It requires considerable experience of watching British football coverage to understand why Gary Neville is such a celebrated pundit, for he has become universally popular for merely filling his job description. His step-by-step analysis of Stoke City's goal at West Ham last week was masterful, yet so simple – he pointed out a hand signal, a couple of blocks and a clever run. Shouldn't this be the general standard?
After all, providing insight upon a sport you've played at the highest level shouldn't be particularly challenging. Neville made his punditry debut for ITV at the 2002 World Cup, whilst sidelined with the early 21st century curse of the broken metatarsal, and the Brazil side that won the competition is a decent analogy for Neville's punditry – clearly the best, but their quality exaggerated by the poor standard of the opposition.
Neville's popularity is essentially rooted in three factors. First, he argues against the consensus. Last season, for example, when Chelsea were struggling to adapt to André Villas-Boas's high defensive line, they conceded a goal when Ashley Cole was stationed behind the rest of the Chelsea defence, playing an opponent onside. To every other pundit, and to the vast majority of television viewers, the problem was clear – Cole was in a bad position. But Neville said the opposite. Cole, he said, was the only Chelsea defender in a good position – the other three were to blame.
Second, Neville is thorough; his Monday Night Football offerings are clearly the result of meticulous research. Putting together a 15-minute sequence on the art of diving, as he did towards the end of last season, takes dedication and commitment others lack. One Sky colleague comments on how Neville treats punditry the same way he treated professional football, where he succeeded primarily through hard work and intense preparation, rather than natural talent.
Third, despite being a symbol of Manchester United, Neville appears neutral. This is actually more important when applying to individuals rather than clubs, and is in stark contrast to his colleague Jamie Redknapp, who remains determined not to criticise friends – which is particularly difficult considering he appears to be mates with, or related to, a number of key Premier League characters.
In this respect, Redknapp's fault is nothing more than being a nice man, and he's become more critical, but at the start of his television career the situation was ludicrous. When analysing England's Euro 2004 defeat to France, when England conceded a penalty courtesy of Steven Gerrard's wayward backpass and David James's clumsy challenge on Thierry Henry, Redknapp managed to blame Ashley Cole for not thumping the ball downfield. Both Gerrard and James, of course, had been Redknapp's team-mates at Liverpool. Neville has avoided such partisanship, seemingly in spite of his coaching role with England.
Pundits are frequently quizzed on areas they're not experts on (refereeing decisions, for example) and this applies more specifically to roles on the pitch, so Neville is, naturally, most engaging when discussing defending. Presenter introductions often contain "jokes" about how the punditry lineup is based heavily around one position – Gary Lineker did so when opening the BBC's Germany v Italy coverage at Euro 2012, with Gianluca Vialli, Alan Shearer and Jürgen Klinsmann alongside him. That's four world-class strikers, yet there was no specific focus on goalscoring.
Sky's Goals on Sunday does this excellently. A relaxed roundup of the previous day's action is interspersed with friendly but engaging analysis – perhaps in the knowledge that many are witnessing the goals for a second time, so the discussion takes a different slant. Often it is serving managers who appear on the show – it was David Moyes last weekend – but even players produce good insights, because they're asked about their own areas of expertise. Last season Ian Wright and Jermain Defoe appeared together, and although that lineup is hardly likely to rival Marcelo Bielsa in terms of deep football thinking, the duo were constantly asked about finishing, about movement in the box and about striking partnerships. Somewhat surprisingly, it was excellent television, and as illuminating on the subject of scoring goals as Neville is about preventing them.
Sky's La Liga coverage is also interesting, partly because of guests that have ranged from Rafael Benítez to Fabio Capello, but also because there's a focus on overall strategies – not just post-commentary on goals, but discussion upon the pattern of the game, using video examples of pressing, for example, or diagonal balls. Meanwhile, ITV's Champions League coverage deserves credit because they've created a fine partnership in Roy Keane and Lee Dixon – Keane talks primarily about attitude and team spirit, Dixon concentrates on tactical and technical aspects.
There is little to recommend in Match of the Day's analysis. In fairness, the producers are in an impossible position, forced to cater to a huge range of tastes, from those who simply want to see goals, to those who want detailed, in-depth debate about offside traps and overlapping full-backs.
When the mere running order is argued furiously across social networks, it's impossible to please the majority with the actual discussion – but the suspicion is that neither purist nor casual fan is satisfied by the current arrangement.
Match of the Day's experiment with Vincent Kompany was interesting yet ultimately fruitless in terms of analysis. The Belgian is, if anything, too statesmanlike and media-friendly for the role – he insisted that no, he wasn't remotely pleased to see his side's major title rivals lose against a side battling relegation. Michael Owen was no more illuminating – but their mere appearances were a sign that Match of the Day is seeking to evolve its coverage and use different faces. The likes of ESPN and ITV have increasingly featured journalists on round-up shows, but as Neville has shown, there is no substitute for an insightful ex-pro when talking about on-pitch matters.
Often, they're not the biggest names. The ex-Arsenal and West Ham midfielder Stewart Robson is excellent in his role as ESPN's Italian football co-commentator, delivering sharp tactical insights while the match is still in play, while the former Middlesbrough midfielder Robbie Mustoe has made a name for himself on US television. Michael Robinson, most famous at Brighton, is a key figure in Spanish television.
Occasionally, you witness a guest pundit with great intelligence – Jens Lehmann is superbly analytical (and disturbingly calm), the former Tottenham goalkeeper Erik Thorstvedt is another. When Barcelona faced Real Madrid in the Champions League last year, Eidur Gudjohnsen was wonderful when discussing the difference between Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho.
None have won as many titles as Alan Hansen or scored as many goals as Alan Shearer, but in terms of insight, they shouldn't be any less respected. The thing about ex-professionals is that they retain their competitive streak – pair Hansen with Shearer and the Scot is happy to spout cliches, but when he was alongside Dixon, he sensed competition and upped his game.
Losing Dixon was a blow, but the BBC aren't in a disastrous position. One fine appointment – someone in the mould of Gudjohnsen, perhaps – could be the catalyst for others to step up. Match of the Day remains the most prominent football show on television – it simply needs to find its Neville.
------------------------------------------------------------Thought this was a particularly interesting article, especially as it comes from a knowledgeable journalist looking in (Michael Cox) to the situation at depth and with a particular figure in mind.