During pre-season, when transfer tittle tattle fills the back pages and genuine football news can be thin on the ground, it’s easy for the media to blow out of proportion any minor incident in order to provide copy and sell newspapers, TV subscriptions, radio advertising etc.
Every year we hear of at least one club whose pre-season preparations are in “disarray” following travel problems, games being called off at short notice and so on. This time 12 months ago it was Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea who were in the middle of a woefully inadequate pre-season programme.
After an energy sapping trip around the world to Thailand and Australia to play a pair of ‘post-season’ friendlies in late May/early June, Mourinho sent his players off on their holidays, returning to prepare for the new campaign in mid-July and playing only 4 warm up matches (5 including the Community Shield) before the season started – the first of which ended in a humiliating 4-2 defeat to a New York Red Bulls team comprised mainly of reserve and youth team players.
The inadequacy of their preparations was visible for all to see as Chelsea kicked off their title defence by losing 3 of their opening 5 matches. They looked sluggish throughout the opening months and their season was effectively over by Christmas. Whether it’s the work of those in the corridors of power at the club, the input of Antonio Conte or a mixture of both, Chelsea’s preparations seem much more measured and calm compared this time around. Abandoning the post season matches, Chelsea played a couple of pre-season games in Austria before flying to America for their traditional tour of the USA.
Travelling to and around America will undoubtedly take a toll but one imagines Mourinho is casting an envious eye in the direction of his old employers as he watched his new club’s pre-season plans descend into farce over the weekend. Manchester United’s journey to the Far East turned out to be beset with problems, some of which were unavoidable, others could have been prevented with better planning.
Friday’s 4-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund in Shanghai set the tone for what was to prove a miserable trip. The game was played on a dreadful pitch meaning the avoidance of injury, rather than the gaining of fitness, became the key objective for Mourinho and his men.
Following that defeat, United were due to fly to Beijing to prepare for the first ever Manchester derby to be played overseas. Half the squad made it without drama but a second plane (did they really need two planes?) was caught up in bad weather and forced to divert to Tianjin, 70 miles from the intended destination. The late arrivals eventually caught up with the rest of the squad but they weren’t reunited until one o’clock in the morning.
Things got even more ludicrous when Jose Mourinho’s pre match press conference was cancelled due to the room in which it was due to be conducted being too hot. An understandably irritated Mourinho answered a few questions outside in the cool but the local media were left vexed at the brevity of the inquisition.
That was just the start though. Both Mourinho and Pep Guardiola had voiced concern at the state of the pitch at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in the days before the match and as it transpired a torrential downpour on Sunday rendered it unplayable. The game was called off, much to the disappointment of supporters, many of whom had travelled hundreds and in some cases thousands of miles to see their heroes.
For Mourinho and Guardiola the feeling will surely have been one of relief rather than disappointment but you can be sure that both managers spent at least some time on the long flight home trying to convince those in power at their respective clubs as to the benefits of a pre-season designed to prepare players rather than exploit commercial opportunities.
This is the dilemma for Premier League clubs in 2016. Whilst on the one hand, it’s understandable that chasing the money and exposing the ‘brand’ around the world is a temptation few can resist, it’s surely counterproductive to the condition of the playing squad.
8 of the 20 Premier League clubs either have been or are going to America as part of their warm up. The games there are usually played before big crowds but even if a club can add a few more million to their already swollen coffers and perhaps gain a few new fans, is it worth the physical cost?
A global behemoth like Manchester United feel a sense of obligation to service their customer base (for that’s what supporters are these days) and make as much money as possible. That’s probably the argument Ed Woodward made to Mourinho as they shared a bag of airline peanuts at 35,000 feet. Should United start the season slowly, Mourinho will, privately if not publicly, surely cite the pre-season calamity as an excuse. It will be fascinating to see where United travel in the summer of 2017. If it’s back to Beijing, we will know that money is the main pre-season motivation – if, however, United choose to tune up against Charlton rather than in China next year, they might find themselves better prepared, if a little less well off, when the season starts.