As football fans, we cannot complain over the lack of pre-season excitement after a truly mesmerising month of the beautiful game. Finally, we can catch our breaths again. From the euphoria of being up swept up in national pride and singing ‘It’s coming home!’ to watching several agonising penalty shootouts, the 2018 Russian World Cup, watched by millions across the world, was a success. Most notably, the introduction of VAR at the major finals for the first time, despite some obvious improvements still being needed, was a positive indication of why the sport must utilise the technological advancements that will be of great service for years to come.
Attention now returns to club football. Any major international tournament at the end of the season is an added bonus for us spectators given that the next season is only a few weeks away. Less so for the players who featured at the World Cup, and now have to endure a shorter holiday to ensure they are match-fit, ready and raring to go for another competitive campaign. Even the players who did not represent their country would have been working hard to reach optimum fitness levels. But with so many first-team players absent from the pre-season friendlies and recovering from what has been a physically demanding summer, are these pre-season friendlies even worth it?
Players obviously need 90 minutes’ worth of football to gradually transition back into the required mode. For this reason alone, football friendlies are important. However, the majority of pre-season matches lack the intensity and excitement that is prevalent within league games. Everton’s fixture against ATV Irdning proves this point in abundance. Without disrespecting them, as they have some quality players, rolling over the Austrian side in a 22-0 win is not an accurate reflection of the tougher opposition they will face. Despite this, a win is still a win and the result would have undoubtedly found favour in Marco Silva’s first game in charge. The result would also boost the confidence of those on the scoresheet, including England under-21 striker, Ademola Lookman, who bagged himself a hat-trick.
Perhaps more crucial than football friendlies is the period between the season’s end in May and the start in August which allows for plenty of transfer activity. Intriguing, dramatic and expensive are several words which come to mind. Liverpool’s no-nonsense and proactive spending has been evident through purchasing the likes of the prolific Naby Keita from German team RB Leipzig to the Brazilian defensive midfielder Fabinho from Monaco for £43.7m. This month, Liverpool made history by breaking the world record fee for a goalkeeper after buying Alisson, Brazil’s World Cup number one, for £67m. Their failed attempt to land the French attacking midfielder Nabil Fekir still showed signs of serious intent. To put it simply, the strength in-depth of Klopp’s team, bolstered by these new recruits, is a frightening yet mouth-watering prospect. It has led to the claim from their former midfielder, Charlie Adam, that the Merseyside club “only need one or two more players to win the Premier League”.
Fierce rivals, Manchester United, have endured a somewhat off-script pre-season. Following their 4-1 defeat to Liverpool, which featured the return of England’s clinical finisher Daniel Sturridge and an outrageous bicycle kick from Xherdan Shaqiri on his debut, manager Jose Mourinho went on the attack. His comments about his team’s performance sparked outrage as he said in his post-match conference that “the atmosphere in the stadium was good but if I was them I wouldn’t come. I wouldn’t spend my money to see these teams.” Despite buying Fred, the sought-after Brazilian midfielder, Mourinho is still not satisfied.
Some players are solely committed to club football. The end of the pre-season period was rocked with the shock revelation from the World Cup winner, Mesut Ozil’s retirement from international duty with immediate effect. He cited claims of ‘racism and disrespect’ of his Turkish heritage as reasons: “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.” Arsenal fans may not be opposed to this decision, especially when the playmaker captained and scored against PSG in his first game since the announcement.