How the Olympics ruined pre-season



The aftermath of the Olympics has left a fair few ripples in this murky pool of heavily-sponsored pond life we call football. No sooner had the domestic season swung a boot in anger, we were subjected to article after article about how highly-paid tabloid magnets had better be on their best behaviour if they wanted to avoid a vicious backlash in the wake of the nation's new found moral superiority.

Then, of course, there are the recurring questions about British sporting identity, the finance structure of the game, the responsibilities of professionalism. Not to mention the burning issue of Stuart Pearce, and whether or not it's incriminating photos or a gypsy curse that ensures he keeps landing these high-profile appointments in football.

But while watching the action this weekend, another issue gradually snuck up beside me and jabbed its moistened finger into my earhole.

Observing Manchester United on Saturday, I couldn't help noticing how sluggish they looked. Areas of the pitch that United usually boss at Old Trafford were fair game, with Fulham daring to plant a flag in the midfield no man's land. Moussa Dembele, in particular, spent the match striding forward from the midfield towards the backline with barely a whimper of protest from his opponents.

Ultimately they prevailed, but it took a very special effort from Robin Van Persie to ensure that some comically haphazard defending went unpunished. Granted we're only two games into the season, but given how roundly out-fought and out-thought Alex Ferguson's team were at Everton, I couldn't shift the notion that something was just a little out of sorts at Old Trafford.

In a similar vein, Newcastle United's opening two games have garnered a narrow home win and a deserved away defeat. Two sparks of quality were just about enough to see off a lacklustre Spurs side, while a trip to Stamford Bridge showcased a team who had all the necessary craft and guile, but looked just too far away from their best to create any decisive openings for themselves.

It was a frustrating performance, but not a disheartening one. On another day they might well have got a result there, but Newcastle, much like Manchester United, just looked like a team pulling onto the motorway without realising that the handbrake was still on; a team just short of fitness and form, like a team still stuck in pre-season.

Not being one to dwell, I gleefully set off down to the local boozer to pick through the bones of the weekend's action, joined by numerous fine gentleman who support numerous fine clubs - including, conveniently for this article, Coventry City. Over the course of the evening he rambled on at length about how, for all their bluster about hitting the ground running in League 1, they'd looked woefully off the pace and had recorded a third consecutive draw. He couldn't understand it.

As I was patiently waiting for my bacon to crisp up the next morning, my brain made one of those connections that you'd hope it would reserve for disease-solving scientific breakthorughs or remembering where the car keys were. Manchester United, Newcastle United, and Coventry City have all started the season looking totally off the boil... Manchester United, Newcastle United, and Coventry City all gave up their grounds to Olympic football this summer.

Obviously, we're not talking M. Night Shayamalalathingy levels of plot twist here, but the debate about travelling the globe for footballing preparation is one that's done the rounds a lot lately. First the fans and now even the players are starting to question precisely what benefit there is to traversing jetlag, time-zones, varying weather patterns, and public relations responsibilities when your mind is supposed be focused on having everything ready for the new season.

Even Arsenal, who took one look at the Piccadilly Line this summer and thought better of it, spent the majority of their pre-season over in the far east. Big name acquisitions were left at home, unable to familiarise themselves with their new team or the role they had to play therein, and those that did travel toiled away in the heat both on and off the pitch. So far, they've amassed two massively disappointing 0-0 draws.
 
Manchester United headed over to South Africa, Newcastle flitted between various spots on the continent, and Coventry made the best possible use of the MegaBus with games in northernmost Scotland and in the deep heart of Wales. The locations might vary in terms of excitement, but the lethargy displayed by all four clubs has been striking in its similarity.

It's not as black and white as all that, mind you, and a lot of clubs will argue that the commercial and branding benefits greatly outweigh any potential energy issues. But the 2012 legacy was supposed to inspire people to finally get off their arses and get active, not take existing professionals and turn them into wheezing, uncoordinated shells of their former selves. Nice one, Seb.