It’s the final 10 minutes of the last Monday Night Football of the season and presenter David Jones and pundits Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville are reviewing the campaign. Coming to the end of a 380-game season — a record one in terms of goals — some minor details can inevitably escape them when rounding up 2023-24.

So when Neville is asked to name his newcomer of the season, he goes for West Ham’s Mohammed Kudus — and happily admits he needed some help from Sky Sports’ stats team to come up with a good answer. When Jamie Carragher wants statistical justification for selecting Kevin De Bruyne in his team of the season, despite the Belgian missing a few months through injury, he puts his hand to his ear and asks for some help from ‘Cheets’ — referring to Matt Cheetham, Sky’s football statistician, who is sat listening in an adjacent room, laptop at the ready.

A few minutes later, when David Jones says there’s been a few 4-4 draws this season but can’t remember quite how many, he again mentions Cheetham on air and help is forthcoming.

You wouldn’t hear this on any other television show; the on-air talent explaining that their information is coming from a backstage assistant, armed with various online data sources. But this is Monday Night Football, possibly the most innovative show on British television, and the data team are the driving force of this operation.

This isn’t the first behind-the-scenes article about Monday Night Football and those involved are keen to try something different. So I was asked whether I’d like to help put together a section of the show — part of Carragher’s analysis shown in the first 90 minutes, before the featured game kicks off. Sure, why not?

Upon agreeing, I soon realise that Monday Night Football is, for those working on the show, not simply about Monday night or indeed Monday afternoon, but instead a constant task from Friday morning onwards.

The story this week is Aston Villa. Their opponents, Liverpool, have little to play for. The previous day’s only game, Arsenal’s win at Manchester United, was dull. Manchester City’s weekend game was screened on TNT, meaning Sky are limited in the amount of footage they can show. So the only logical focus is Villa. And the starting point for all this, surely uniquely for any item you’ll ever see on British television, is a WhatsApp discussion about a scattergraph — created by the stats team and sent around on the Friday. It shows the number of times each Premier League side has caught their opponents offside and the distance covered by each side. The overall pattern, broadly speaking, is that sides who run more are catching opponents offside more — because both are related to pressing.

But Villa are complete outliers. They’ve run the least and they’ve caught opponents offside the most. And that data prompts me to watch hundreds of clips of Villa’s offside line — when it works, when it doesn’t work, and how they get away with playing so high without putting much pressure on the ball. Unai Emery’s achievement in taking Villa to fourth place is hugely impressive and they deserve some praise.

There are various paths to go down here. I find some statistics that show Emi Martinez is the third-most aggressive Premier League goalkeeper in terms of sweeping outside his box and the second-most aggressive in terms of claiming crosses. I find a few clips of him denying opponents in one-on-one situations after the defensive line has been breached. A focus on his brilliance might work. But the team go down a different angle, and thank God — three minutes in, Martinez chucks the ball in his own net, which is enough for Carragher to make a last-minute decision to remove him from his best XI of the season.

(Alex Livesey – Danehouse/Getty Images)

But the pre-match analysis piece changes significantly and it’s based on the numbers. It’s obvious Villa are in a poor run of form, but the thing that convinces the team to change tack is looking at their expected goal difference (xGD), which somehow is the second-worst in the league over the past two months. This prompts Carragher to watch all their recent concessions and he decides that part of the focus should be on Villa’s inability to defend crosses.

Carragher is initially unconvinced by the idea that Tyrone Mings’ absence through injury has contributed to this problem, but then the stats team show that Mings had the third-best aerial success rate in the Premier League last season. Carragher accepts that his hunch was wrong and uses that stat on the show. Later, he will cheer Liverpool’s three goals — as you’d expect of someone who played 737 games for them — but he’s partly cheering the fact that all three goals originated from wide and that his pre-match analysis piece was relevant to the game.

There’s still a focus on the high line, though. In the two-hour long lunchtime meeting to nail down the running order, I suggest using a graph that shows how many offsides Villa win and how many through balls the opposition attempt — because that shows Villa in a completely different world from everyone else and it might look good on screen.

But I also know that this is roughly displaying the same thing on both axes. It looks stark but, really, the previous graph showing distance covered is actually more significant. It shows that Villa are an exception to a rule rather than a significant example that follows the rule. It’s a more salient graph. The stat about through balls is instead simply displayed as a raw number, which does the job.

