nazário, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho. All great names who won a great deal of honours, but always entertained on the way.
Today though, even Brazil don’t play like Brazil. The flair is still there to see on occasion, but they are far more pragmatic, as modern football has taken its hold. It used to be that every member of a Brazil squad would be able to do outrageous things with the ball at their feet. From centre back to centre forward, the natural ability was astonishing. Yet now it has almost been coached out of the players. In this summer’s Copa America, Brazil played the majority of the tournament with two holding midfielders and ultimately lost 1-0 in the final to Argentina. The great Brazil sides of the past would blow teams away and win titles by trusting their superior ability on the ball against all who faced them. The samba flair was not compromised en route to major trophies.
Will we see a Brazil team with the natural flair of years gone by again, or has the modern obsessions with statistics, clean sheets, and winning at all costs meant that conservatism is regarded more highly? Maybe this is just a baron period of talent in Brazil and their hand is forced by the players they have available. However, it does look as though Neymar is one of the last flag bearers of the great entertainers at the very top level. In this world of statistics, hyper-analysis, xG and the likes is there a place for the Ronaldinho’s and the like? Football is at risk of becoming far less fun without them.