Seattle Sounders 0-7 Manchester United, Hull City 3-0 Liverpool, Hangzhou Greentown 1-1 Arsenal. Do these games mean anything? Football is an industry where the phrase "it's a results business" gets used a great deal, and with regards to full-time result clearly a "friendly" has no meaning. The goals don't get added up, there are no points on offer, no trophies will be won as a result, no-one counts the stats from these games once the season kicks off. So what's the point?
From a commercial perspective playing friendlies all over the world offer a club the chance to expand their brand name and fan base, strengthen brand loyalty, build global partnerships and generally make a large amount of money. By the 13th of August when Liverpool travel to Sunderland for their first game of the season they will have travelled to China, Malaysia, Norway and Turkey (as well as Hull). Liverpool has a global fan base of millions and by travelling to countries where their previous exploits have helped build brand power they're able to continue and exploit the growth of their brand. Also Liverpool's main sponsor, Standard Chartered, is involved in more countries in Asia than any other continent. I'll let you make your own conclusions as to the motives of such a blitz on the Asian market just one year into the current sponsorship deal.
Without going too in depth on the business side of football there is clearly a shed load of money to be made off the back of the Premier League's global appeal. Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Juventus etc. all the giants of European football have a history of global pre-season tours with games having been played in Asia, Africa, North America and Australia in recent years. It is interesting that very few teams go to South America, perhaps this is because football is already rooted in their culture and as a result it's hard to compete on a commercial level? Also the quality of these sides is normally quite challenging.
There are however more pragmatic reasons for pre-season friendlies. Before the most recent level of professionalism in football came about (1992 and the introduction of the Premier League and mass migration of foreign footballers, coaches, managers and their "ways") players used to return for pre-season training heavily overweight and having not played much football at all. Therefore gruelling and intensive pre-season regimes meant clubs where able to get their players back to a condition that would make them competitive for the coming season. Nowadays players get only a few weeks break between seasons and all professionals are given off-season fitness programmes to follow thus speeding up the pre-season process. Also there is generally some international competition going on somewhere in the world (World Cup, European Championships, Copa America, Gold Cup, Confederations Cup not to mention the plethora of International Youth tournaments we've seen this summer).
It is here where a blend of commercially attractive and professionally sensible fixtures come in handy. Liverpool played three exhibitions matches in Asia, followed by a more competitive game in Hull, a game away to Galatasaray (both commercial and competitive), away to Valarenga (to satisfy the HUGE amount of fans in Scandinavia) and at home to Valencia (very strong opposition). The Hull game gives a better indication of where the team is to where they need to be come the start of the season. The same can be shown by Barcelona, two competitive games in the Audi Cup in Munich and a home game against Manchester United was preceded by a warm-up versus Hajduk Split and will be followed by a two game tour of the USA.
Does anybody follow the stats amassed by such games? The history books won't count goals, assists etc. that come from friendly games in a players career statistics, the fans probably don't care how many goals a player scores in pre-season, who can remember or even keeps track of such statistics? The answer is the club's sports scientists and the club's performance analysts. Prozone and similar software offers clubs a Big Brother style monitoring system straight out of George Orwell's wildest dreams. No player can hide, no player can make excuses. The distances covered are recorded and analysed. Training is tailored to make sure that a player's pre-season performances and training work-rate is such that he WILL be ready for the first day of the season. If he isn't, somebody's head rolls.
The psychological affects of pre-season schedule can also have influence a player. If playing against weak teams and winning a player will feel little accomplishment (we should have beat them, they're a 3rd division Chinese side). If playing against a weak opponent and losing there can be massive self-efficacy effects, hence Kenny Dalglish's immediate down playing of the defeat to Hull and explaining they'd played a particularly intense practice match in training the day before. Playing against a strong side and losing can be taken light heartedly ("they're better than us anyway") or can make players question the quality of themselves and their team-mates ("I thought we'd be as good as them"). Winning against a strong side can make confidence soar. An example would be if Manchester United can beat Barcelona in their forthcoming friendly. A demon of the last few years will be exorcised just before the competitive action starts potentially creating a wave of both relief and confidence (we've beaten them, I knew we could, let's go and beat everyone else).
There is no doubt then that both the money men as well as the sporting idealists have their own reasons for pre-season friendlies. They give the global fans a chance to connect with their idols and in the process gives the marketing department and the accountants a massive ego boost and a big bonus. They provide the scientists, analysts and coaches the chance to assess where the players are, where they should be, who is weak, who is strong and what holes need plugging. And from my own selfish point of view they give us that little fix that is needed before a season starts, something to wet the appetite and relieve the pain caused by little to no football from the end of May to the beginning of July.
God bless the pre-season friendly.