We thought the focus on pre-season friendlies was ludicrous until we saw everybody lose their sh*t over training videos…
Reading anything into pre-season friendlies is a fool’s errand. We know this. Summer friendlies are merely training games, increasingly disguised as something more meaningful by clubs and promoters desperate to sell their wares. They are merely a warm-up before the league campaigns kick off. Even then, the notion has crept in that teams can ease their way into the season, as if points in August don’t count in the same way they do in May.
All of which makes friendships even more irrelevant for anything other than building fitness and cohesion, although in the barren wasteland that is July in a (male) tournament-free summer, newspapers and websites have little choice but to learn things (usually five) from friendly. But that thirst for knowledge and numbers seems to be reaching new levels of desperation this summer; now we’ve carried over the nit-picking from friendlies into training.
Erik ten Hag and Antonio Conte have both had their sessions dissected this week, with the search for clues about what the new Manchester United might look like coinciding with analysis of Tottenham’s pre-season workouts.
To summarize: Fred gave the ball away in a training drill, an error we can only assume Frenkie De Jong has never made; and Antonio Conte is a proper b*stard.
Poring over United’s training session is perhaps slightly more understandable. In these, the earliest days of a new regime, any hint as to what difference the manager might make is gathered up as evidence for whatever stance you wish to take. The conclusion from what has been fed back from the camera phones of traveling hacks suggests Ten Hag wants United to move the ball smarter and faster, and press more intently when they lose it.
Anyone who had taken just a cursory glance at Ajax in the last couple of years knew those to be Ten Hag’s priorities upon taking over at Old Trafford. Perhaps the only revealing insight – again, not a surprising one – was just how much the United players seemed to struggle with the tempo ratcheted up to something closer to what Ten Hag demands.
— James Ducker (@TelegraphDucker) July 12, 2022
In South Korea, the Tottenham players were struggling too, but there wasn’t a ball in sight. Spurs were toiling in the heat while Conte put his players through a grueling workout after the ball work was complete. From Seoul, we were told that Harry Kane threw up and Son Heung-min was knackered too.
That’s largely the point of pre-season, isn’t it? Putting in the hard yards now, when the time together allows for such a level of intensive conditioning, to be as fit or fitter than your enemies when the season begins.
Some of the reaction to the sight of Spurs players slumped on the Seoul soil offers the impression that Conte is taking tyranny to despotic new levels. The game is changing but it’s also the same as it ever was. Whether it’s Premier League or Northern Counties East, at some point in pre-season, if you’re not bringing up your dinner, you’ll come close. Until science develops a method for increasing already-supreme levels of fitness and stamina without the inconvenience of suffering – get a shift on, lad and lasses – then players will always have to make the July pilgrimage to the wall and drag themselves through it.
The faux-shock at the sight of Spurs players running 42 lengths of the pitch is a mechanism for pulling punters to web pages but it also comes as a consequence of another novelty of pre-season.
In the modern game, training is almost completely closed. Long gone are the days when anyone could wander along to the training ground and watch players being put through their paces. Nowadays, it’s easier to gain access to the Bank of England vault than to get pitch-side at Melwood, Carrington and the like. Even for journalists, the only sight they are granted during the regular season is a 15-minute warm-up – if you’re lucky, they’ll squeeze in a rondo – the day before European fixtures. Otherwise, all we’re drip-fed is the odd moment of mundanity courtesy of clubs’ official media channels.
So perhaps it’s a little understandable why we’ve all got a little drunk on the access preserved for pre-season. And when journalists are traveling the length and breadth of the world to report back on pre-season kick-abouts, it’s only fair they are treated to the odd training session. But no-one needs team-sheets for the two-touch orange bibs versus yellows. And nobody should be trying to learn much of anything at all.