Image: Wikimedia Commons / EL Loko
Image: Wikimedia Commons / EL Loko

Comment: the Karen Carney saga has combined the worst parts of football fandom and poor punditry

Amazon Prime Video pundit Karen Carney landed in hot water on Tuesday night after claiming Leeds United gained an advantage as a result of last season’s Covid-19 lockdown.

Carney said: “They out-run everyone and credit to them. My only concern would be will they blow up at the end of the season? We saw that the last couple of seasons. I actually think they got promoted because of Covid in terms of it gave them a bit of respite. I don’t know if they would have got up if they didn’t have that break.”

Leeds took exception to this comment, with the club tweeting the video and making the point that they won the league by 10 points. There are two debates at play here, the first concerns whether Carney’s point is valid and the second is whether it was professional for the Yorkshire club to single out this comment and cause an inevitable social media pile-on.

The footballing point is more interesting. While Leeds are the most intense pressers in the Premier League this season (and were the most intense pressers in the Championship under Bielsa), the question must be asked of whether their players can sustain the same quality of play throughout an uninterpreted season.

For Carney’s hypothesis about Leeds to be correct we would expect to see Leeds’ expected goals scored (xG) decrease towards the end of the season. However, it seems that Leeds’ dips in form that cursed their first season under Bielsa came in the January-February period instead.

There is also some statistical evidence to back Carney’s comments

Leeds’ match-to-match xG was fairly consistent during Bielsa’s debut season, that changed in season two. It is worth noting that Leeds had the better of their opponents throughout both seasons in the second tier. Empirically, they created chances of higher value. This somewhat undermines Carney’s point.

There is also some statistical evidence to back Carney’s comments, however, as there is a significant difference between the xG conceded in the last nine games of the 2019-2020 season versus the same period a year earlier. Leeds’ opponents were creating fewer chances throughout the last nine games of the 19-20 season than they were in the 18-19 season. In lay terms, this indicates that Leeds’ defence improved in their second season under the Argentine.

There is a question of whether this is due to fatigue or personnel, we have to remember that Ben White was the Championship’s best centre back last year. Leeds’ back five was much stronger because of his presence, it is no coincidence that White was coveted by top six sides in the summer.

This is why Leeds’ xG conceded seems to decrease over time, even with their xG against peaking at the start of the calendar year.

Due to these statistics, it seems that Leeds were right to take exception to Carney’s comments.

The other question. however, remains – were Leeds right to make their tweet criticising what Carney said?

I was impressed to see the club defend its players and coach in a way that I have not seen much in the past – usually, media comments are fed to the manager in an interview in the hope of an antagonistic response. I think a lot of people are complaining about this tweet perhaps because it’s a faceless Twitter account criticising the comments rather than Marcelo Bielsa.

I personally struggle to decide whether the tweet was unprofessional or not

The club did – whether it intended to or not – incite their fans to then pile-on abuse against Carney. There is an argument to be had here about whether they should have foreseen this – however, the evolving nature of football club Twitter accounts means that most clubs try to appeal to fans by tweeting as if the account is just a hardcore fan account in and of itself.

I personally struggle to decide whether the tweet was unprofessional or not. On the one hand, I don’t want to defend poorly-research punditry. On the other, clubs need to realise that they can’t get away with inciting abuse against journalists.

Football fan culture can be toxic at the best of times and most UK football punditry, due to the fact it is done by ex-professional players rather than football journalists, is poor at the best of times. This situation has, more than anything, brought out the worst of both.

I can’t choose one side and say that they are in the right – perhaps it is worth noting that football fans don’t care at the best of times whether punditry is well-researched or not. The only people who can get away with criticising a club are players who used to play for the club they are criticising. The prophecy is self-fulfilling.

Journalists can also incentivise similar pile-ons, Sky Sports is definitely the worst in this regard. Think about Roy Keane’s comments about David De Gea or Patrice Evra’s comments on Granit Xhaka. I would love to see pundits held accountable like they suggest Leeds’ social media team should be.

What Carney said was fairly mild, as was what Leeds tweeted. This saga should inspire conversations about poor punditry and the worst of football fan culture – but instead, we’re debating about whether a single tweet should’ve been posted. Might I suggest that we should be investigating larger and more pressing issues?

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