“Without giving away any sources, we’ve got a rough idea of the team! Minamino? I believe he might feature… from the start of the game.”
Two hours before the BBC’s television coverage of the FA Cup third-round Merseyside derby goes live, Gary Lineker is in a playful mood. His unnerved presence could even add credence to the perception that punditry gigs are a breeze. As Jose Mourinho put it back in 2015, “you win every game – you don’t lose matches as a pundit.”
But when you’re about to go live to an increasingly well-informed audience of 7.25 million football fans – and when Jurgen Klopp’s about to field a Liverpool line-up containing nine changes – the stakes are rarely higher as far as broadcasting goes.
Which is why Lineker, Alan Shearer and Leon Osman are in position, tucked away in a small corner of Anfield, and busily preparing for the live programme long before the majority of fans will have even set off for the game, brushing up on documents filled with statistics and potential topics of discussion (tolerating interruptions and agreeing to pose for the ‘gram).
Said topics have been decided upon days in advance with the help of the show’s editor, Richard Hughes.
“I speak with the pundits early in the week and say ‘I’ll give you the framework, and you tell me what you want to do,’” he told Squawka.
“I have to be mindful of timings but the more they get involved, the better the programme because they’re in control of what they’re doing.
“The pundits are not in the office every day, but you talk to them on the phone, you have a chat, you put together a plan. The more engaged they are the better, because it’s no good doing stuff they aren’t invested in,” Hughes added.
One such conversation sparked Peter Crouch’s desire to dig up a goal he scored for Liverpool in the 2006 FA Cup final. The former striker was convinced it would have been allowed if VAR was in place at the Millennium Stadium. He was wrong, but BBC viewers will discover that is the case together with the 38-year-old himself.
Takumi Minamino is making his #LFC debut today.
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) January 5, 2020
In times gone by, nine team changes might have made life difficult for the pre-match build-up in terms of sourcing footage and player biographies to an outside broadcast at short notice. But with an entire fleet of production trucks available on location at Anfield brimming with researchers, analysts and statisticians – all of whom are in close contact with the organisation’s central base at Media City – logistical challenges have become far more straightforward to navigate.
Speed is of the essence for those operating on both sides of the camera. Clips featuring specific passages of play must be primed and readied, statistics must be calculated and talking points agreed upon while the on-pitch action is still unfolding.
Of course, in an age where the instantaneous nature of social media demands split-second reaction, the pundits – much like the current crop of players they analyse – have nowhere to hide.
Snap takes are a must. Lazy stereotypes are a no-no. Incorrect figures are spotted instantly. Requests to delete and deactivate are rife. So, is punditry getting better? Hughes is convinced an increasingly competitive landscape has led to an uptick in expectations among viewers now that “everyone is an expert”.
No player created more chances against Everton (3) in the #FACup than Curtis Jones.
A winning goal in the Merseyside derby to go along with it. pic.twitter.com/Jgt081X4iy
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 5, 2020
“There’s so much information out there now, there’s so many websites, there’s so many stats, there’s so many Twitter analysts and everything else that goes along with it.
“You have to be on top of stats and player profiles. You have to be on top of everything. Some of the pundits are less bothered about statistics. Things like ‘expected goals’ will always raise a few eyebrows but that’s fine – we introduced it on MOTD anyway. It’s up to them, they can talk about whatever they want, as long as they are informed.
“You can’t get away with just saying the ‘big lad in midfield’ anymore or ‘yeah, I think he looks a good player’. You need to back it up with a statistic or a line of information.
“I’m not sure if pundits have got better but the scrutiny has absolutely increased from where it was even five or six years ago. It can seem quite harsh sometimes – but then they’re not too bothered as they’ve had much worse in their playing career!”
The pressure to meet high standards is clear, and Match of the Day faces demands like no other. The weekly Saturday night slot has been used as a measuring stick for decades and while competitors experiment with different directions in an effort to carve out their own niche, Hughes is determined to stay true to the show’s roots.
“People jump on mistakes but that happens in live TV or you get fans saying ‘Match of the Day do this’ or ‘they don’t do that’. But you have to be confident in what you think you’re about and trust what you’re about, rather than bowing to ‘they’ve said this’ or they’re doing that’.
“We’re very clear in our own minds about the identity of the programme,” Hughes added. “It’s a highlights show with analysis – it’s not an hour-long analysis show with some highlights thrown in.
“I actually enjoy the scrutiny. You know a lot of people are watching and judging you. It’s a good buzz when people are responding to something you’re doing – whether they like it or not – at least they’re responding to it!”
Follow the FA Cup fourth round on the BBC, starting with Brentford v Leicester City (12.45pm, BBC One & BBC iPlayer) on Saturday, January 25 and then Manchester City v Fulham (1.00pm, BBC One & BBC iPlayer) and Shrewsbury Town v Liverpool (5.00pm, BBC One & BBC iPlayer) on Sunday, January 26.