Pre-season. It’s often the most dreaded time of the year for footballers as the realities of another campaign kicks-in.
Those six weeks of holidaying in the fanciest parts of the world are over and the hard graft begins again.
But is it all bleep tests and mountain running? We take a look at what really happens in pre-season…
How has pre-season changed?
The players now earn more money, have more resources but crucially more awareness of how to keep themselves fit.
The days of sneaking off for a few drinks and eating what you like in the month and a half rest period are over.
During the late 80’s and early 1990’s there was a prevalent drinking culture in football. One club that were renowned for this were Arsenal.
Ray Parlour tells a story of a 1993 pre-season tour of South Africa.
He recalls then boss George Graham prohibiting drinking on the long-haul flight. But when he fell asleep the team would get the beers in!
On arrival they were told they had training at six o’clock but instead of preparing for their game. The team went back out drinking!
Oh the joys of the pre-Arsene Wenger days.
However, nowadays the players often take dieticians or personal trainers on holiday to keep in shape.
Last season Bournemouth defender Steve Cook took fitness coach Ben Donachie on a week’s holiday in mid-June in a bid to get that extra edge.
That’s just one example of how players todayhave an improved understanding of the importance of keeping their bodies in tip-top condition to maximise performance.
Post-holiday medical checks
Pre-season officially begins in the first week of July and is about conditioning and finding out how much work needs to be done.
It has the first day back at school vibe. No-one really wants to be there, but you’re back with your mates you haven’t seen all summer and soon get back into the swing of things.
In 2017 Head of Sports Science at Southampton FC Alek Gross told Training Ground Guruwhat happens.
“On the first day we’ll do medical screening – so movement testing with the physios, psychometric tests, bloods will be taken, and they’ll see the dentist and optician,” he said. “We’re looking at overall health.
“Then on the second day they will do performance-based testing. That’s on field – VO2 max testing for general fitness, body composition and body fat – and off-field – speed tests, agility and vertical jump for power. We have the same tests throughout the age groups so we can benchmark.”
Players will also take part in the Yo-Yo test. The idea of this is they push themselves to the max. After measuring the heart rate the coaches put together unique conditioning sessions.
Fitness Training and data-tracking
The technology open to players and coaches is expansive nowadays.
Ex-Fulham boss Felix Magath’s theory that quark cheese soaked in alcohol would fix Brede Hangeland’s leg injury was simply a one off hunch based on little modern science!
The mountain running still goes on. Ask Ian Holloway who took his QPR team to Portugal last summer to be put through their paces.
Garry Monk had fully embraced the new technological world whilst in charge of Swansea City.
He had ‘Snoozeboxes’ installed at the clubs training ground and his players would take a nap when they were in between sessions.
There have also been revolutionary data and analysis systems in play since the late 1990s.
Derby County were one team to get involved, when they paired up with Prozone in 1998.The data handling firmtracks statssuch as possession, passes, tackles runs, interceptions and shots.
Two of the most prominent performance-tracking systems currently used by clubs are Catapult Sport’s OptimEye S5 and STATSports Viper.
Compression vest technology is at the cutting edge of data analysis now. As well as a GPS system, these can track your heart-rate and pick up everything from changes of direction to gyroscopes.
This is why you hear of managers suggesting their players are in the ‘red zone’.
They will have all the relevant data at hand. And can often be whyplayers are taken off or taken out of the team for no obvious reason to viewing fans.
Diets and nutrition
As touched on earlier, alcohol and junk food topped the menu 20-30 years ago.
But one man helped shift the dynamic in England. And that man was Arsene Wenger.
The Frenchman took over Arsenal in 1996 and was greeted with chants of ‘Arsene who?’ from the press and ‘We want our Mars-Bars’ from the players.
He would go on to revolutionise how English football looked at training and diet, scrapping Mars Bars for fish and steamed vegetables.
Tony Adams was amongst the players to really benefit from Wenger’s arrival. However the former Arsenal skipper did say he’d eat battered cod and chips on Putney Bridge every Friday. Old habits die hard.
Diets are strictly adhered to now. And it’s not just pasta every day!
Players can cover over 10k during a game, burning 1,500 calories in the process.
Experts today say that the pre-match meal should be consumed between 2 and 3 hours before kick-off and contain carbohydrates and protein.
