By Bunburyist, Pre-seasoner
Pre-season training began this past week, and, in the coming days, any players not suffering from inflamed bones or ankle buttons will travel to Singapore to compete with Stoke City and Everton for the Asia Trophy. And look, I don’t care if this trophy is the equivalent of those derisive participation ribbons you received in grade school just for larding the earth with your sweat — the fact that Stoke City is involved means we must do everything in our power to win. Nobody wants to see the self-abusing Ryan Shawcross grinning stupidly next to a trophy, no matter its inconsequence. Nobody.
I don’t know about you, but I miss the bucolic gamboling of pre-seasons past: a bit of noblesse oblige in Barnet or Boreham Wood, followed by a rest cure in a Bad Waltersdorf spa, capped by an invigorating tumble with Szombathelyi Haládas and a Burgenland Select XI. It’s very much a case of innocence lost these days, though I don’t know how much comfort we can take from the fact we were one of the last of the big Premier League clubs to hold on to such Golden Age traditions. As it turns out, there’s quite a lot of publicity and money to be had outside of Old Europe. That the club held out as long as it did is likely a testament to its respect for Arsène Wenger, who, if his druthers were had, would still be kicking his feet in the thermal springs of Hartberg-Fürstenfeld.
But this is not a realistic option for the more ambitious clubs in the modern game, and here we are in the Digital Age heading to Asia for the third time since our final tour of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 2010. The difference this time, however, is the number of games played. In 2013, we played seven matches total in Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, England, and Finland; in 2012, it was six matches in Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Germany (it would have been seven had the game in Nigeria gone ahead); and in 2011 it was six matches in Malaysia, China, Germany, England, and Portugal.
This summer, and not counting the Community Shield, we’re playing only four matches in two countries: Singapore and England.* This is the exact number of games and countries we played in last summer’s pre-season in America (New York) and England, though you could argue that the limited number of games in summer 2014 was forced by the World Cup and an early Champions League qualifier.
You could argue that, but you’d be wrong, because such considerations seem to have made no difference to the number of pre-season games played (and their required travel) in other World Cup or Euro years. In the last decade, Arsenal’s players have consistently played between six and nine pre-season games in addition to international or Champions League summer obligations.
All that to say, these last two summers seem to have signaled a change in our approach to pre-season preparation. Yes, we’re still going for the non-European markets, as we should, but we don’t appear quite so desperate in how we take advantage of them. From six to nine pre-season games each summer from 2003-2013, we’re now playing four, and we’re making fewer stops along the way. This would only seem to be a good thing when you think about fatigue as the regular season commences, and you might justifiably wonder whether these recent changes have come as a result of consultation with our new fitness and physio personnel. For many years, Arsenal were known as fast starters in the league (perhaps due to a more rigorous pre-season than their rivals), but also quick faders after January. United, during their great successes under Ferguson, were known as the direct opposite in this regard, and focused instead on building a slow head of steam that eventually developed into a relentless charge.
On the other hand, two or three extra summer games – ones in which several regular starters may not even feature – hardly sounds like the difference between a title and an empty hand. As a case in point, Arsenal’s 2003-04 unbeaten season was preceded by a summer packed with nine games total in England, Austria, Scotland, and Germany. The results were not encouraging: Wins (few of them convincing) against Austria Wien, Besiktas, St Alban’s City, and Glasgow Rangers were mingled with losses or draws against Peterborough United, Barnet, Celtic, Beveren, and SC Ritzing.
This point should only reinforce the notion that you can’t predict the season from a pre-season. Except, sometimes you can, but it’s usually in the realm of individual development rather than a team’s eventual league position. For example, if you watched Ramsey and Giroud showboat against teams in Indonesia and Vietnam in July 2013, you caught a glimpse of what they’d produce that season. All the claims of “it’s only Vietnam” became a hostage to fortune in a 2013-14 that was Ramsey’s break-through season (when he outshined even Mesut Ozil), and for Giroud — motivated, perhaps, by rumors of our interest then in Higuain and Suarez — who went on to score 22 goals.
For me, this is why pre-season is so exciting. Winning as a team in these friendlies is always welcome, of course, but I most look forward to the individual performances, and the drama – folded between the mundane narratives of fitness development – that comes with jostling for the manager’s eye.
There have been a few grumbles about the lack of sexiness in our pre-season opponents as compared to those faced by our rivals. United, for example, will travel to the US to play Barcelona and PSG; Chelsea play these same opponents in Australia; while even Tottenham – who are showing their ambition with plans to construct a giant toilet – play Real Madrid and Bayern Munich this summer.**
However, as eye-catching as they are, games against clubs like Barcelona, PSG, and Real Madrid can take the focus away from the real purpose of pre-season, which is the development of fitness and, to some extent, team cohesion. Pre-season or not, when you’re playing against a club like Barcelona you’re thinking less of physical conditioning and more about the occasion itself. Conversely, Arsenal seem to have found the right balance between exhibition, publicity, and training, with a run-out against Singapore, followed by Premier League opposition, and then two very good teams – Lyon and Wolfsburg – in the Emirates Cup. It all sounds perfectly sensible.
More interesting is where, geographically, we tend to focus our pre-season exhibitions. Chelsea and United have favored the United States in recent years (as a resident of Washington state, I’m disappointed to see that by the time this summer ends United, rather than Arsenal, will have played in Seattle twice in the last five years), while Arsenal, apart from one game in New York last summer, tend to prefer Asian markets.
There must be good reasons for our prioritization of that market instead of the US (or elsewhere), though what those might be I can only guess. Is the US market already too saturated or tapped? If so, it hasn’t deterred clubs like United or Chelsea, and United especially have shown themselves to be extremely astute in the way they market their brand. Or is it rather the case that our presence in the US is already secure enough for the time being? After all, a recent study of Twitter accounts showed that Arsenal are the most followed Premier League club in the US and Canada. Maybe we’re looking elsewhere as a result.
Arsenal’s squad for the Barclays Asia Trophy:
Goalkeepers: Martinez, Szczesny, Cech
Defenders: Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gabriel, Bellerin, Debuchy, Monreal, Chambers, Gibbs
Midfielders: Arteta, Ozil, Cazorla, Flamini, Ox, Ramsey, Wilshere, Coquelin, Crowley, Zelalem, Reine-Adelaide
Forwards: Giroud, Walcott, Akpom, Iwobi, Willock
* Chelsea, Man City, and Tottenham play the fewest pre-season matches this summer (three). Arsenal, along with Man United and Swansea, play four, and all other teams play five or more (the most by any Premier League club this summer is seven).
** Liverpool, on the other hand, play no sexy opponents, but will travel the most miles of any other Premier League club this summer, all the while countenancing the patently absurd pretense that Raheem Sterling is too sick to train.