With Premier League clubs now entering the final fortnight of their pre-season preparations, fans across the country will be studying their club’s results and speculating about what they can hope to achieve from the forthcoming season. Drawing firm conclusions from pre-season form is a particularly complicated task. Opponents are regularly from other leagues, some of whom are closer to the start of their season, others further away, with different combinations trialled and some lineups having a more developmental feel to them than others. Nevertheless, fans of clubs who have enjoyed positive results during pre-season will be hoping that form can be translated into a good start to the season, whilst at the same time hoping that the effort put into pre-season will not result in fatigue and poor results at the end of the season. So how relevant is pre-season?
|Club||Points per game average games 1-10||Points per game average games 11-19||Points per game average games 20-28||Points per game average games 29-38||Overall points per game average|
The table above breaks the 2018/19 Premier League season down into four blocks of 9 or 10 games, with the points per game average achieved in each of those blocks illustrated, as well as the average points per game across the whole season. When using this table to assess a club’s form either at the start or end of the season, the random element of fixture scheduling needs to be considered. West Ham’s form at the start of the season for example looks poor, as does their form for the 3rd block of fixtures, and there is a logical reason for this pattern. West Ham had a particularly unkind first 10 fixtures, playing 8 of the 9 clubs who eventually finished above them in the table (Manchester City being the exception). Therefore it is unsurprising that they picked up more points during the 2nd and 4th blocks of fixtures, as their fixtures were relatively easy in comparison to the 1st and 3rd blocks.
It also should be remembered that whilst pre-season preparations is a relevant factor to consider when assessing a club’s form at the start and end of the season, it is certainly not the only factor worth considering. Manchester United’s exceptional form during their 3rd block of fixtures for example came immediately after Jose Mourinho was sacked and replaced by Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, whilst there is also evidence of an uplift in results at Leicester and Southampton following the appointments of Brendon Rodgers and Ralph Hasenhüttl respectively. The availability of key players is another factor to consider, as is how far a club has progressed in other competitions. Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal’s Premier League form all dropped considerably over the final 10 games of the Premier League season, a period during which they progressed to European finals, though it is interesting to note that Liverpool’s form improved from an already exceptional level during this period despite the same fixture commitments.
To assess the relevance of pre-season form, I have picked out the examples of Crystal Palace, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Brighton. Each club retained the same manager throughout the entire season, and each club maintained a relatively consistent level of form across the 2nd, 3rd and 4th blocks of form. In the cases of Crystal Palace and Newcastle, this form represented a significant improvement over their form during the first 10 games of the season, whilst Bournemouth and Brighton both enjoyed good starts to the season before dropping off across the remainder of the season.
Interestingly, from a purely results basis, Crystal Palace had by far the best pre-season. After drawing their first pre-season game against Danish side Helsingor, they beat Halmstads, Oxford United, Stevenage, Reading, Toulouse and Dulwich Hamlet. What stands out however is the standard of opposition they faced. Only Toulouse could be considered to be playing at a similar standard to Palace, with the rest of the opponents drawn from lower English leagues or weaker European leagues. Therefore a question could be asked about whether the quality of opponents was sufficient preparation for playing the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool?
The standard of Newcastle’s opponents was certainly a lot higher than Palace’s, and their results reflected this. Their first pre-season friendly game against St. Patrick’s Athletic provided their only win, with draws against Hull City, Porto and CSKA Moscow, as well as defeats against Braga and Augsburg. Newcastle only scored 5 goals during pre-season, and their struggles in front of goal, whilst a problem all season, was particularly prevalent during their first 10 games yielding just 6 goals. Therefore Newcastle could be considered to be an example of a club bringing their poor form from pre-season into the start of the league campaign.
The two clubs who enjoyed good starts to the Premier League season, Bournemouth and Brighton, didn’t necessarily show signs of that form from a results perspective in pre-season. Bournemouth lost against Nottingham Forest and Real Betis alongside draws against Bristol City and Sevilla, whilst Brighton lost against AFC Wimbledon as well as drawing against St Gallen, Charlton and Birmingham City. What is notable however is that the best result of pre-season came in their final pre-season friendly, with Brighton beating Nantes 2-1, whilst Bournemouth beat Marseille 5-2 in a typically high scoring affair (their other pre-season friendly was a 4-3 win against Levante).
In terms of the relevance of pre-season, the example of Crystal Palace shows that it can be minimal if the standard of opposition is not strong enough to provide the right level of competition. Competitive fixtures are more important than results, though as Bournemouth and Brighton illustrate, a good win to round off pre-season can help start the season in the right way.