Sky pundits now set football agenda – and elite managers do not like it

Pep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City, looks on as they are interviewed by Kelly Cates and Former Manchester United Footballer Roy Keane ahead of the Premier League match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Etihad Stadium on October 02, 2022 in Manchester, England

Champions vs challengers, master vs apprentice, Santpedor vs San Sebastian, the Merino roll-neck derby. It should have been the game of the season, but Manchester City vs Arsenal delivered a goalless draw so drab that even the most contrarian tactics bores struggled to claim it was enthralling. The game needed a goal and the Sky Sports studio needed a firework.

Roy Keane obliged, arguing that Erling Haaland’s all-round play was League Two standard. It would be tempting to think a producer had a word in Keane’s earpiece, stressing the need to liven up a dud match with something outrageous, if you could not also imagine Keane’s response to being told what to say.

Pep Guardiola summoned his most perplexed facial expression, eyebrows somehow raised twice each, when asked about the comment this week. “I am not agreeing with him, absolutely not. It’s like saying he’s [Keane] a manager for the second or third league. I don’t think so. He’s the best striker in the world. Erling is exceptional.

“I am surprised it’s come from former players. From journalists I can understand, because they have never been on the pitch but the former players always I am surprised.” Now fetch the smallest violin available, because football journalists have become used to this sort of affront. Guardiola is effectively using a schoolteacher’s device: “I expect this of [known problem child] but from you, [usually well-behaved child]? Well, I’m disappointed.”

TV pundits operate from a more secure position. Managers cannot snub broadcast interviews without severe financial penalties. More pressingly, everyone close to the Premier League understands how the sausage is made. The show remains on the road thanks to the largesse of the TV companies, so it is in everyone’s best interests to play nice and say some words into their branded microphones.

But there is a growing schism between managers and narrative-defining pundits which feels new. As Guardiola said, ex-players have generally operated with empathy for the current lot, but criticisms have become more robust in recent years, led by the Sky trio of Keane, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville.

Pep Guardiola manager of Manchester City with Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville prior to the Premier League match between Burnley FC and Manchester City at Turf Moor on August 11, 2023 in Burnley, England
Gary Neville has become one of Sky Sports primary firebrands - Getty Images

“Some analysts are very objective in their comments,” said Erik Ten Hag in response to Carragher’s detailed Monday Night Football dissection of his team’s performance against Fulham. “Some are very subjective and Jamie Carragher is one of them. From the first moment he’s criticised and now he wants to make his point.”

Neville may never manage a better one-liner than calling Chelsea “blue billion pound bottle jobs,” a description which seemed as much the story after the League Cup final as Liverpool’s victory. Mauricio Pochettino, unsurprisingly, said he did not agree. “Gary, my friend, what you did… His opinion now always runs and runs and runs. With all my love to Gary I think it’s not fair to use these kind of words about a team which is so brave.”

What Pochettino is implying here is that with great power and an awful lot of social media reach comes great responsibility. But what his, Ten Hag and Guardiola’s responses also tell you is that these criticisms touched a nerve. Maybe Haaland is not the best all-round footballer. Maybe Chelsea did lack mettle at Wembley. Maybe Carragher had a point about United’s pressing.

Crucially, all are entitled to say what they think as stridently as they like. A little tension between those in football and those paid to comment on it is healthy and entertaining. Certainly more than Sunday’s game.

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