Pre-season Panic seems to start earlier every year like a really sh*tty Christmas

Dave Tickner
Gabriel Jesus celebrates after scoring a preseason friendly goal for Arsenal against Nurnberg

Has your club succumbed to Pre-season Panic yet? If not, they soon will.

Pre-season gets to us all in the end. It’s a tantalising blend of what have become highly visible and official-looking games, often with a pretend trophy of some kind at stake, that still a) don’t really matter and most importantly b) have absolutely no measurable impact on the season that follows.

But that’s only the surface. Pre-season games are also all we have to go on in the desert of July. Flimsy unreliable evidence, but the only evidence. Having spent the last couple of months of the season exhausted and desperate for it all to end, by the time July comes around we’re all gagging for a football fix after an achingly long month without. So people leap on these pre-season games. And even more than that, pre-season games are particularly intoxicating because unlike proper games that matter, they can mean as much or as little as we want in order to confirm existing opinions and biases. Often within the same game.

They are essentially the perfect vessel for instant social media insanity, and this year’s very first example came from – to absolutely nobody’s great surprise – Arsenal.

Now it’s important to stress here that we aren’t singling Arsenal out because their online fanbase is a particularly virulent, loud and absurd online fanbase that remains sharply divided about the manager and direction of the club. That’s just a happy coincidence. The extremity and volume of the reaction may have been heightened by all those factors, but this fate can befall any club. Check the reactions to West Brom’s 2-0 defeat to Stevenage if you want confirmation this isn’t just an Entitled Big Six Crybaby phenomenon.

But back to Arsenal. Now, this one really was perfect. Because let’s be honest, there isn’t a better club for this sort of thing right now. They are a club in that sweet spot where the glass can be half-full or half-empty and both those views have some merit; the problem is that for the loudest fans the glass is either overflowing or absolutely empty.

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta puts his head in his hands

Last season’s fifth-place finish and narrow Champions League miss can be portrayed as real signs of progress for a young team and manager with the chance to kick on again this season, or as evidence of a lack of killer instinct and a missed opportunity that may not come around again. Arteta getting a new contract is either evidence of the low bar at Arsenal these days, or a welcome return to stability and long-term planning.

With both these views having some merit, along comes pre-season with its perfect ability to prove whatever you want it to prove. And then even better than that, along comes the perfect game to pour yet more petrol on that fire.

When Arsenal went 2-0 down to German second-division side Nurnberg, out came both sides to fight their corner. Soon enough, #ArtetaOut was trending from a combination of a few people actually meaning it and lots of people calling it silly while further amplifying the initial silliness in a moment that was both peak Arsenal and peak Twitter.

The Arteta Outers saw this as further evidence of his fraudulent unsuitability for high office. The Arteta Inners were trying to point out that it’s pre-season and results don’t really matter. Then Arsenal ran out 5-3 winners and the two factions found themselves having to swap positions.

The most important and obvious thing about pre-season is that results don’t matter. They literally don’t. Most pre-season games aren’t even friendly games, they’re training games. If there weren’t money to be made they’d be behind closed doors, especially the earliest ones. They can often involve teams working to different start dates and thus at different stages of preparedness and fitness. They often involve players who will no longer be at the club when the season starts and exclude players who will.

Everyone knows this. There is nothing new there. We’re not claiming to be pointing out anything that everyone doesn’t already know. It’s just almost impossible to resist the chance to grab on to evidence, however flimsy, that supports our existing worldview. It’s just how our brains work. It’s very probably why I’ve picked on Arsenal here as a particularly perfect example.

And it’s probably why my still favourite example of just how useless pre-season is as a guide for anything that may follow remains Spurs’ infamous start to 2008/09. We all remember the two points from eight games part, a little bit because it was and is inherently hilarious but mainly because Harry Redknapp made sure nobody could ever forget the specifics of the hilarious awfulness.

Less well remembered – because honestly who remembers pre-season once proper football starts again? – outside Spurs is what had happened in the weeks before. Spurs had enjoyed a pre-season every bit as good as their actual start to the season was bad. They won seven and drew one of their eight games. They scored 33 goals and conceded five. They beat Celtic 2-0, Borussia Dortmund 3-0 and Roma 5-0 in the last fortnight before the real stuff got underway.

With increasingly lucrative and high-profile overseas tours, and more and more platforms desperate for any football to show, pre-season games have never been more visible and never felt more important. But they are still what they always were. Training games. Preparation. Not actual football. Let’s all try our best to remember that this year.