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The hidden importance of pre-season

The pre-season is very bad.” Jose Mourinho uttered these words in July 2018, while protesting at Manchester United’s lack of transfer activity. The negative attitude of Mourinho in United’s 2018 tour of the United States of America ultimately set the groundwork for his sacking, just five months later.

The Portuguese’s onslaught of pessimism ultimately translated to the squad, which resulted in United losing two of their first three games of their following Premier League campaign. Therefore for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, pre-season represents an opportunity to enhance squad harmony, almost performing a reverse approach to Mourinho’s antics.

Even more importantly for Solskjaer, the month-long training camp will give him and his coaching staff the opportunity to mould the team into his philosophy. In the midst of United’s sensational winning run under Solskjaer, a key tactical change the then caretaker manager made, was to adopt a pressing based system.

This was prominent in games against top opposition, such as the 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur. In the starting lineup for this key fixture, Solskjaer picked Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera. Due to the stamina and pace of Lingard and Rashford, United was able to effectively press the Spurs back four, as well as being lethal on the counter-attack.

Furthermore, the inclusion of Ander Herrera increased United’s intensity in midfield, therefore negating the threat of Christian Eriksen. This formula was followed in other victories against the ‘top six’, such as in the 3-1 win at the Emirates, and the 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge. However, United’s form and intensity appeared to drop significantly following the infamous 3-1 victory in Paris.

This is arguably largely due to the conditioning of the players. The philosophy of Solskjaer’s predecessor, Jose Mourinho, was a more conservative, and of lower intensity. This meant that the current crop of players was unable to sustain Solskjaer’s intense tactical demands, simply due to fatigue. Ultimately, the success of Solsjaker at United may be defined by the success of United’s pre-season training.

If the Norwegian can effectively condition his squad, then United’s performances may mirror the sensational away wins at Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. However, United managers who have preceded Solskjaer have often voiced their concerns at the commercially driven aspect of pre-season. Due to the financial incentives for the club, United often have to travel vast distances.

This was an issue cited by Louis van Gaal, who made a direct link to the travelling on pre-season tours, and the subsequent performances of United. This is a further indictment on executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who continuously prioritises commercial endeavours over the footballing success of the club. 

In addition to the commercial obsession with United’s pre-season tours, Ed Woodward is ultimately responsible for another short-giving in Solsjaker’s first full season: transfers. It was made poignantly clear by Solskjaer that he desired all of United’s transfer business to be concluded by the beginning of United’s tour of Australia. However, at the time of writing, United have signed just two players.

This could have a detrimental impact on United’s preparations for the upcoming season, as players who arrive later will have less time to be conditioned into Solskjaer’s philosophy. While the lack of signings will be a worry for Solskjaer, he can take it as an opportunity to utilise players who have previously been in the shadows at United.

In previous years, Jesse Lingard and Andreas Perreria have shone in pre-season tours, which will be a source of inspiration for the younger players travelling to Australia. At a time where United are severely lacking in the centre half position, Axel Tuanzebe seems certain to get an opportunity to shine, with Solskjaer publicly expressing his excitement at working with the 21-year-old.

Furthermore, the most coveted future stars such as Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong will have the opportunity to stake their claim for a place in the first team squad. This is a vast contrast from a year ago when Mourinho was openly disinterested in the fortunes of the youth players on the tour. While many view the annual pre-season tour as irrelevant, the importance of the next month in relation to Solskjaer’s reign should not be understated.

In spite of the commercial circus surrounding the tour, ultimately this will be Solskjaer’s golden opportunity to implement his philosophy. In addition, the quality of which the players are conditioned in relation to fitness, will have a huge effect on the longevity of United’s performances. But as Mourinho illustrated in 2018, a bad pre-season can pejoratively affect the following campaign. Solskjaer must utilise pre-season to the best of his ability, or his tenure may be in doubt before it’s even started.

Written by Alexei Braithwaite

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