Sky Sports tried something new in its analysis on Monday Night Football this week, and the results were fascinating.
Host Dave Jones and regular pundit Jamie Carragher were joined by Wolves manager Gary O’Neil, who came to the studio armed with clips of training sessions before Wolves’ win at Bournemouth last weekend, and he used them to explain how his team dismantled the opposition’s midfield three with devastating detail.
MNF has a rich history of guests on the show, including Jurgen Klopp, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Mauricio Pochettino. O’Neil – a solid if unspectacular Premier League midfielder in his second managerial job – may not have been near the top of many viewers’ wishlists. But the way he explained his idea for beating Bournemouth in training, and then showed clips of that exact plan coming to fruition in a Premier League match – “I could show about 15 of these instances in the game,” he said – went far beyond any analysis we’d seen before.
It added a little spice that O’Neil was demonstrating how to beat Bournemouth, the club who sacked him in June, even after he had kept them in the Premier League against the odds. O’Neil said he wasn’t bitter about that, just as he insisted his players should get all the credit for Wolves’ win. But watching his masterplan play out, you were left with the impression of an intelligent, thoughtful manager with the skill to outsmart his rivals.
This was no doubt part of the appeal of appearing on the programme: a platform for O’Neil to showcase himself to whoever might be listening, whether that be former employers or future ones. MNF is the closest thing to a manager giving a Ted Talk to the entire football congregation, and the response on social media revealed an audience rapt.
Later he talked through Wolves’ tactics to nullify Manchester City, in a game his side won 2-1. It was like watching a magician reveal the secrets of his trick, except there were no grand gestures, just a deadpan Gary O’Neil explaining why Erling Haaland failed to score against Craig Dawson.
Jones and Carragher asked the questions you were wondering, but ultimately these shows are only as good as their guests, and O’Neil was compelling on a range of subjects. He talked about himself as an “average” player who had to use his brain to keep up. “Central midfield seems to be a decent position to become a manager from,” he said. “You have to have a good understanding of the game. You’re involved in a lot of it.”
The wider show around the featured match, Tottenham v Fulham, was full of typical new-age insight, like pizza charts comparing the two teams’ key data points, which were naturally in sharp contrast.
Then there was the entertaining post-match interview with James Maddison, with a screen wheeled in beside him to analyse some key moments of Spurs’ 2-0 win. Carragher’s questioning of the second goal – “why are you looking over your shoulder here?” – brought an enlightening answer from Maddison, who revealed how he pressured Fulham’s Calvin Bassey to use his weaker foot, forced an error, and then checked Bassey’s position to know he would be onside when Son Heung-min played him in to score.
These shows reveal a few things. That football, a game which gets much of its popularity from its simplicity, is a complicated game at the elite level, played out on small margins, in precise details that bypass most of us most of the time. It is a useful reminder that the game is hard, and that when someone makes a mistake, like Bassey last night, they might be culpable but they might also be the victim of a targeted tactic, days in the making.
MNF has been pioneering football coverage for over a decade, with Carragher and Gary Neville at the forefront of a mission to tear up the old script of disgruntled ex-players complaining about defending; to approach the game with nuance, and assume similar levels of knowledge and fascination in their viewers. For football lovers, it is one of the best shows on TV.
The recent appearance of Brentford manager Thomas Frank was another good watch, yet this episode set a whole new standard. For all the recent fly-on-the-wall documentaries trying to get under football’s skin, this went deeper. Unexpectedly, Gary O’Neil opened a treasure trove of football’s secrets, and now we want more. The next MNF is on 6 November: Spurs v Chelsea. Come for the game, stay for the granular football chat.