There’s a lot of upside to bringing in former players to work as television pundits after their playing careers are over. They definitely have a more intimate understanding of the game compared to someone with a journalism degree. And occasionally they’ll spice up programming by bringing some of the combativeness they developed on the pitch into the studio. You can see this in Thierry Henry’s occasional and subtle digs at Tottenham.
But there’s a risk that things can go a little too far.
After Liverpool’s 4-3 loss to Bournemouth in Week 14 in the Premier League, Sky Sports football pundit Gary Neville singled out Reds goalkeeper Loris Karius for a scolding on national television. The former Manchester United fullback lit into Karius for, in his view, costing Liverpool points, saying he hasn’t proven that he’s “good enough at this level.” The criticism garnered plenty of attention and raised some eyebrows, and very soon things started to escalate.
Karius responded in a newspaper interview by saying he doesn’t care what Neville has to say. “He was a top player, then he was a manager for a short bit and now he is back to being an expert again,” said Karius. “But he is always very critical. I think he does it to everyone. I just hope that when I do well he will comment on that. We will see in the future.” Neville, who served briefly as manager of Valencia last season but was let go in March of this year, hit back immediately on Instagram, further stoking tensions.
Fast-forward to Week 15 this past weekend, when Liverpool had to settle for a 2-2 draw at home against West Ham. This time it was Phil Neville, Gary’s brother and former United teammate, who took point on Karius Watch. The younger Neville went on BBC Match Of The Day to criticize Karius’ role in West Ham’s second goal— where, in fairness, Karius was indeed out of position— and warned the former Mainz keeper to “keep his mouth shut,” presumably in reference to Karius’ earlier response to his older brother.
Then earlier today, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp spoke to reporters ahead of the midweek block of Premier League games this week and the Reds’ trip to Middlesbrough on Wednesday. During his press conference, the Nevilles came up and Klopp made it clear he had just about enough of them criticizing his player.
”He showed he struggled with the job to judge players so why do we let him talk about players on TV? The pundits, former players most of them, have forgotten completely how it felt when they got criticised. Especially the Neville brothers; the one who was the manager, he obviously should know that too much criticism never helps. But he is not interested in helping a Liverpool player I can imagine, but that makes things he says not make more sense. I don’t listen to them. I am pretty sure [former Liverpool defender and fellow Sky pundit] Jamie Carragher doesn’t speak too positively about Manchester United players. Obviously the Neville brothers don’t like Liverpool. By the way, you can tell him I am not on Twitter so if he wants to tell me something Twitter doesn’t help.”
On the one hand, Klopp may have escalated a beef that likely would’ve died down on its own. The Brothers Neville would’ve likely kept talking, but football fans tend to move on to the next scandal. Klopp’s very public dragging on Gary and Phil has all but ensured this will be a Thing.
On the other hand, Gary Neville’s criticism had touched off a legitimate pile-on of Karius in the media and among fans, including among Liverpool supporters. As manager, one of Klopp’s main duties— arguably his most important duty— is to protect his players. Neville wasn’t going to let up, and in all likelihood was motivated as much by held-over anti-Liverpool animus as much as professional obligation. This is a risk networks take when they bring on former players as studio broadcast analysts, and for most media outlets that kind of passion is a feature and not a bug. In trying to fulfill their respective duties as best they knew how, both Klopp and Neville have created potentially troublesome PR problems for their respective employers.
Either way, this beef probably isn’t over and there’s a midweek round of Premier League games coming up, so go get some popcorn ready.