Today is Tuesday 5th August, a date which means that the countdown for the start of the Football League season is at 3 days. That’s right, just three short days till the opening game of the 2014/15 season, Blackburn Rovers vs Cardiff City. The first competitive ball will be kicked at Ewood Park on Friday night and though teams across the UK have played in Europa League qualifiers, the nitty gritty stuff kicks off at the weekend. And I for can honestly say it hasn’t come a minute too soon.
For years the football community has been exposed to a full pre-season programme. Without sounding like a grumpy guy or critical but in my opinion pre-season is better the lower down the leagues you get. Two reasons, the atmosphere at the games and the games at the highest level tend to be more commercialised and therefore it affects the former. The atmosphere at some pre-season games I have attended and have watched on TV has been that of people ‘having a day out at the football.’
The two major ends of the scale I witness this year is day two of the Emirates Cup on Sunday and Basingstoke Town vs Reading U-21s. Let’s start with the latter, a game that was giving the youth of Reading FC a chance to continue their great success in the Under 21 cup competitions last season. It gave the new wave of academy players their chance of showing what they can do against a local side who you could see would gain so much in the way of momentum with a win against such a good youth team outlet.
Basingstoke went on to win 1-0 and though the game wasn’t a fast tempo attacking match you could see how each side approached the game. For Basingstoke, the win was more important as results give players confidence and as previously mentioned it builds momentum. For Reading, the game was used more as an extended training session. Most of the game was aimed at the Reading players building up their fitness and getting up to the match speed that is expected of them, quite simply the basic skills and performance was more important than the result.
An interesting observation about this match was that obviously in comparison to the Emirates Cup the attendance figures were minuet. Only a couple of hundred people were there to see an intense and lively encounter. Where as on Sunday thousands packed into the Emirates Stadium to see Benfica vs Valencia followed by Arsenal vs Monaco. These matches made me realise what it is about pre-season that really irks me. I hate how commercial the higher teams treat pre-season. Maybe it’s just how Arsenal are at their stadium? I think realistically it stems from atmospheres at all friendlies. All you have to do is see the comments online and on the street after England have played a friendly against Slovakia or Iceland.
Using the Arsenal vs Monaco game as a prime example, everyone in and around me were there for the first time ever and were expected to see Arsenal win 6-0. Even before Monaco scored midway through the first half, people were complaining that Arsenal were struggling to break down the second best team in France. I personally just don’t understand how in twenty minutes fans can go from “Alexis Sanchez is going to win us the league” to “We are sh** how are we not winning. We are going to struggle.” I mean seriously? That isn’t what pre-season is about. Pre-season should be used as not only a way to bed in new signings but as games to improve fitness and make sure everything is right going into the new season.
Pre-season also sees tournaments and tours, with English teams spreading out all over the world. Again, mainly due to commercialisation in top flight football we saw plenty of teams go over the pond to America for the International Champions Cup. A tournament that was mostly beneficial for the teams involved. With the two finalists last night coming from the Premier League. The tournament was there to bring football (not soccer) to America, exposing it to places that don’t necessarily have football in their lives. Just by the fact that the Manchester United vs Real Madrid game drew in over 100,000 fans into a stadium to not even watch a game that was ever going to be amazing. But what they saw they would have appreciated. They saw two sides who were bedding in their new signings as well as seeing how their new injection of young talent can play in amongst the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The ICC proved to be a format that the English teams took advantage of. As mentioned they played a number of youngsters to see how they coped in a more competitive environment. Take last night’s final, Manchester United vs Liverpool. Deemed a ‘friendly’ because its pre-season but there was no way on Earth that before the game either manager was saying anything but “We need to win.” Pre-season games against bigger and more meaningful opponents can make statements. For Manchester United last night the statement was that even though Liverpool finished 20 points ahead of them last season, this season is different, this season Liverpool need to match United’s standard to get even close to the Red Devils.
In my opinion United utilised pre-season better than almost everyone else. They played teams of quality in a competition where the eyes of the world would be on. And not only did they win these games to build momentum they played well, giving youngsters like Tyler Blackett, Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane a chance to play alongside the more experienced players in Rooney, Fletcher and Valencia. But what impressed me the most, not just as a fan but as a football fan was that the new Louis Van Gaal regime has worked wonders for players who have won trophies but failed to deliver last year, the players who are both experienced and inexperienced at the same time. Most notably Chris Smalling. In every game he played he was nominated in the top three for man of the match. He stood up and got counted by captaining the Manchester United side who saw off Inter Milan (on penalties) and out played Real Madrid.
Let’s compare this to West Ham’s trip down to New Zealand. A lot of air miles that. A lot of air miles for three defeats, an injured main striker and pressure to sack the manager surfacing before a competitive game has been played. One word, disastrous.
Now I know I said I hate what pre-season has become but that is only because in my opinion too many teams utilise pre-season in the wrong way. I understand that for the likes of Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool their worldwide fan base deserve to be treated to seeing their teams play in front of them. But I think that the way in which teams attack pre-season should change. The mentality of some fans seem to be that they have to win every game and win it comfortably (as I witnessed at Arsenal) and it should be used as a chance to make sure everything is perfect going into the new season. Once the performances are there then the results will follow.
If I could sum it up in two sentences. You don’t have to go to the other side of the world to get your team up to speed. Non- competitive games against competitive teams is the perfect way to prepare for the new season.
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