Manchester United vs. Liverpool in Miami? What is the purpose of a pre-season friendly?

By George Rinaldi. Pre-season friendlies bring the disappointment of the off-season to a close for all football fans, with supporters being able to travel the globe to see their new signings and favourite players back in action ahead of the new season. Although friendlies may seem to only be fans' excuses to travel to America to get away from the nagging family back home, managers of their respective clubs face a much more gruelling process over the summer months. As a manager, do you look at the performance of your team as the priority, the results or the fitness? Is the main goal to keep your star studded team fully fit for the new season or to net a win in every game?


'Champions': How much can Van Gaal gauge from his side's ICC victory over Liverpool?

‘Champions’: How much can Van Gaal gauge from his side’s ICC final victory over Liverpool?

Do results matter?

Many eyes are currently on Louis van Gaal and his new club Manchester United. The Red Devils managed to win all their pre-season friendlies out in the United States, thus becoming the ICC Champions. A success? Well, if you view winning all your friendlies as a good sign for a new manager you could be right and wrong.

From a United perspective, it’s a relief to see their side win some friendlies before the new season. Just a year ago, then manager David Moyes only managed two wins (vs A. League All Stars and Kitchee) out of a possible seven. Arguably, it proved to be a sign of things to come but this isn’t always the case. On the other hand we have Manuel Pellegrini, also a new manager at the time, who notched up only three wins for Manchester City. However, the poor pre-season meant nothing to the Citizens as they went on to win the Premier League for the second time in their history.

A good pre-season in terms of results can mean a poor showing in the league as well. Roberto Mancini, during the 2012-13 season, managed seven pre-season victories – yet what followed was a disappointing season, with them ending as runners-up to Manchester United, who’s pre-season under Sir Alex Ferguson was poor, winning only three out of six. It shows that results clearly shouldn’t be a priority to managers. Teams have come off the back of poor pre-season friendly results and gone on to lift the Premier League.

It’s not only in England where teams who have had poor pre-season results have succeeded in their respective leagues. Laurent Blanc’s Paris Saint-Germain reigned supreme in France despite winning only half of their friendly games. This also occurred at the same time Antonio Conte’s Juventus lost five of their eight friendlies but then became the first side in Serie A history to record 100 points in a 38 game season. It is clear that results do not need to be a priority for any manager of any club in pre-season.

A mediocre pre-season did not stop PSG from winning Ligue 1 in style

A mediocre pre-season did not stop PSG from winning Ligue 1 in style

Many may think you need the results to acquire momentum at the start of the season, yet Parisians and the Bianconeri, in spite of these poor friendly results, lost only once in thirty-one and thirty-two games respectively.

Performance Counts

As for performance, this is something managers should and probably do look more into during their friendlies. It’s a time for a coach to sit down and try different formations, starting XIs and substitutions among other things. Overall, you’d much rather play out a 2-0 loss and be proud of your team’s showing, than grab an unsatisfactory 1-0 win.

It’s also a chance for new managers to see their new players and integrate their own philosophy into the team. It’s an opportunity to get the new signings to gel with the current crop of talent and there’s probably no better feeling for a manager to see his new full-back and winger link up superbly well, even though the match ended in a draw.

Pre-season is essential for building match fitness levels and for managers to allow their best XI to gel

Pre-season is essential for building match fitness levels and for managers to allow their best XI to gel

Even though results aren’t the priority, it makes very little sense for a manager to pick second string players for the majority of the games.

At the start of the 2013 season, then Tottenham Hotspur boss Andre Villas Boas picked the exact same team to open the season vs Crystal Palace as he had done against Espanyol in a friendly the week before, bar one change (Jan Vertonghen for Zeki Fryers). They won the match 1-0. Whereas Arsenal, who lost 3-1 on opening day to Aston Villa had made five changes to the side that lost to Galatasaray. Maybe it just a took a little while longer and the signing of Mesut Ozil for Arsene Wenger to be sure of this best XI, as the Gunners then went on to win the FA Cup and finish above Spurs in the league.  It is clear though that if you want to start the season off with a bang, you must have your team sorted for the season going into your final pre-season friendly.

Time to Get Fit

The final key ingredient that a manager can take use as his priority in pre-season friendlies is fitness and the well-being of their players. Long past are the days where players would be allowed to gorge on a steak and smoke a cigar during the pre-season regime. Managers are much more strict with everything their players do when the pre-season training starts.

On trips abroad (such as the Guinness ICC in the United States) for many of the major clubs, the manager and his backroom team will be heavily monitoring what the players are eating, drinking and generally getting up to whilst not playing in a friendly.

Many managers tend to set out a structure during the pre-season set-up including the matches involved, usually telling the players to go easy with tackles and to not ‘give it a go’ when they have a niggling injury. A recent example of this came in West Bromwich Albion’s friendly defeat to Nottingham Forest at the start of August. New signing Joleon Lescott, who had been out injured for much of Manchester City’s 2013-14 season, was somewhat rushed into the game at the City ground and lasted 35 minutes before hobbling off. This was despite the fact the England International has said he felt it during the warm-up but decided not to mention it to manager Alan Irvine.

Manager's Nightmare: New signing Joleon Lescott limped off just minutes into his West Brom debut

Manager’s Nightmare: New signing Joleon Lescott limped off just minutes into his West Brom debut

It is surely better to not take the risk and allow the player to regain full fitness before attempting to put them into your team?

Louis van Gaal as made sure striker Robin van Persie has had an extended break from the World Cup and although he will miss the season opener, he is expected back a week or two afterwards, fresh and ready to score goals. Even though a manager may not be able to see how a player is doing in pre-season, you’d much rather have a player at 100 per cent in the third week of the season than at 60 per cent because they opted to play during pre-season.

Ultimately, pre-season friendlies are a time to get the team gelled and well-oiled, whilst maintaining their fitness. Positive results are a thing of the past and it’s been something for some managers to hide behind in previous seasons, to allow themselves more time at the helm. Remember, poor pre-seasons mean nothing ahead of a successful campaign. Manchester City went home early from the ICC in the States along with Real Madrid… champions elect anyone?

Do you follow your club’s pre-season? Do the commercial benefits of pre-season outweigh the footballing benefits nowadays?

Read more from George Rinaldi here!

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