Ask a football pundit why Arsenal are such a joy to watch and the reply will probably include a platitude about the Gunners "playing football".
It may seem nonsensical to the casual observer but, to an armchair fan hardened by seasons of rolling news channels and highlights programmes, the phrase is ubiquitous.
Studio analysts offer their wisdom with the sort of knowing confidence that suggests they are indulging us in information so precious and rare that it requires its own conservational charity.
Pundits appear to see themselves as tactical philanthropists, seemingly saying: “To all of you languishing in relegation battles, take note – it is by ‘playing football’ that you become successful.”
A team's decision to do so is often met with pleasant surprise from analysts. It is with some relief that a perma-tanned former pro will say, "Well, Gary, it's great to see a team come out and play football."
Are we missing something? It could be that the average viewer is unaware of a preceding fixture, where Bolton have visited Old Trafford with helmets and pads to counter the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo with an American football blitz defence.
Considering that their work entails nothing but watching the sport, it can seem confusing that pundits cherish a side’s decision to “play football” with the apparent glee of an art critic who has stumbled upon Wayne Rooney reciting a soliloquy from Hamlet.
Teams with the audacity to "play football" should be warned, though. West Brom have suffered for such a philosophy, as their 4-0 and 5-0 losses to Man United apparently came from being too open and "playing too much football". Tony Mowbray seems to have much to learn about the Premier League if he thinks that playing football will yield success in a football match.
Meanwhile, the highest compliment Australia cricket captain Ricky Ponting can pay is that his opponents have, "played some really good Test cricket." As he rattles through his post-match pleasantries, one can imagine his players breathing a sigh of relief in the changing rooms, "Jeez, those Poms played some great cricket today – much tougher than when they had their table tennis bats."
It would appear that the secret is out. While footballers grasp that “playing football” is the foundation for success, even cricket teams have embraced the idea of “playing cricket”. And if the eventual 6 Nations champions will point to “playing rugby” as the key to their triumph, then they will have the besuited and tanned of Soccer Saturday and Match of the Day to thank.
As written for Leeds Student, February 20, 2009