“The result doesn’t matter, it’s the minutes and the fitness that counts.”
That is a line that you will hear numerous times from managers all across the country as pre-season kicks into gear over the next few weeks, but how true is that statement for the top teams?
Obviously, there are no points attached to the friendlies themselves but there certainly seems to be a case for teams building up momentum and finding that winning feeling heading into the season itself. Let’s begin by looking at the current dominant force in English football.
At the beginning of last season, Manchester City took part in the International Champions Cup as the main crux of their pre-season. During that competition they lost twice, to Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool before beating Bayern Munich - they also beat Chelsea in the Community Shield but that is classified as a competitive fixture rather than a friendly.
In the previous season where they registered a record-breaking 100 points in the league, they won three and drew two of their pre-season matches, giving them an overall win percentage in pre-season for the past two seasons of 50%. Compare that figure to their Premier League win percentage of 84.2% over the past two seasons and at least for Pep Guardiola’s men, you can see that pre-season results really do not affect his side once the real football begins.
Across town, Manchester United may see things slightly differently. In last season’s pre-season tour of America - which was marred by the fallout between Jose Mourinho and Anthony Martial, they won just one of their six games against varied opposition. They followed that up with a disastrous start to the season which saw Mourinho lose his job and the club end the season trophy-less and in sixth position.
Compare that campaign with the last time United were English champions in 2012-13. Sir Alex Ferguson hated losing and you could see that even in his pre-season campaign as they went undefeated in normal time across their six games and only lost once on penalties, to Barcelona.
David Moyes’ (two wins from six in pre-season) underwhelming tenure in charge got off to a dismal start when his new side lost 1-0 to the Thai All Stars, in a game that was a sign of things to come for the Red Devils. Meanwhile, Louis van Gaal had the dream start to life as a Manchester United manager, winning all six of his pre-season games. His first season in charge was certainly an improvement on Moyes’ reign as he led his side to a comfortable top four finish and Champions League qualification.
In both of the Dutchman’s seasons in charge, United finished well clear of historic rivals Liverpool which is something that the fans would love to see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer achieve as they look to overcome their bitter foes once more.
Another one of the big six - Chelsea - have also followed United’s pre-season pattern. Under Mourinho in 2015-16, they failed to win a single one of their warm-up games and then went on to finish tenth in the league in their worst season in under Roman Ambramovich. In the following year, the Blues won four out of their six warm-up games against some tough opposition and went on to win the Premier League title under Antonio Conte. That winning mentality and momentum is vitally important to the success of a squad.
One side who did show the importance of momentum is Leicester City. The Foxes, having stayed up by the skin of their teeth, won four and drew one of their pre-season games in 2015-16. This gave them the confidence to go and perform in the top flight and under Claudio Ranieri, they pulled off one of the greatest sporting shocks of all time, winning the title in May.
However it is not all so black and white. A good pre-season does not always guarantee a successful league campaign. Sometimes it can provide a false dawn as Huddersfield Town found out last year. In pre-season they lost just once, to Accrington, yet beat European big boys such as Lyon, Bologna and RB Leipzig in the three consecutive games before their Premier League curtain-raiser, giving their fans serious hope. The Terriers won just three league games all season finishing with a measly 16 points, ending their two-year stay in the top flight.
So perhaps it is simply luck that determines the success of a club after pre-season. One club which had so much luck last season that they practically had to give it away was Norwich City. The Championship winners boasted a remarkable statistic in that every single club that they faced on the road in pre-season last year got promoted - six sides in five different leagues enjoying some of the Canaries success.
Daniel Farke’s men will kick-off their season away to Liverpool in August, the team that not only won the Champions League but notched 97 points after an unbeaten pre-season campaign.
Certainly, for the big six it seems as if the previously pointless warm-up games are becoming increasingly important. A bad pre-season can breed discontent amongst the squad whilst a well-worked summer camp can give the players belief heading into the new season and allow them to perfect tactical changes.
Of course, it isn’t everything - but pre-season is certainly more important than first thought. Oh, and if you are trying to get promoted, make sure you play Norwich at home.