It’s the most wonderful time of the year (for huge overreactions).
Everyone knows that top European sides do not care an awful lot about the results of preseason friendlies. They exist for the sides to sharpen up before the domestic campaigns kick in. Nonetheless, everyone loves to freak out about the results anyway. We’re a strange species.
Now, in a literal sense, preseason results do not matter at all. Once the season proper starts, no one cares a jot who won the International Champions Cup or the Premier League Asia Trophy. None of these trophies combined are considered as important as three points in the Premier League or La Liga. But do they point toward success in the season? Is a strong preseason a building block for a good campaign? Let’s take a look.
Premier League Champions
Now, if preseason results matter, we’d expect sides that go on to win league titles to dominate in them.
But that’s not what we saw with Manchester City last summer.
Guardiola’s side traveled to the United States to take part in the 2018 International Champions Cup, and it didn’t entirely go to plan. City lost two of the three games, though did manage to win their last against Bayern Munich. It did not seem like this was the stuff of champions, but it did not end up mattering one bit.
City’s 2017/18 title winners got things going in a slightly better fashion, winning three out of five preseason games. The story was even better for the 2016/17 Chelsea side that lifted the Premier League trophy. In a mammouth preseason, Antonio Conte achieved five wins from seven, even if many of these were against lesser teams.
It was much the same for the miraculous Leicester City team that won the league in 2015/16. Summer 2015 saw Claudio Ranieri’s men face off against lower league English teams and the Foxes won four out of five games.
Across the previous ten years, when looking at the eventual title winners’ preseason preparations we see the teams winning 39 times, drawing 5 and losing 12. Adjusted to a 38 game league season, this rate of winning and drawing would see a team pick up 83 points, generally securing a comfortable place in the top four but not usually enough to win a title.
So what we have seen is that the teams can be a touch down from their usual levels, yes, but rarely do we see title winners look totally off the mark in preseason.
International Champions Cup
Consisting entirely of top European sides, the International Champions Cup in recent years should theoretically be a good test case for whether preseason results matter. All the participating teams are at close-ish levels and none are ready for the season yet.
Last summer, the victors of the tournament were Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs reached a Champions League final in 2019, yes, but in points they were a worse Premier League side than in past seasons. The preseason dominance did not necessarily bleed into the season.
In 2017, Barcelona won the competition despite all the Neymar drama happening around the club. It ended up being a good bellwether for what was to come, as Barca won La Liga that season pretty comfortably.
The 2016 edition, however, was not such a good guide. PSG won the tournament having been victorious in all three games, but went on to finish in a shocking second place in Ligue 1. Sharp as they were over the summer, it did not carry into the campaign.
The teams that do less well in the ICC also don’t have a clear pattern. 2018’s bottom ranked side was Barcelona. Ernesto Valverde’s players did get humiliated at Anfield last season in the Champions League, it’s true. But they also won La Liga without ever really looking tested, amassing 11 more points than second placed Atletico Madrid.
The 2017 contest did tell us some things on the negative end, with bottom placed Real Madrid bringing the bad form into La Liga, going into the winter break 14 points behind Barcelona.
As for 2016? Perhaps Celtic can be forgiven for struggling in a tournament of big sides from richer leagues, as the perennial Scottish champions were unable to win a single game. It didn’t hurt the Brendan Rodgers managed club in the slightest, going on to win 34 out of 38 games in a stunning season.
So Does it Matter?
Looking purely at the results, one would be inclined to say that preseason is a poor predictor of future form, especially outside England. The thing to stress, though, is that results are not the point of these games. The aim is to improve players’ fitness and work on tactical ideas. What the manager wants to see is an evolution of the team, evidence of solid work being done that can be taken into a campaign.
When evaluating how your team has done this summer, don’t worry too much about the results. What you should instead be looking for, then, is a sense that the players are improving tactically. Individual errors on occasion might be a given with the lack of match sharpness, but what you want to see is a feeling that your team is playing a cohesive style, that the manager is trying to teach the players to do certain things and they are learning from it.
With the number of games in a European club season, there is very little time for serious tactical coaching work. Preseason gives an opportunity to really train in terms of systems and ideas. Look for this sort of thing being implemented, rather than whether your team can win the tournaments.