When the history comes to be written of this football season, there will be two stories that dominate. The first, barring some kind of bizarre catastrophe (which would in turn become the standout story), is Liverpool’s near faultless procession towards their first title in 30 years. The second – less impressive, perhaps, but no less commented upon – is the arrival of VAR.
Everyone has had their say on the controversial video referee and the consensus of opinion is it has ruined football. I happen to disagree, as I think it just needs to be better thought-out. Junk the nonsensical new handball law and stop absurdly marginal offside decisions (daylight between attacker and defender is a sound proposal), cut the reviews back to a strict time limit and the fuss will die down.
In any case, many of those worried about the impact of technology on the future of football are missing a more profound development: the effect of technology on football’s past. One of the most reliable cliches in sport is the one that maintains all that matters is what’s in the record books. That made a lot of sense when the record books were all we possessed of the past. But even then it was never entirely true. Look in the record books and you’ll find West Germany won the World Cup in 1954. And to be sure, that can’t be taken away from them. But it’s the team they beat in the final, Hungary, the world remembers and reveres. They entertained and inspired a generation.
Nowadays, there’s even less reason to focus only on the black and white information of winners and losers. Footage of almost every kick of the ball has been recorded and stored for posterity. That predicament is inevitably reshaping how we think of the game and the way it is played.
As recently as the 1980s, the only full-length coverage of a match you could see on TV was pretty much the FA Cup final, the Scottish Cup final or certain internationals. Thus it was possible for a league‑winning team to slog their way through a season with very few people, other than the most dedicated fans, really knowing how they performed in each fixture.
By contrast, Liverpool’s every step has been studied by millions. There is nowhere for the team to hide from the omnipresent cameras and forensic expert analysis. Each year there are more and more full-length games of football screened on TV – it’s a rare day when there isn’t a live match to watch. The effect of this blanket coverage has been to make football-watchers more knowledgeable and more demanding.
If all sport is balanced between results and romance, the pragmatists and the purists, then the dial has been nudged a degree or two towards the latter’s favour. For while a given club’s fans might endure their own team’s dull style of play, the rest of us are under no such obligation. So if an ambitious club is seeking to draw a significant neutral following, particularly in the ever-expanding foreign market, it is simply not enough to win. They have to win in style. This is why it was so critical for Manchester City, in trying to become a “global brand”, to adopt a bold and attractive way of playing. And in seeking to throw off the suffocating weight of history, Liverpool have done the same.
OK, they’ve also won titles – Manchester City, the Premier League, and Liverpool, the Champions League last year and almost certainly the Premier League this year. If they had achieved the same success by scoring much less, with defensive, counterattacking performances, in which they narrowly got over the line, they would still be in the record books, but not nearly so firmly lodged in our imaginations.
The paradox is that while technology has brought about a blizzard of ever more detailed statistics, its significance is rendered academic by the power of actual sporting experiences. Nowhere is this more apparent than in cricket, a sport that positively fetishises stats.
By way of illustration, Ben Stokes has a Test batting average of 36.94 and a bowling average of 32.94. They are good figures, any international all-rounder would be proud of them, but they are not exactly exceptional. However, that’s the only word to describe Stokes the player. Anyone who has watched him over the past year knows that, regardless of his averages. Young kids will view his exploits on YouTube, or perhaps in 3D holograms in the future, long after their numerical breakdown disappears into the dusty annals. And it’s hard to believe players are unaware of this wholesale capture of their abilities.
Last week it was reported Spurs players had voiced their frustration with José Mourinho’s training methods. Mourinho is the ultimate results-based coach. If he ever receives criticism, he reminds his audience of all the titles his teams have won. His are unquestionably remarkable achievements and yet his players are apparently complaining about the focus on long balls, flick-ons and throw-ins, which they are said to have described as “lower-league” sessions. It’s likely they wouldn’t be making mutinous noises if the new tactics were paying dividends.
But there is also an awareness that such crude tactics are losing their place in the modern game. It’s not that they’re necessarily ineffective – though Mourinho has enjoyed increasingly limited success with them in recent years – so much as that they’re unattractive. Players who have grown up being able to watch Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo each week cannot fail to be acutely conscious of the aesthetics of football. They may all want to win medals but they also want to win the admiration of their fellow professionals, to say nothing of the fans.
It’s possible the highly technical advance of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and, to some extent, Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs turns out to be merely part of a cycle that will lead sooner or later back to a more fundamentalist approach.
In which case, English football will take a step backwards in time. Because history will continue to be written, but in the digital age it’s also there to be watched, and on the whole people like to be thrilled and inspired by what they see.