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Hyperbole is the worst thing ever

Football being football, there's never nothing to talk about. So why pretend that what's happening is more important than it is?

Julian Finney - Getty Images

I haven't checked, but I suspect it was a record. On Wednesday, Manchester City played Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. It was quite a good game, in the end, and City escaped with a fortuitous draw thanks to some acrobatic goalkeeping and some curious refereeing. But all of that was to come. Let's go back to kick off. On Fox Soccer, Warren Barton was so taken with the home side's early domination that he was moved to remark: "Well, it's been all City".

We were 55 seconds in. They'd had a shot.

Barton, to give him his due, was only covering co-commentary because Fox Soccer were having trouble picking up the feed from Sky. But it was a handy illustration of an increasingly irritating trend in football chitter-chat: go early, and go big. Already this season we've been treated to ejaculations of similarly premature provenance all over the (non-tabloid) newspapers, television, radio and the internets. Three clean sheets in a row and Steve Bould on the bench? Arsenal's new back four must be the old lot reborn*. Four decent games? Santi Cazorla will be player of the year**. Robin van Persie's scored a few goals? He's Manchester United's greatest ever signing***.

* Another article on Arsenal's defence, published at the beginning of October, began "All season ...".

** This particular claim came pre-apologised with "an early shout for", which if anything makes it worse. If even the author knows it's too soon to say what he's saying, then why say it at all? When was the last time anybody's form in August won them anything?

*** That was the headline; the piece actually limited itself to 'Alex Ferguson's greatest signing'. Sadly, it also included the embarrassing suggestion that Van Persie's recent form "has led to suggestions" that he's deserving of that accolade. No it hasn't.

I've not linked to the relevant pieces because they're not the point. Some of them are by very good writers/pundits/journalists, others by bad; everybody was all over the Arsenal defence thing. I dare say that some of them were never even meant to be taken seriously, but were born from that dark coupling of an imminent deadline and an unscrupulous imagination. All can probably be found without too much bother; those were just the examples that sprang to mind. There have been more, and doubtless a few of them have my name on the byline. As you read this, somebody somewhere is tapping away at "Jonjo Shelvey: The New Gerrard?". The point's a wider one.

It feels ridiculous to have to say this, but the season has only just struggled into being, and is still stumbling around, covered in afterbirth, trying to work out what its legs are for. West Brom are in the top four. The league table, as it stands, provides as much insight into the future as tea made with a bag. West Brom are in the top four. While the results are obviously important, particularly in Europe, the narratives that will come to define the season are at best unclear, if not wholly unformed. West Brom are in the top four.

We're still at the stage where managerial experiments can be abandoned and written off as more-or-less irrelevant, where a struggle for form can be quietly forgotten, and where a purple patch can easily fade into beige mediocrity, yet there is a desperate gallop to construct big truths from vanishingly small material. Perhaps the most notorious example is the recent, baffling decision of the BBC's Match of the Day to show the league table after one game, a decision that literally serves no purpose (other than, this season, making Fulham and Swansea fans feel pretty good about themselves).

The San Francisco Weekly recently ran a long piece looking at the rise (and rise, and rise) of the Bleacher Report. Of particular relevance here is this:

One of Bleacher Report's top-five strategies for up-and-comers is to pen "hyperbolic headlines" and "always aim to either overstate or understate your position." As such, "NBA: LeBron James Signs with the Miami Heat," while accurate, is an unacceptable headline. The right take is "LeBron James Signing Makes the Miami Heat the Best Team in NBA History."

This is not to suggest that more mainstream outlets adopt such a cynically overt approach to the problem of getting people to read or listen to their words. They have reputations that do that for them. (And, when it comes to writing, headlines are not pieces, nor are they usually written by the author of the piece.) But there's no question that making an eye-grabbing comparison or an over-the-top statement puts you at a certain advantage next to something bland, or laden with caveats. It's about grabbing attention. Compare "Robin van Persie has done quite well in his first few games for Manchester United" with "Robin van Persie is Manchester United's greatest ever signing" and it's not hard to see which of the two pieces is (a) most accurate, sensible, and reasonable, and (b) most attractive to the roving mouse, despite being much more likely to raise hackles. That which polarises, provokes. Nonsense sells to those who agree and those who disagree.

The sad thing is that all the examples in the first paragraph are interesting stories in their own right. Santi Cazorla and Robin van Persie falling on their feet doesn't need to be slathered with hyperbole. Steve Bould's reconfiguration of Arsenal's defence doesn't need to be weighted down with risible comparisons. Doing so not only distracts attention from the actual point, annoying the reader/viewer/listener in the process, but ensures that when (say) Laurent Koscielny does that thing he does, then the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own vaulting ambition, like an over-elaborate simile that veers off on so many angles, incorporates so many linguistic curlicues, and includes such an excess of allusions (both rococo and recherché), references (both obscure and inane), implications (both satirical and surreal), connotations (both historical and cultural), and sheer overwrought self-indulgence that it ends up being nothing but a confusing mess.

Some occasional exaggeration is a straightforward consequence of liking or being interested in football; it follows naturally from giving a toss. But too much means surrendering the conversation to the extremes, and extremists, as well as being wrong, are exceptionally boring. Insisting on the validity of premature conclusions creates straw men, which -- once the pendulum swings a little the other way -- are enthusiastically decried, torched, and replaced. On and on the argument goes, pitching and yawing, oscillating wildly back and forth, until everybody feels sick and wants to get off.

There's an analogy here with the over-compression of music, which has two major consequences from the listener's point of view. The first is that everything's pushed up and up until it's so damn loud that the actual crescendos are swamped in the morass and the dynamics are lost. If Robin van Persie is already Manchester United's best ever signing, where do you go from there? The second is that the music, however well-written, end up as a tiring, wearing, fundamentally unpleasant experience. Have you ever felt that peculiar fatigue that comes with one ridiculous claim too many? It's deeply off-putting. You can almost feel your brain sigh.

To reiterate: this is not a criticism of individuals. Rather, it's an observation that the culture of much (or at least some) football discussion is, or at least appears to be, shifting towards a kind of institutionalised hysteria. (Or, in the case of the tabloids, shifting towards an even deeper, weirder flavour of the same. Ask Andre Villas-Boas.) The reasons for this are undoubtedly larger than any one person -- at a guess, it's a combination of the mushrooming of alternative news outlets, the collapse in the viability of print journalism, and the general autoclave of the internet -- and may well be irreversible, but if we're going to be consumed by an tidal wave of vacuous, hyperbolic, best-ever-worst-ever drivel, let's at least recognise it. Let's at least mark it as ridiculous, even as it chokes the breath from our bodies. The solution is simple: everybody, please, calm the hell down.

It's just a shame that's no way to run a newspaper.

To conclude. Seasons aren't over after eight games, and nor are title races. Players aren't dreadful because they aren't scoring as regularly as Messi; nor, if they are, are they Messi. (Unless they're Messi. Obviously.) The reputation of Arsenal's great back four was built on season after season of skill, organisation, training, and bloodymindedness, not three clean sheets against the goal-machines of Sunderland, Stoke, and Liverpool. Santi Cazorla has had several very good games and might well be player of the year, though he'll need to (a) sort his finishing out and (b) play an entire season. And Robin van Persie is not Manchester United's greatest ever signing. That was Billy Meredith.