Chelsea have topped the Match of the Day running order more times than any other team so far this season, but for the wrong reasons.
The BBC’s head of football Mark Cole says the “soap opera” surrounding the struggles of the reigning champions and the behaviour of their under-pressure manager Jose Mourinho has been a tough combination for the programme-makers to resist, with the Blues making five appearances in the top slot.
Other than West Ham – whose victories against Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea earned them the prime position on the main Saturday night highlights show on three occasions – no other top-flight club have been shown first more than twice.
Chelsea have won just three league games this campaign. Two of them happened on a Saturday, but neither their win against Arsenal nor the one over Aston Villa was deemed good enough for the lead game. But the programme did decide defeats to Crystal Palace, Everton, Liverpool and Stoke – as well as the 2-1 defeat to the Hammers at Upton Park – were worthy of going on first, with the action on the pitch usually enhanced by the controversial words or actions of Mourinho.
Cole said: “When the champions are losing, it is always a story. Throw in a bit of Jose Mourinho and it means they are quite often in the mix around the top of the running order. We also look at the publicity side, in terms of what is going to be on the back pages of the newspapers, because that basically is what people want to see.”
Asked if Mourinho himself was a key factor, Cole added: “Absolutely. In one of the last rounds of games, when he did his interview we actually ran it in full and it was about two minutes. Normally we would put a couple of 20-second clips in there, but we decided to run it in full because it was a really interesting exchange and we thought that was really insightful for the audience to see Mourinho’s state of mind.
“It dominates so many of the back pages and it is something there is real interest in – what is going to happen next in the soap opera that is Jose Mourinho?”
Louis van Gaal’s controversial brand of football at Manchester United has not fared well with Match of the Day, with the Red Devils having featured in the sixth slot – which was the last match on two occasions – four times and first just once.
The BBC has been criticised in recent weeks for a perceived bias towards United after documentaries about striker Wayne Rooney, former manager Sir Alex Ferguson and the ‘Class of 92’ group of players were aired, plus Salford City’s FA Cup tie against Notts County being selected for live broadcast.
However, Van Gaal’s men do not seem to be getting any special treatment from the flagship highlights programme.
“I think if you probably look 10 years ago or to when United used to play that free-flowing football with pace and wingers and an attacking style, that was a lot easier on the eye,” Cole said.
“It is not to say that Louis van Gaal is not doing a fantastic job – and I think for Manchester United fans it is about them being in the top four of the Premier League and not the top four of our running order.”
Elsewhere, Everton, Stoke, Tottenham and West Brom share the ‘honour’ of being on last the most times.
Each club has closed the show on three occasions. In Spurs’ case, that makes up 50 per cent of their total appearances on the show.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men have had a fine campaign to date, suffering only one defeat and sitting in fifth, but they have not been given ‘main event’ status by Match of the Day.
They have only appeared in the top three games on one occasion – their 4-1 thrashing of Manchester City earned them the second slot on September 26.
Neither Stoke nor West Brom had featured in the top three until the most recent show on Saturday, November 7.
But while Stoke fans had the joy of a 1-0 win over Chelsea to enjoy that night, Baggies fans had to make do with a 2-0 defeat against Manchester United shown in slot three.
West Brom and Tottenham are joined by Aston Villa, Southampton, Swansea and Watford in never having been shown first this season.
As for the unwanted last spot, six teams have avoided that fate so far.
Unsurprisingly, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City are three of those sides, and they are joined by high-flying duo Leicester and Crystal Palace as well as struggling Sunderland.
Sunderland’s ability to avoid last slot may have to do with their tendency to leak goals. Of the 12 show-closing games to date, seven have ended goalless with an average of 0.66 goals per game. Predictably, this is far short of the 4.33 goals per game averaged in the opening game.