Overall, there are about eight different graphs that could be used to demonstrate how Villa play like no one else, which is considered particularly useful at a time when lots of football fans think everyone plays the same way. There’s no particular limit on how many they’ll use. “You can just feel when you’re using too many,” says Jones. But ultimately it’s the original graph that went around the WhatsApp group, albeit made much more presentable for television, that is shown.

I boil 150 offsides down to five examples. Two are used on the show — from 1-0 victories over Manchester City and Arsenal in December. “Examples against the bigger clubs always work best,” says Carragher, who explains how Villa hold their defensive line rather than ‘jumping’ to play offside. “I hate it when defenders jump — the other defenders don’t know what to expect, it doesn’t work.”

In mid-afternoon, Carragher spends an hour in the gallery with associate producer Tom Sherriff and Guy Burdge, who is in charge of the analysis tools, explaining what clips need to be used on the show, from which camera angle and with a certain type of illustrations. Arrows showing movement must be the same colour as the player’s shirt, he insists.

(Michael Cox/The Athletic)

At this point, Neville arrives. Although he was the centrepiece of the revamped Monday Night Football in 2011, this season he hasn’t appeared since August, and today is insistent that he will simply be playing the role of a guest. Before getting into the detail of the show, he goes around reminding everyone that he’s been talking about Old Trafford’s leaky roof for many years, to the point where Carragher asks if he wants to do an analysis piece on its structural deficits. Neville might actually give a useful account — from his Hotel Football, located next to Old Trafford, it sounds like he’s been observing the situation from a vantage point that is equivalent to Tactical Cam.

Carragher is an ever-present this season, however. The show only goes out when there’s a Premier League fixture on Monday, which is roughly half of the time. “I’d do it every week if we could,” he says. Depending on the fixture, Carragher doesn’t mind not working on Sky’s Super Sunday games, as it gives him the best preparation for MNF. He watches the BBC’s Match of the Day and makes sure he doesn’t replicate their analysis. Jones is more relaxed, saying that, these days, it’s impossible to be across everything everyone else has said. And, in fairness, there’s little chance anyone else will cover things the way Monday Night Football do.

It’s worth remembering that when ITV once had the rights to host Saturday night football highlights in 2001, replacing Match of the Day, they introduced concepts like ProZone and the Tactics Truck, and they proved so unpopular that broadcasters were scared to innovate for the next decade. In 2024, there’s a completely different level of complexity in football analysis.

The previous week featured a Monday Night Football debut for a new metric — ‘compact state’. This is explained on screen — it’s when the distance between a team’s outfield players is no more than 25m for six or more seconds in the defensive phase. It’s also used to convincingly argue that, when Kai Havertz plays as Arsenal’s No 9, the side is much more compact — a point made on The Athletic previously.

Inevitably, some on Twitter aren’t happy. Here are some choice arguments: “Making up names for 11 men behind the ball — compact state — get in the bin.” “Compact state? That’s all football needs – more bullsh*t stats.” “Making something up, compact state, what a load of bollocks!”, “Compact state! What has happened to the beautiful game?”.

Did the statisticians search Twitter to see the reaction? Of course they did. But they’re also happy that the metric works perfectly well. “Clubs are using things like ‘compact state’ all the time,” says Cheetham. “Sometimes we can be tied by definitions from stats companies, but now we have the flexibility to use data in a different way and find metrics that clubs and coaches are using.”

“That was Carragher’s shout, to use that,” says Will Rickson, another of Sky’s statisticians, who has worked on the show for over a decade.

Rickson is semi-officially the most knowledgeable person in football coverage. In the Covid-era edition of the fabled annual Opta Quiz, where teams of newspapers and broadcasters convene for a football-based pub quiz, it took place over Zoom and was contested on an individual basis. Rickson won — beating me into second place. In fact, alongside editors James Maw and Adam Hurrey, and audio producer Charlie Jones, The Athletic representatives filled the remaining slots in the top five.

Only a statistical operation driven by Rickson, therefore, deserves this level of attention on The Athletic.

And this is what makes Monday Night Football so attractive to coaches. Earlier in the season, Wolves manager Gary O’Neil delivered an impressive presentation on how his side defeated Manchester City. Thomas Frank, whose Brentford side play a mile down the road from Sky Studios, was another insightful guest. MNF basically try to replicate the tools managers have at their disposal.

