The pre-season friendly is a strange beast these days. For many bigger clubs, they’re dressed up as mini-tournaments and cups, such as the ones that Arsenal have just won. This makes them seem more important than the old pre-season friendly that a club like Arsenal would have played against perhaps Barnet or Hendon. They’re much higher-profile and played against much better sides. They’re given television coverage and global exposure.
You knew when Manchester United turned out against a little Edinburgh team called Spartans – as they did in 2011 – that it was just a kind of training session. It wasn’t on global television.
But the Barclays Asia Trophy of Glorious Crushing Capitalism and other tournaments are big sponsored affairs and they do have the look of proper competitions against other significant clubs; the temptation is to take them more seriously than you would a game against a side in the Lowland Football League.
Yet still we’re always told to ignore anything that pre-season games hint at informing us. Clubs notoriously win all their pre-season games only to lose the opening league game of the season. Similarly, a bad pre-season run of results is wiped away with a couple of early wins when the league kicks off.
Fans getting too excited about good early form are told to calm down, those who are too depressed, told to cheer up, because it all means nothing.
But is that really true? Surely it can’t mean nothing.
The Community Shield, we are endlessly told, is a notoriously poor guide to who will win the league in any season. Arsenal fans, don’t get too hyper, Chelsea fans, don’t be depressed. But that’s not because it’s a pre-season game, it’s because trying to tell who will have a successful 38-game run by watching any one game is always impossible. It’s not some uniquely Community Shield thing. Extrapolating anything long term from one session of 90 minutes is impossible.
But I’m willing to bet that neither Arsene Wenger nor Jose Mourinho looked at his players on Sunday and thought it taught them nothing at all.
So surely, pre-season games must mean something. They are not nothing. Managers don’t stand there and think how the players who are running around in front of him are performing is irrelevant and to be entirely ignored. That would be a total surrender of duty.
The fact that David Moyes won all his pre-season games and went on to be a disaster for Manchester United isn’t proof that nothing can be learned from friendlies. In fact, those games taught us everything about Moyes that would be wrong with the coming season. The wide-eyed, gauche, smaller club mentality was all present and obvious to anyone who wanted to see it.
The ‘friendlies mean nothing’ mantra needs changing. Yes, the results means little, but how players perform certainly is significant. For example, I vividly remember seeing Sean Dundee playing in a pre-season game for Liverpool. He lumbered around like a drunk horse and was clearly not up to the required standard. He didn’t get any better when the season started. Well, he didn’t get a game.
Issues such as fitness, team morale, confidence and understanding of tactical formations must all be assessed. It’s not unreasonable to think that how the players performed at Wembley is not a good indication as to how they’ll do at least in the opening games of the season. Football is full of variables and chance happenings, and thank God for that, but you ignore the evidence before your own eyes at your peril.
If a manager is taking notice of the players – and he is – then we should too. The Community Shield game makes me feel Arsenal are more likely to challenge for the title this season and that Chelsea need a reliable striker. It was a very informative game. It should give Arsenal fans hope; it should worry Chelsea fans. And let’s remember that anticipation, hope and worry is why we are fans of football. To wipe that away dismissively is to take important romance out of early-season football.
In the mid 70s I once saw Port Clarence Reserves (not even the first team!) beat Middlesbrough FC in a pre-season game. I think it was 5-3. The horror of this result left me scarred. How could we lose to a little amateur team? Sure enough, we went on to have a poor season and it was all foretold by that loss to the tiny Teesside town reserve team, as I knew it would when walking away on a windy July afternoon.
So by all means pretend your pre-season games don’t matter, but underneath, you know, one way or another, they really do. Ignore the results by all means, but do look at the players and ask yourself, as the new season dawns upon us, do you like what you see? If you don’t, now is the time to ignore all those so-called sensible people who are telling you not to worry, and start to panic.
Johnny writes novels here and rock ‘n’ roll blogs here