What’s in a pre-season friendly?

July 26, 2012 in Championship, Features, Premier League

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The bright sun, blue skies and freshly cut grass of summer have been little consolation to football fans keen to whet their appetites with the game they love. It has been an unnervingly quiet time for news. This is probably due to the two major competitions that have been taking place. While the European Championships gave us some brilliant moments, and the Olympics will hopefully do the same, the interim has been dire, with players focused on recuperating or preparing to compete for gold in London.

As a bit of relief, I spent last weekend at a pre-season game. Watford versus Isthmian League locals Wealdstone Football Club; hardly a match to set the pulses racing, but it was just good to take a game in.

It was an unspectacular game and the real interest was in seeing Gianfranco Zola take the reins for the first time. But it got me thinking, what is it the point of pre-season friendlies? What can we as fans take away from our team during these games?

It’s a difficult one to judge. Aside from the obvious fitness benefit to players who have been on their holidays, it is perhaps best not to put too much hope in an unbeaten pre-season or despair in the losses.

Players can often come to the fore during games against lower quality opposition and great players can often look poor. In Manchester United’s recent friendly against Ajax Cape Town, forgotten man Bebe came on to grab the headlines scoring a dramatic last gasp equaliser. He then played the next game against Shanghai Shenhua, and by all accounts, looked bright setting up a goal for new signing Shinji Kagawa.  Does this mean that Bebe is going to come into the United first team and become a first team regular? Well, perhaps, but it seems unlikely.

I also remember a few seasons ago, Fraizer Campbell had a brilliant pre-season for Sunderland, scoring 5 goals in 4 games. However, he didn’t really hit those heights during the season, being injured a few games in. He has struggled with injury ever since. Conversely, David Vaughan has had a pretty dismal few games on Sunderland’s tour of South Korea this season, so does that mean we should write him off for the next season? It would seem an incredibly over-the-top reaction to have.

So if not individual performances, can we gauge team performances? Well, you would hope not. Results are often shocking.  I’m sure Sir Alex Ferguson would not have been happy with a 1-1 draw with Ajax Cape Town, nor would Martin O’Neill be happy with Sunderland’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of their South Korean hosts Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, if it had been a competitive game. Despite playing a team which included David Beckham and Thierry Henry, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich would surely not have stood for their 3-2 defeat against an MLS All-Star team had the match been competitive.

However, what can be glimmered from team performances are what patterns of play a manager may be using in the new season. Teams will often use different formations and change where and how they press the defending team. During the Watford game, for example, Zola tried out the popular4-5-1 formation, shifting into a 4-3-3 when attacking. This is a change from the formation they played last year. In the first half, they played a much more pressing game, coming onto Wealdstone just on the edge of their box. After 11 substitutions, the second half saw the team sit off a lot more, only pressing the ball when the ball got into their half. This changed the pattern of the play into a counterattacking style that didn’t seem to suit Watford who conceded the equalizer.

Similarly, Sunderland have spent most of this pre-season playing in a 4-5-1 formation with Connor Wickham playing as the spearhead; this is different to the end of last season where Martin O’Neill operated with two men upfront in a 4-4-1-1. Of course, when star man Stephane Sessegnon becomes available for the friendlies (he has been given time off after competing internationally for Benin during the summer), it will be interesting to see how O’Neill can accommodate him into this new formation. Steve Bruce tried playing Sessegnon out on the right wing but he had little to no impact, preferring to play in between the lines, picking up the ball just in front of the defender.

This is another good thing about pre-season friendlies, being able to see where the manager sees his players playing in the new season. While O’Neill has the conundrum of what to do with Sessegnon, Ferguson has shown his intention to play Kagawa in the role just behind the striker - a similar one to the position he held at Borussia Dortmund. However, it suggests that Manchester United may still need some midfield reinforcements if he is to play further up the pitch. Similarly, it seems another new signing Nick Powell is going to be raised in a wider position to the one he adopted at Crewe.

Of course, this is all speculation based on one or two games, and after the next round of friendlies everything could change. Nevertheless, it shows which options the manager is considering and that is ultimately all we as fans can take from these games: choices.

Whether it be in formations or the roles individuals have played in, pre-season friendlies allow us a small insight into what a manager has planned next season, and can sow the seeds for potential patterns of play. Anyway, regardless of the results it’s just nice to have some club football again.