Friday, 15 June 2012

Why the obsession with being 'clinical'?

Shirokov scores for Russia against Czech Rep at the Euros

"When we win the ball back and break out, we've got to make certain the last pass,
cross or actual finish is very clinical." 

- Roy Hodgson, 14/6/12

“[Italy] play good football and just need to be more
clinical when the scoring opportunities arise.” 

- Gianluigi Buffon, 14/6/12

"Russia swept to an impressive victory with a slick counter-attacking display and some clinical finishing to take early control of what was predicted to be a tight group."
- Reuters, 8/6/12 

Footballers love a good clinic. It's where they go for an antibiotic-based tidy-up after a carefree night with some reasonably-priced ladies; it's where they get a cheeky between-season hair transplant; it's the place their girlfriends come back from with lovely high-up breasts and scary lips. The clinic is a magical wish-granting place for the high-earning player.

So it is only to be expected that they want to recreate it on the pitch. But it's not just the players. We keep hearing this word from teams, journalists, managers and pundits alike, all citing it as a desirable aim whenever a big tournament comes around: Italy played well, but they needed to be more clinical at crucial moments. A clinical Germany proved too much for Ireland. We need to be more clinical with our finishes. Etc.

What it actually means is 'precise'. It means that if, say, Russia were being clinical in their play against Czech Republic, the ball went where Russia wanted it to go. It means the players are concentrating and they've planned a strategy, which is actually quite a basic pair of demands to have of your team.

But the way the term is applied is interesting. It's most often trotted out when Western European teams are set to play against teams from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. This is a little troubling; it betrays the fact that football fans from Britain, France, Italy, Spain and the rest think of Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Germany as, first and foremost, chilly and heartless, though efficient, places. Sort of the way that Jeremy Clarkson thinks about German cars.

'Clinical' comes hand-in-hand with 'cold'; it doesn't go with 'passion', or 'flair', or 'imagination'. No, those are the attributes of the Mediterranean teams (and daydreaming British Isles teams after a few beers). There's something a little unnerving about the clinical; it implies scalpels, blood, and possibly a crazy evil doctor in a horror film. The labelling of Northern and Eastern European sides as 'clinical' comes with a dose of fear.

And is it really a quality to aim for? There's a lot to be said for avoiding being flashy or disorganised, sure, or getting carried away with the excitement of the thing. But we don't watch football to see endless examples of cold precision. If we wanted that, we could go to an actual clinic, marvel at the surgeons and get some botox while we're at it. No matter how clinical a footballer can be, I wouldn't want him in charge of a boob job. Even if he was using footballs as implants.

Great artists know the value of precision, skill and preparation, and can put those together with imagination, improvisation and flair. Footballers are perfectly capable of doing this, without having to flit around as if scoring a goal is somehow akin to administering a delicate spinal jab. It's not.


  1. I'm not actually allowed to say this, but I was once in an orthopaedic clinic when who should walk in but Sam Hammam with a Cardiff City player sporting (calm down, it's only a pun) a broken ankle. THE Sam Hammam with THE Cardiff City player I didn't know.

    Not strictly relevant, but I thought the opportunity was too good to miss.

  2. Well there now you see, that is clinical football.