The use of a digital version of a chalkboard is, as executive producer Jack Hazzard explains, because if you walk into any Premier League manager’s office, they have a chalkboard on the wall. And the more you consider the structure of this team, the more it feels equivalent to a modern Premier League operation, with data at the forefront.

Neville is a little more old-school. In the rehearsal, when he and Carragher stand in front of a glitzier version of the Villa scattergraph that started the discussion, he’s clearly not convinced. “It’s not for me, that,” Neville says. “It’s really complex to work out at home.”

Neville’s analysis is less graph-based, but the basic task is the same — spotting patterns. His discussion about Rasmus Hojlund’s struggles is illustrated by listing Manchester United’s other three attackers during a good run of form and a poor run of form. What Hojlund is missing, explains Neville, is consistency of selection around him. He illustrates this with a goal against Wolves when Hojlund could read his team-mates’ intentions, and a few half-hearted runs against Arsenal when he didn’t know where or when his team-mates might deliver a cross. It works excellently, without the need for graphs or tables.

That’s not to say Neville doesn’t use Sky’s statisticians — he fires off a regular stream of sudden requests — “a stream of consciousness,” says Cheetham. Jones and Carragher fondly recall a time, a couple of years ago, when he suddenly demanded to know whether a record number of goals had been conceded that season. “Yes, it’s a record number of goals scored,” came the response. “No, I asked for goals conceded,” Neville replied, before quickly realising his error.

When the analysis section of the show features a spreadsheet listing various expected goals totals, Neville is a little taken aback. “You need a degree in physics to come on the show these days,” he laughs. Carragher fires back. “That’s why you’re never on.”

Neville watches the game at the studio desk on a regular television with the broadcast footage, whereas Carragher generally stands in front of a huge screen displaying the TacticalCam footage, from high at the top of the main stand at Villa Park.

(Michael Cox/The Athletic)

This is the first season in this studio and that huge screen has made a major difference, says Hazzard, who oversees the production. “It allows us to be more interactive with the graphics compared to the touchscreen. So when we put something up there, Dave can point things out to the viewer, we can explain it, and that lets us do more complicated things graphically.

“If you just put up scattergraphs, it can be confusing to people — but if we can talk it through in-vision, that makes it easier to digest. Carragher loves being able to get in there and explain things. We have to give him huge credit, the level of how he’s bought into the things that are available to him. Ultimately, we want to tell things in the simplest and easiest way.”

The huge screen is considered one way Monday Night Football has taken a big step forward this season. The other major change has been the addition of Cheetham, a second statistician to work in tandem with Rickson, to help build stories in a different way. In other words, the improvements have been because of progression in the usage of data. “I feel like this is the best platform for this kind of thing,” says Cheetham. “The way data is going, it’s not about finding new data at the moment. It’s more about how best to display it on screen.”

It’s difficult to think when else television viewers might ever see this number of on-screen graphs, aside from on election night coverage, when Sky News will use this same studio.

The post-match discussion is less statistical and more conversational — people don’t want to engage with in-depth numbers when they’re probably about to head to bed, reasons Jones. This culminates in a team of the season debate, which Carragher and Neville profoundly disagree on, even in terms of formation. The discussion continues on the way out of the studio at 11.15pm.

Oh, and the game itself was pretty good, too, a 3-3 draw. Carragher says it’s a fitting way for MNF’s final game involving Jurgen Klopp as Liverpool manager — that game sums up what Liverpool do brilliantly and also why they will finish behind Manchester City and Arsenal this season: because they lack control.

And Klopp’s penultimate game is also a fitting place for Monday Night Football to finish the season. Liverpool’s rise over the last decade, it is widely considered, is not solely because of the appointment of Klopp but also because of their use of data. Their former director of research, Ian Graham, is releasing a book in August entitled How to Win the Premier League: The Inside Story of Football’s Data Revolution. And to cover this era of football properly, media outlets need to be almost as familiar with data as clubs themselves. In television terms, Monday Night Football does that better than anyone.

I get home in the early hours of Tuesday, having thought about my minor contributions to the show since Friday morning. My main conclusion? Winning this year’s Opta Quiz ahead of Sky’s stats team is going to be even tougher than I thought.

(Top photo: Michael Cox/The Athletic)