Watching football vs what we see when watching football

What do we see when we see what we see?

Seussian odddness of that query aside, there was a fascinating debate around Samuel Umtiti and his performance in the match against Sevilla, that makes for a great discussion point about how we evaluate football.

At present, so much of football discussion is tiered. Barcelona conceded two goals in a mess of a first half, and Umtiti was savaged by many supporters, deemed a liability. On second viewing, his performance was a bit more nuanced, with key interventions and line-splitting passes.

But Umtiti was deemed to have had a bad match. So often in football we look at what happened that was wrong, and this colors our perception of the entire match performance by a given player — unless that player is one of the divine ones. Those players don’t do anything wrong, even when they do. Umtiti is widely viewed as culpable for that second goal, instead of the poor ball from Ter Stegen. The defense was at fault for the first goal, but nobody asked about or remembered the horrid pass from Messi that sprung Sevilla into the attack as if he was playing for the other side.

Messi was magnificent in the second half, with a hand in all four Barcelona goals. The headlines blared his glories. The savaging of Umtiti continued apace the second day, except for a few people who dared to suggest that Umtiti played pretty well, and not just for a player back from a long injury layoff but period.

“He stood like a statue on that goal,” scoffed some. Others suggested that sure, he might have played well, but everything was ruined by his culpability in one of the goals. It’s worth a deeper look at this, and how we evaluate football.

The negative defines football. The missed shot, the missed sitter, the blown save, the poor pass, the defender who missed a key block. And thiat is the game. Yet rare is the performance that is entirely bad. By way of another example, look at Coutinho, widely considered to be a waste of 160 million. Against Sevilla, he was dire, or was he merely ineffective? It’s the challenge of looking at how players perform through the prism of our own expectations. We want things, expect things, need to see things, sometimes lash out when we don’t see those things.

And a player feels the lash. Think back to when Ter Stegen pranged that pass attempt off the Celta player’s bonce, that resulted in the goal that cost Barça three poitns. Now think about what might have happened had a different player been responsible for that conceded goal? That is how we evaluate football.

In the Levante losss last season, the one that ruined the unbeaten season for Barcelona, the casual observer might think that Yerry Mina was responsible for every last goal that Levante scored, all five of them. That the entire team was a mess is now lost to the sands of history, the distracted wreckage of a group just off of Champions League elimination and in no shape to compete.

In that match, Luis Suarez had the equalizer in control. Twice. He was spared the savagery that Mina had to deal with. Why? Tiered evaluation.

How should we watch football? In the series of individual actions that define a collective outcome, how to assess players on aggregate? Umtiti? Do the interventions that probably prevented goals count? How about the passes that liberated midfielders from having to do the donkey work of battling the opposition press? No. He was poor for a single action, and that was that.

The struggle with watching a match once, live, is that we miss a lot. You might have missed Umtiti’s overall play. A few folks didn’t, including one of the mods here, Lev. How did what he saw in the match differ from what a lot of people saw? How did what was apparent in my second viewing escape so many of us in the live watch? Good question, but maybe it’s the power of the negative and the challenges that it presents us as we consume what is entertainment.

Football is entertainment. We sometimes lose track of that. It’s fun. Lots of fun. We often separate entertainment and what should be fun from our own needs, and that’s when things get weird. The challenge is for us to not make them weird. Here’s an idea, a way that maybe we can all find a bit more fun in the game, can look at our athletes — heroes in many cases, with a clear view.

What if football was a math experiment, and every action a player made was worth one point, positive or negative. A lost ball is a -1, a completed pass a +1. At the end of the match you do the math, and that’s a player’s aggregate scoreline. That would be weird, right, and probably not all that much fun.

But is it any more fun than viewing the game through a lens of excoriation barely held in abeyance? We aren’t watching the game in a way that is right or wrong. But it’s easy to wonder if we aren’t also watching in a way that steals some of the enjoyment from what is, essentially, entertainment.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.