Do pre-season results really say anything about your club's league season?
The big leagues have officially ended their players’ downtime, as stars from around the world start their respective trips back (or towards) the clubs they’ll be representing this season. Unfortunately, competitive football hasn’t yet begun as many of Europe and South America’s top stars take a breather after a hectic summer of football (which continues in Rio 2016), but for top managers and coaches like Jose Mourinho & Pep Guardiola this moment is crucial. Manchester United’s new manager will be well aware of that after he oversaw a disastrous pre-season that led to his brilliant Chelsea collapsing in incredible fashion, leading to his brutal sacking from the club mid-season as they sat just above the relegation spots. Antonio Conte has just joined the fallen champions after a round-of-16 loss in the Euros with Italy – will his diminished preparation time do him good or bad?
That’s the question everybody asks every year, but nobody can ever truly answer. Pre-season matches are billed as terrific preparation when big clubs win them all, and tactical and fitness experiments when small sides composed of amateurs cause a huge upset in front of gigantic crowds. We think it’s time to put that debate to an end once and for all, so let’s go back in time and see what pre-season fixtures predicted for the Premier League’s top clubs in the past few seasons!
In the incredible season that just finished, Leicester City and Tottenham surprised everyone by making the top 3 playing some breath-taking football. Equally, Chelsea shocked the entire world as Jose Mourinho (and subsequently Guus Hiddink’s) much-vaunted side fell apart as the worst champions in Premier League history. But that was back in May, when the 2015/2016 league table shifted for the very last time. Rewind the tape just about 10 months before that, and let’s ask ourselves honestly – could anyone have foreseen such a momentous, historical end to the season?
Leicester City: P5W4D1L0
Tottenham Hotspur: P5W3D0L2
Manchester City: P6W3D1L2
Manchester United: P4W3D0L1
Mourinho’s second-season promise came true as Chelsea FC steamrollered their way to the league title, breaking all sorts of records as they stayed on top longer than anyone before them. Van Gaal’s much heralded arrival did little to improve Manchester United’s results, although they did finish higher than the previous year. The sale of Luis Suarez to Barcelona hit Liverpool hard as they tumbled out of the Champions League and their enthralling attack dimmed to a whimper.
Manchester City: P6W3D2L1
Manchester United: P6W6D0L0
Liverpool’s terrific football with the Sterling, Suarez & Sturridge strike trio put every defence to the sword - however, two costly stumbles at the end handed Pellegrini’s City the title in his swansong. Mourinho’s first season back at Chelsea ultimately ended trophyless, but some typically splendid results against their rivals made for plenty of headlines. David Moyes was sacked just a few matches from the end as “The Chosen One” took the defending champions down to their lowest finish in decades as fans mutinied in anger.
Manchester City: P8W5D0L3
The most successful club manager in history, Sir Alex Ferguson, led Manchester United to their 20th title in his final season. The Scottish legend left a glittering legacy as he poached Arsenal captain Robin Van Persie and brought the best out of him with a gilded goodbye. Manchester City sacked Roberto Mancini after his team struggled and ultimately failed in the league to their bitter cross-town rivals. Champions League & FA Cup winner Roberto Di Matteo was the victim of another unpopular sacking by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. His replacement, Rafael Benitez steered them a Champions League spot despite tons of vitriol from the fans. Theo Walcott’s 14 league goals helped Arsenal overcome incredible odds to continue the St. Totteringham day’s tradition in fantastic style right at the death.
Manchester United: P6W3D3L0
Manchester City: P6W3D1L2
The general trend we can observe is as ambiguous as one can expect from such a diverse set of matches. Some clubs with sparkling pre-seasons wind up having mediocre league seasons, whilst the ones that win the title always seem to hit a few roadblocks. The main issue here is that the matches are totally dependent on the opposition. Whereas competitive football emphasises results, preseason matches are often organised as crowd pleasers at the beginning, before things get serious towards the end. That also tells us something about the managers (and clubs) - are they too influenced by sponsors who take them around the globe, are they keen on experimenting with tactics or are they drilling their players to play one way?
Mourinho is well-known for picking matches that will test his players to a gruelling extent whilst also keeping the quality of the opposition to a minimum in order to motivate them with some good wins. His terrible champions of last season were maybe too lax in pre-season, which cost them for the rest of their campaign. Conversely, Van Gaal’s Manchester United played plenty of glamour fixtures that same season which pandered to the fans’ desire but did little to prepare them for the real Premier League hustle.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal normally focus on the Emirates Cup, which is kind of a mix of both, but leaves fans scratching their heads - is it too easy to win at home, or is it too hard to lose there? Manchester City use the full extent of their squad and tend to play well in pre-season, but many of those players end up on the bench due to the high competition for places in their team. Finally, we’ve got Ranieri’s Leicester, who bucked the entire trend by playing the weakest opposition they could find and stuck their formula from the get-go to become Europe’s most unlikely champions. So what do you think about pre-season?