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What happens during pre-season?

Daniel Anwar | 6 July 2018

How teams get into shape for the campaign ahead

The football season can be long and unforgiving. But some of the hardest work takes place well before the first game kicks off.

Many players will dread pre-season, but it helps them to ensure they are fully prepared when the campaign starts. The effort they put in during July and early August can make a huge difference over the course of the season.

But what exactly do they do in pre-season? How does it work? The Coral News Team have prepared a handy guide to the whole process…

Post-holiday medical checks

Most players at the top level will maintain their fitness levels during their summer break. There’s no hiding place if they let themselves go, even for a brief period. On their return from holiday, players are put through a series of rigorous tests by their club.

The first day back tends to involve medical questionnaires, blood tests, psychometric tests and Southampton even bring in a dentist and optician to get a clear picture of their player’s overall well-being.

Then there are the physical check-ups. Musculoskeletal testing assesses the muscles and joints of each player and the mechanics of how they move. This helps the medical staff get a clear idea of physical condition, as well as identify any areas that could become an issue.

There are also VO2 max tests, which show how much oxygen a player can take in, helping to determine their overall fitness. Body composition and body fat are inspected, as well as speed, agility and vertical jump.

Swansea City are one of many clubs who’ve installed a hydrotherapy pool, which allows them to asses gait and stride too. It could flag up whether players need extra support in their boots to protect stress fractures.

Everton’s check-ups include isometric hamstring testing and an eccentric knee flexor strength test, which helps them to judge when a strain is on the horizon. Full-body strength and lower-body power is also tested so the coaching and medical staff can focus training for each individual player.

Fitness training

After the check-ups and tests are complete, the gruelling fitness work begins. Playing an intense 90-minute match, often twice a week, requires incredible athleticism.

The traditional method of getting ready for the season involved making the squad embark on exhausting physical sessions twice a day. Teams would be made to run up hills, through forests or simply lots and lots of laps at the training ground.

Rather than those exhausting runs of days gone by, physical work now tends to be done in shorter, more intense bursts. This reduces the chance of picking up injuries and the graft required, helping players to stay fresh for much longer.

Relatively short runs, fartlek sessions (short sprints with jogging in between) and the yo-yo test (a variation of the bleep test that also includes changes of direction) are a few examples of the physical work players now do.

Strength is just as important as speed and stamina too. Each player will usually have their own program to follow in the gym.

However, not all managers believe that dedicated fitness work is necessary. Pep Guardiola doesn’t put his squad through a single exercise that focuses purely on athleticism. His players always work with the ball during pre-season.

Recovery

Players may not be going on 10-mile runs anymore, but all that fitness work is still tiring. Technology plays an increasingly important role in helping them recover.

High-tech compression vests produced by companies such as STATSports can measure impacts, jumps, heart rate, acceleration and other performance metrics. These vests allow coaches to see when a player’s training level has dropped, which can be an early sign of injury.

Clubs look at every area of a player’s life in search of any possible marginal gains too.

Poor sleep can have a drastic impact on reaction times and physical output. That’s why Swansea have installed specially-designed sleep pods at their training ground for players to have a snooze in between sessions.

Manchester City go as far as having their players stay at the training ground on the night before home games. The bedrooms were designed with the help of sleep experts to encourage a good night’s rest.

Diet is also closely monitored. Arsene Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal in the 90s transformed English football’s approach to eating. Fry-ups and chocolate bars were replaced with pasta, vegetables and nuts. The game’s approach to diet has advanced much further since then.

Liverpool’s head of nutrition, Mona Nemmer, now plans individual diets for each player – based on factors such as metabolism, position and even nationality – using as many local and organic ingredients as possible. She also teaches players how to cook her meals at home. There are no excuses for them not to be eating properly.

Tactics

Once fitness is up to scratch, it’s time for the manager to drill the team in how they should play in the season ahead.

Will they control possession or play on the counter? Are they going to press high up the pitch or defend deep with a solid structure? These weeks can help ensure every player knows their role in the team.

The big clubs rarely have time to work on these things during the season. The rhythm of league games on the weekend and a European game in midweek doesn’t leave much room for anything other than rest and a few tweaks.

Technology has provided new ways for clubs to work on tactics too. It’s common for clubs to film sessions using drones, giving them plenty of angles to go back through the footage and show players where they can improve. Data is also used to analyse every aspect of performances, from passes to positioning.

Returning players

Managers would love to be able to work with all of their players at once during pre-season, but in reality it rarely works out that way.

If there’s an international tournament during the summer, return dates will be staggered to ensure everyone gets a proper break. The further someone goes in the tournament, the later they’ll return. Once they’re back, they’ll be given their own fitness plan until they’re ready to go.

Players recovering from injury will also work with the fitness and medical staff on their rehabilitation.

Pre-season games

All that preparation on fitness and tactics gets put into practice in friendly matches. With nothing at stake, managers can experiment here. It’s a chance to try out different formations and see if young players and new signings are ready to make the step up to the first-team.

But that doesn’t mean these games are low-key affairs. Clubs are huge corporations now, with a worldwide audience to serve. Many clubs embark on international tours, usually to Asia or North America, to promote their brand.

Mini-tournaments are increasingly common too. The International Champions Cup is one of the most prominent, featuring 18 leading clubs with games taking place across three continents. It gives fans across the world a chance to see some of their favourite players and teams up close.

Promotional work

Footballers are celebrities in their own right. Many are recognised all over the world, which is why so many companies are keen to sponsor them. Clubs at the top level also have an army of brands that they are associated with.

With no competitive games to prepare for, players have time to work with their own sponsors, and those of their club, during pre-season. They could shoot adverts, have their face scanned for a video game or film their walk-ons for TV broadcasts.

Clubs also produce content for their social media channels and online platforms. These usually try to show fans what’s happening behind the scenes for added engagement.

Transfers

While all of this is going on, managers will be analysing their squad and deciding who they want to buy and sell.

Ideally, they’ll be able to bring in any signings before pre-season begins. That would give new arrivals a chance to get familiar in their new surroundings, take part of the tactical sessions and be ready to go when the season starts.

But it’s very rare that a club will be able to get all of their business wrapped up before pre-season starts.

Sometimes the selling club will only let a player go after they’ve brought in a replacement. Negotiations over the fee or the player’s contract could take a while. A work permit may be required. There are many more reasons why a deal could drag on.

Once a new player comes in, they’ll be integrated into the team as quickly as possible, though that doesn’t always go smoothly.

The season begins

All of that work and planning is aimed at producing results when the season comes around. But there’s only so much managers can control. They’ll have done their best to make sure their players are fit and understand their roles. Once the whistle blows and the match begins, it’s out of their hands.

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