Paul Scholes recently made his debut as another Sky Sports pundit alongside the likes of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville. The consensus was that Scholes did a great job, and much of the attention was on his remarks on Arsenal’s main problem as of late.
So then what are some of the qualities that make a great football pundit? Obviously some of it is going to be subjective, or influenced by your particular view of the person they were as a player (they’re invariably former footballers). Moreover, the standard prior to the “new school” was so risible that we might be tempted to over-praise an ‘average’ performance.
But watching Scholes speak, I think we can distil some basic qualities in a good player pundit:
1. Ability to explain tactical ideas in an accessible way
In explaining Arsenal’s problems, Scholes clearly and concisely explains his impression of Arsenal’s problem, which involves the failure of the midfield to track back and help in defense, particularly in difficult fixtures. He asserts that Arsenal rely too heavily on a single, one-size fits all style of play–short passing.
Whether or not this is accurate is up for debate, but in presenting his case Scholes neither reverts to jargon or cliche to make his point. It’s clear, convincing and easy to envision and understand.
2. Doesn’t overcompensate
Whereas most of the time it seems the biggest problem with ex-player pundits is that they under-prepare, others of the new school, perhaps in the understanding their every off the cuff word will be scrutinized by a horde of angry football supporters, work hard to give the illusion they know everything about everything all the time (“I remember watching him play for Red Star’s academy side, Gary”).
This expertism is toxic and ends up backfiring, as pundits make smug, absolute claims that will almost certainly be overturned by reality at some later stage. Note however that when Scholes is pressed on who is to blame for the current malaise at Arsenal, he backs away from the question, even daring to say the taboo phrase “I don’t know.” A willingness to not overstep your bounds means you’ll only be wrong some of the time, as opposed to most of the time.
3. Doesn’t resort to cliche
It’s clear toward the end of the above video that Gary Neville is dying to get in and cap off whatever he thinks Scholes is saying with a little speech on the lack of ‘characters’ at Arsenal. But if you listen carefully, Scholes has made a very simple argument about the need for midfielders to track back in big games, and how more versatile position players can help teach and develop younger stars like Jack Wilshere. That’s similar to Neville’s ‘character’ cliche, but he doesn’t take it as a self-explanatory position.
4. Applies playing experience in a way that’s helpful to the audience
Some player pundits, though thankfully fewer and fewer, resort to the “That’s the opinion of someone who’s never played the game” trope. Scholes however briefly refers to his time as perhaps one of the best playmaking mids in a generation to make a simple point about switching up your approach if it’s clear you’re being broadsided early on. It’s not done in a demonstrative way, but works very well in the context of his overall argument.
That’s just four. There are probably others I could expand on, but I think more and more the great pundit is the one that asks the right questions, rather than try to provide all the answers. Scholes’ comments are still resonating a day later.