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Those of you who have been living under a rock have two important things to consider: one, that the zeitgeist is currently battering the phrases ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ to death. With Donald Trump in charge, we now are undergoing an attempt to understand what the implication of these ‘fake news pieces,’ ‘alternative facts’ and ‘lies’ is. Football, however, shows us how they work. Secondly, you need to try to remedy the fact that you live under a rock. It is winter.
Now, after any match, there is a press conference. Before that, managers get to speak to television crews, either live or recorded, so that Sky, BBC, BT or whoever have got some content to tweet and broadcast. The responses are often an exercise in studied nothingness. Other times, they are deliberately used by managers to deflect from a real weakness or controversial talking point. Other controversies are created, too, with misdirection and lies. Occasionally – really very occasionally – you will get a manager telling the truth. In the aftermath of these words being broadcast, tweeted and transcribed, many human hours are spent raking over them. It is hard to see why.
The weirdest thing is that grown men and women will, on the whole, take the witterings at face value. They will then argue the toss with rivals, colleagues, peers and friends about whether or not the statement is true or not. We only have to consider the last couple of weeks of emoting to come up with some egregious examples.
When Manchester United equalised against Liverpool through Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it had come about after 20 minutes of sustained pressure. United, with Marouane Fellaini on the pitch, would hoik the ball artlessly at Liverpool’s penalty area, and hope something would come of it. For the preceding 70 minutes, they’d used this tactic occasionally, throwing long balls towards Ibrahimovic to run onto or hold up, but they’d also mixed it with some more considered play.
Let’s consider the thought process behind this. Liverpool were pressing United, as they tend to, for much of the match. It thus exposes their defence to balls behind them, and to get around the press, direct passes make a sensible way to bypass the team. It’s not as technically impressive as playing dainty triangles with one-touch football, but it’s much easier. In the closing stages of the game, as Liverpool understandably tired and sat back to hold onto a lead, threading balls into the box would be far harder than lobbing a ball into the penalty area and hoping one would stick. Looking at the quality of Liverpool’s central defence, it made sense to challenge their aerial ability. It might not have pushed some of United’s best players to their limits, but it is a reasonable path to take.
After the game, Jurgen Klopp complained about the number of long balls his side had faced. It was a dig. Look at me, Jurgen, who sticks to moral football! I only conceded a late goal because the opposition failed a test of virtue.
Utter cack, obviously, and it would be sad if Klopp believed it, not least because Liverpool have used and will use exactly the same tactics should it benefit them similarly. But instead of talking about being unable to hold onto three points, the focus was on United’s ugly style of play, and fans went to war about who actually played the most long balls. Did it matter? No. Did it work for Klopp? Yes.
Klopp and Mourinho are not the first managers to do this. Having said that, Mourinho clearly has a contempt for the press in the methods he has used in pursuit of obfuscation. His histrionics on the sideline for Manchester United, smirking and overreacting in frustration, appeared almost transparently over the top. While his side was misfiring in the early stages of the season, he was in the technical area being provocatively sarcastic, or booting water bottles all over the place. None of it actually mattered, or should have been taken seriously, but referees’ sense of self-importance is almost endless, so they duly removed him from the game. After a draw or defeat, Mourinho would claim that decisions were going against United and that they were simply unlucky in front of goal.
It wasn’t true. The decisions that have gone for his side have been plentiful of late, and missing chances isn’t a case of luck, it’s a case of bad finishing. But for the few days after a match, Mourinho would be in the news for disciplinary reasons, or for talking obvious rubbish about the failings of Manchester United. Did it matter that it was true or not? No. Did it work for Mourinho? Yes. United’s players had the chance to work with the focus elsewhere, and performances have significantly improved.
It won’t be the last time that either of these managers attempt to lie and bluster their way out of a tight spot. Nor should we expect that to change out of a sense of decency. It is not the job of a manager to tell the truth, it is the job of a manager to present their own alternative views to get the press to behave a certain way. As long as the press follow their lead and engage with what is being said to them, instead of what is actually happening, we will continue to have these pointless, distracting conversations. There is a very obvious similarity with this practice being writ large in more important circumstances, and it appears a more successful tactic when the lies get even bigger – so expect football to continue to embrace alternative facts.