Never before has a commentator been so reliant on his co-commentator during coverage of the beautiful game on FOX Soccer.
In most matches, the co-commentator adds color by occasionally sharing some analysis or bringing more insight to the game by making a stark observation. But in the matches where FOX Soccer’s Gus Johnson has been in charge, the role of the co-commentator has been more pronounced, speaking far more often than usual and being a more pivotal player in the broadcast experience.
While Warren Barton jostled for air time with Johnson in the Real Madrid-Manchester United match, and where Ray Clemence papered over the cracks in FOX’s broadcast of Arsenal-Bayern Munich, today co-commentator Lee Dixon stepped up to the plate and played a pivotal role in joining the dots with Johnson’s scattered commentary of Manchester City-Chelsea where he often let his commentary hang in balance until Dixon picked up the pieces to finish the thought.
One example (out of many) of Johnson’s inability to read the game and finish his thoughts, presumably because he’s unsure what is exactly happening before his eyes, was the second half incident when Jack Rodwell was knocked down in the Chelsea penalty area by defender Gary Cahill. The referee was having none of it, and didn’t signal for a penalty but the incident was described by Johnson’s commentary as “Cahill. Rodwell. In the area.” And that was it. No following through to share his opinion or to explain that the ref didn’t deem the collision harsh enough to award a penalty. Dixon, thankfully, joined the dots.
Johnson’s commentary style is distracting to viewers who are trying to enjoy the game. He’s not a paint by numbers announcer, so his words and unusual terms of phrase are jarring to the ears. His combination of American sport terms and staccato commentary are unique to the game. You end up either loving it or hating it.
The first three minutes of the Manchester City-Chelsea match found Johnson and Dixon setting the stage for the game. Instead of providing match commentary of the game that was being played in front of our eyes, they ended up talking about what Dixon expected to see in the game, last season’s result and what it meant to have John Terry on the bench. By doing so, the duo instantly forced a distance between the viewer and the game. The match needs to be the focal point, not the stories, statistics or off-the-field ongoings that have little to do with the actual match itself.
After Johnson and Dixon spent the first few minutes distracting the viewer, they quickly got into a rhythm together as the match unfolded.
In the first half, Johnson put his foot in his mouth again by calling Eden Hazard a Frenchman. Someone must have quickly admonished him in his ear piece, though, as Johnson soon corrected himself and said the talented Chelsea midfielder was, in fact, Belgian.
In the fifteenth minute, Johnson again made another error that has been a consistent trait of his work in the three matches he’s commentated thus far. Again, he failed to read the game correctly. The incident was the wonderful header by Matija Nastasić that was brilliantly saved off the line by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech. His “What a save!” call, this time, was appropriate, but the major point that both Johnson, Dixon and the half-time FOX Soccer pundits missed was the fact that the referee blew his whistle immediately after the save to signal that Kun Aguero was in an offside position. No matter how wonderful the header and save were, it wouldn’t have been a goal even if the ball went into the back of the net.
Unfortunately, both Johnson and Dixon missed the call by the referee after being signaled by the assistant referee. And the game proceeded on without either commentator mentioning anything about it. Later in the game, Johnson remarked that “Petr Cech has kept Chelsea in this game.” If you rule out the Nastasić header that wouldn’t have counted because of offside, Cech had only made one other crucial save off Jack Rodwell up until that time in the game, which was a point blank save.
Where Johnson did shine was in the three major incidents in the game — the penalty save by Joe Hart, the opening goal by Yaya Toure and the last goal of the game when Carlos Tevez put the match out of reach for Chelsea. In each of these three instances, Johnson’s calls beautifully captured the energy and excitement of the game. In my mind, these were the three best calls of all three games Johnson has commentated on thus far for FOX Soccer.
But goals and penalty saves are few and far between in a 90 minute match.
Late in the game, in the 90th minute, Dixon and Johnson were so occupied talking about the prospect of Chelsea playing Manchester United in the FA Cup that they both completely missed Yaya Toure getting into a heated argument with David Silva. Incredibly, despite the heated debate on the pitch with Roberto Mancini worryingly looking on, neither Johnson or Dixon said a single word about it.
Yet again, it was another example of the TV viewer having to figure out what was happening instead of being informed by Johnson. We, the viewers, were left trying to decipher the incident with no help of the commentating team.
By now, we’re more familiar with Johnson’s style of commentary, which is overflowing with statistics, corner counts, ages of players (even “42-year-old referee Andre Marriner”) and identification of player names as they pass the ball around the pitch. Any average soccer commentator can do the same or better in that regard. But where Johnson shines is in his unbridled excitement in key moments in matches. Unfortunately, it’s an uncomfortable and agonizing experience listening to Johnson until he gets to those shining moments in games.
Mistakes and inability to read the game correctly aside, whether you enjoy Gus Johnson’s commentaries comes down to the style that you prefer. I’ve been trying to remain fair and objective in my reviews of his commentating, but just when I start getting into his style, he either leaves the TV viewer in the dark with his inability to describe what he’s seeing or he makes a simple mistake.
FOX Soccer is providing an inferior experience with Johnson behind the mic instead of the usual commentary team. If FOX Soccer (and/or FOX Sports) are comfortable with broadcasting a sub par experience while giving Johnson much-needed practice, then that’s their decision. But sadly for soccer fans, we’re the ones missing out and being treated like guinea pigs when Johnson is commentating some of the biggest matches of the season.
Gus Johnson’s next scheduled commentary is Sunday’s north London derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. You could argue the match will be one of the biggest of the Premier League season as it’ll go a long way to determining who will finish in fourth and fifth positions in the league if the current top three positions remain the same at season’s end. Until then, there’s plenty of time to look forward to his commentary or to find alternate ways to enjoy the game without listening to the hype.
PS Gus, it’s pronounced Premier League, not “Premiere League.”