Pre-season is great fun. It helps to fill that void left when league football finishes and is especially vital in a year without a major international competition.
Watching Sunderland in pre-season marks a great time to see the lads away from the win at all costs attitude, intensity and nervousness that comes with league football.
I have great memories of watching the Black Cats in the down season. The hilarity of working out the unannounced substitute who smashed one into the top corner in a 3-0 victory over West Brom was called Bernt Haas instantly springs to mind. Seeing Frank Skinner after the game moaning about no longer having Kevin Kilbane, only for several Mackems to suggest driving him back to the Hawthorns themselves.
Or being in the City Ground as Anthony Stokes looked motivated and lively inspiring the Black Cats to a 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest. Hope he had turned the corner was short-lived, he played three times in the up-coming season. Going to watch Sunderland take on Leicester with a sore head the day after my 21st was also a fun one. Lamenting John O’Shea and Titus Bramble’s lack of pace as they consistently got exposed by a rapid diminutive forward by the name of Jamie Vardy. I also took an instant disliking to their small ferrety midfielder, Danny Drinkwater, the only player I’ve ever seen dive and showboat in pre-season. Little did I know that our tormentors that day were destined to be England internationals and Premier League champions.
All of this is to say that for all the fun and necessity of pre-season it’s really not the time to make firm conclusions or waste time over-analysing: results, formations or performances.
During Sunderland’s four seasons without a victory in the opening two months of the season, our pre-season record reads: 17 wins, five draws and two losses. Last year we managed a creditable draw against Borussia Dortmund, before effectively relegating ourselves with our awful start, first tasting victory at the start of November.
It’s not just form that is treacherous to judge in the off season - reading too much into who’s playing and in what position can send fans down the wrong path. Excitement over Wahbi Khazri, Jeremain Lens and Lamine Kone featuring heavily early in this year’s preparations must be tempered.
Younes Kaboul, Charles Nzogbia and Lens combined for 16 pre-season appearances last year. All three were quickly dismissed when the real football started, appearing in a combined three games. Emanuele Giaccherini was one of only two players to appear in every pre-season fixture under Dick Advocaat in 2015 before being loaned out to Bologna in August of that year.
Others have starred in pre-season only to make way when new signings arrive just before the August 31st deadline. Alfred N’Diaye is another pre-season star that was moved on once other players arrived, playing in every exhibition in 2014 before permanently signing with Real Betis in mid-August. In 2012, academy product Ryan Noble played a part in every pre-season game whilst Martin O’Neill struggled to attract a marquee striker. He didn’t see a minute of playing time that season, once Steven Fletcher was bought.
Recent history suggests now is not the time to anoint Josh Maja our next outstanding striker, nor should we pencil Khazri in as a definite starter against Derby on August 4th - pre-season oddities rarely carry over.
Managers are pragmatists and in pre-season they will play whoever’s fit and available to get through matches, without the preparation and structure they save for the league campaign. Josh Robson and Rees Greenwood both played in over 66% of last year’s pre-season games, yet neither saw a minute of action for the senior team in real competition.
Over the past five seasons roughly 50% of players to appear for Sunderland during those pre-season games have played less than ten matches in the actual season.
Clues as to who our manager actually rates and what the favoured Sunderland line up of the incumbent manager is, often don’t reveal themselves until the final dress rehearsal. Over Sunderland’s last six final pre-season fixtures, the most changes made between the starting team in our final pre-season outing and our first Premier League team was four in 2013. Typically by this point our gaffer will have settled on a team and system for the up-coming campaign.
Additional changes are often players returning from injury or new signings finalised after our final friendly. The outlier in 2013 reflects Martin O’Neill’s struggles in the transfer market, in his first and only off season here. The current Republic of Ireland national team manager couldn’t settle on a reliable back four, undermined by his lack of options at full back heading into 2013-14. The four changes between the aforementioned friendly loss at Leicester City and our stalemate in league action at the Emirates reflect that.
For all the fun of pre-season, its best considered simply as that - a fun way to fill the void left in the three months when we’re starved of competitive club football. Pre-season will be long forgotten by September and with good reason; these games rarely impact or have a bearing on what’s to come.