This could be potatoes, cereal, porridge or fish. Post-match it’s heavily advised to eat something like sweet potato with some fish or meat within an hour of the game finishing.
However, sometimes players don’t follow to these modern guidelines.
Samir Nasri was ousted from Pep Guardiola’s plans after he came back from the off-season ‘overweight’.
Gabby Agbonlahor was put through an individual fitness programme in his final years at Aston Villa.
Adel Taraabt was also one known to have a sweet-tooth with manager Harry Redknapp suggesting he was ‘three-stone overweight’ at times in his QPR career.
Let the ‘pre-season’ games begin!
So when the bulk of the fitness work is done then the football gets going.
Whilst at Norwich City Nathan Redmond spoke the Telegraph about his pre-season experience; “The first ten days are usually just running and a bit of ball work but then we’re quickly into the pre-season friendlies. We often have matches on Tuesdays and Fridays.”
The football isn’t just restricted to domestic fixtures anymore. The pre-season tour has become integral part of a club’s marketing campaign.
Clubs organise their pre-season tours months in advance. It can often lead the most die-hard fans to head to far-flung places in the world to follow their team.
Mansfield Town warmed up for their League Two campaign last year by their supporters the chance to fly with the team for their tour of Malta.
This is a unique experience but with the growth of globalisation in football, clubs like to expand their brand.
Speaking of the increasing reach of the game, there’s no restrictions on how far a team travels.
Leeds United travelled to Myanmar for a post-season promotional tour in May 2018. You also often see clubs travel to across the world to China, Australia and the Americas.
This is usually to promote the club to a wider audience. For instance Everton signed up for a trip to Tanzania to please their new sponsor SportPesa in 2017.
But it can significantly help integrate new players and new staff away from the glare of outside influences and rigours of the league season.
Frank Lampard took over Derby County at the end of May 2018. He decided to take his new team away to Tenerife in attempt to build bonds within the squad ahead of the new season.
One tournament that has been a staple for Premier League teams since 2013 has been the International Champions Cup.
Itis exactly what it says on the tin. A club tournament played all around the globeby some of the leading teams in world football.
It ordinarily begins about 2-3 weeks into the pre-season when preparations are upped and the players have played two or three games.
But what happens when there’s an international tournament that summer? Players have individual training programmes now, but how disruptive is it with players returning at different times?
Redmond spoke to the Telegraph about his experience of playing in the U-21 Euros in 2015
“Because I was playing games in the summer (with the England Under-21 team), my pre-season break was pretty short. I only had a break of about two and a half weeks, whereas other guys had five weeks off. It’s important to have that time to mentally switch off and take a break from football after nine months of continuous training and playing.
“It’s a very short break so it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Those weeks are the only time of the year when you can do what you want, chill, eat what you want, go on holiday and put on a kilo or two. Then you have to refocus and get back on it quickly ready for the new season.”
As well as playing the game well, the modern footballer has to be able to speak articulately and stay a model professional in the way they behave off the pitch.
Media and promotional work is par for the course now.
All clubs have a heavy online presence and even fan channels that players appear on. It’s not just an interview with the local sports reporter anymore.
Social media men are tasked with producing the next viral hit, and Premier League footballers can be a huge draw.
Pre-season also allows the players to work on their own brands. After all, a football career is notoriously a short one.
You may see players doing some punditry, shooting adverts or working with video game companies.
One of the most famous pieces of promotional work was Paul Pogba’s Adidas advert with rapper Stormzy to announce his arrival at Manchester United in 2016.
This is an example of the synergy between football players, brands and music and the sort of thing they get up to in their downtime.
If all this isn’t enough then managers and coaches will try to get their transfer business done early as well.
Sometimes the manager thinks the playing team needs an overhaul. This often happens in the lower leagues with clubs unable to put players on more than one or two year deals in fear of financial constraints.
A manager may have his first choice in mind, but for a number of reasons he has to look elsewhere.
This could because of financial issues, the selling clubs demands or that the player is happy where they are.
Particularly the closer you get to the transfer deadline you may see a signing come out of left-field. This is as clubs play hard-ball over the price of the player and the buying club blinks first.
New personnel, new tactics and innovative training regimes are all built towards the start of the new season.
So when the campaign begins all the best laid plans of pre-season are put into practice out on the opening day.
When that whistles blows it’s all down to the players!