Analysis Paralysis – Football’s dying aspect of fun

The best way to ruin a movie is to watch it with someone who works in film production. I lived for a year with a flatmate who studied film at university and worked as a producer. We couldn’t simply sit down and enjoy a movie. It had to be dissected, studied. As a result, we watched a number of challenging films that intentionally made the audience work. They were not fun, and that was the point. We had somehow managed to take something we loved and turn it into a slog.

Art by Onkar Shirsekar

Does anyone enjoy football less than diehard fans? Football supporters are the most miserable souls of all humanity. Just looking at my own tribe of Chelsea fans – what an absolute ball-ache of a season. While one half of the fanbase whined about style and registas, the other half made it worse by worshipping possession and patterns of play. Despite a third place finish behind two of the greatest teams of the Premier League era and a European trophy, no one seemed happy. I can already hear the objections coming from my fellow Blues. “We only made it because everyone else was even worse, it was just the Europa League, Sarri never got enough backing, the matches were so boring, etc…” See? We are not allowed to simply enjoy this silly game.

It is not just the common fans. As we dive deeper into tactics and analytics, our enjoyment does not grow proportionally with our understanding of the game. I know, for example, Derby County’s passes allowed per defensive action under Frank Lampard was the second lowest in the Championship at 8.2, and I can expect wild, chaotic matches at Stamford Bridge next season. I’ll miss much of the excitement, though, as I look for pressing triggers and compare the radars of Matteo Kovacic and Ross Barkley. There is nothing wrong with watching a match with an analytical or tactical eye. I just know I have a tendency to turn “play” into “work.” So, when I feel that I have started to suck all the fun out of this sport I love, I know it’s time for the football equivalent of relaxing poolside on vacation with a trashy novel: Serie A.

I started out watching the Italian top flight as low commitment entertainment. However, I soon became enmeshed in the storylines and emotionally invested in seeing the resolution at the end of the season. And, like most lowbrow entertainment, you already know how it will end: Juventus winning the scudetto before May. The league is essentially pulp fiction. It ain’t Shakespeare, but that’s the point. The nice thing about gaudy low art is that it often doesn’t pretend to be anything more than entertainment. 

The last Derby d’Italia in April was a perfect example of the allure of the Italian league. The choreography of Inter’s ultras, mocking Juventus’s exit from the Champions League, was the very definition of pettiness and schadenfreude. Despite the title being won, and Champions League football all but confirmed for both clubs, the Giuseppe Meazza was still packed. How could it not be? After all, the Cristiano Ronaldo show was in town. The man is a walking, talking, goal-scoring paperback (possibly of the true crime genre). 

Inter are no slouches either in the soap opera department either. There is a reason they are known as “Pazza Inter.” Indeed, Mauro Icardi is nothing but a trashy saga. The striker had spectacular form in creating controversy before he arrived in Milan. Despite being one of the best goalscorers in the league, his off-field antics led to him being stripped of the captaincy this season and banished from the first team for several weeks. Reports of the Argentine feuding with the Balkan players played out in typical, 21st century fashion – teammates unfollowing each other on Instagram.

Roma, desperate to not fall behind in the drama department, has engaged in a very public civil war. The web of relationships formed and broken between the American ownership, technical staff, and the players is more akin to a telenovela than a football club: leaked WhatsApp messages, promises made, promises broken, a non-sanctioned press conference, and the exile of Daniele De Rossi and Francesco Totti. And that’s just since May.

Meanwhile, Milan is trying to ride out the financial missteps of the last few years. Gennaro Gattuso attempted to shout, snarl, and drag the Rossoneri to a place in the Champions League but fell just short. As a result of this failure, the club took the extraordinary step to get itself banned from Europa League for this next season. Where else can a team with such a magnificent pedigree be so mismanaged for so long? The Premier League wants to be called the greatest in the world, but until it has a club like Manchester United spunking money on marginally talented players, hiring managers on no other basis than their popularity as a player, and owners milking the club of revenue to… wait, okay, I see it now.

Most importantly, Serie A cannot make any grand claims as the greatest league in the world until manages to sort out the repeated racial abuse of its players. Talented footballers like Kalidou Koulibaly and Moise Kean will not bless the competition with their skill for long if it doesn’t. The abuse was maddening enough, but the punishments (or lack thereof) meted out by the authorities would be laughable if it was not so damn sad. 

If Italian football can eradicate this malignancy and be known more for Radja Nainggolan’s off-field indiscretions, what a wonderful league this would be. After all, there is so much to look forward to in 2019/20. With Maurizio Sarri taking over at Juventus, it could lead to an unprecedented amount of goals from Ronaldo and Co. Or it could be a disaster and leave an opening for one of the chasing pack. With Antonio Conte returning to Italy with Inter and Carlo Ancelotti comfortably ensconced at Napoli, it could be the most exciting title races in years. After watching Napoli’s official media wishing Sarri “luck” in Turin with a series of jinxes for the famously superstitious manager, I suspect this season’s title race will play out in a delightfully boorish fashion. Just watching Conte glower and seethe at his own players will be worth the price of admission.

Who knows? Perhaps Atalanta, bolstered by Champions League revenue, can improve upon its third place finish. Or maybe Milan or Roma, under new management, can catch lightning in a bottle and shock us all. Regardless of who eventually finishes top, Serie A’s mix of world-class center backs, exciting up-and-coming talent, and wily veterans will make the competition fascinating to watch. And the ridiculous and petty storylines off the pitch will leave us entertained. So, grazie, Serie A, for the pleasure you bring. I’ll see you next season. Presumably. Because the Italian football federation does not have a firm idea of fixtures until a few weeks before the season begins. It’s unprofessional and chaotic. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So, if you find yourself knee-deep in ball progression tables and examinations of positional play, it might be time for the pure entertainment of Serie A. It won’t be a chore, I promise.