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The Great Red Debate: Is it time to do away with far-flung pre-season tours?

This week’s Great Red Debate sees the Busby Babe’s full editorial team of Ryan Baldi, Jack Sargeant and Andi Thomas discuss the merits of long-haul pre-season tours, and whether there may be a better alternative.

Shanghai Shenhua v Manchester United Photo by Hong Wu/Getty Images

Ryan: In recent years, Manchester United’s pre-season preparation has consisted of a handful of friendly matches contested in far-flung locations. The last few tours have seen United take on the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund in destinations as distant from Manchester as the U.S.A., Australia and China.

These trips are supposed to serve a dual purpose: the games themselves are where the squad fine-tunes its tactical system and works toward optimum match-sharpness, while the club benefits from the revenue generated from packing out enormous stadiums and increasing its global reach.

But, with the events in China over the last week, are we reaching a point where these tours are detrimental to the team’s on-field preparation?

The tour of China ended abruptly today when the scheduled match against Manchester City was canceled, so United will return to Europe with only a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Borussia Dortmund to show from their arduous travels.

The Reds now face the prospect of taking on Premier League champions Leicester City in the Community Shield having had just the friendlies against Wigan Athletic, Dortmund and Galatasaray, as well as Wayne Rooney’s testimonial against Everton, as their pre-season warm-up. Hardly the ideal way to gear up to a Premier League campaign.

So are these tours — with their long-haul flights and disruptive changes of time-zone — becoming an obstacle to preparation, rather than aiding it? And is it time the club looks at alternative pre-season arrangements?

Or are they still, when properly planned and executed, a worthwhile undertaking?

Andi: The key question for tours like this is "Would any English football club undertake their preseason in China, or the U.S.A., or some other long-haul destination, if there were no commercial side to it at all?" And the answer to that is, I think, a pretty obvious "no"; this is perhaps demonstrated by the fact that when United and the other big Premier League clubs started on these adventures, Arsene Wenger, for a few stubborn seasons, stuck with a lowkey training camp in central Europe.

There is nothing to be gained, from a preseason football perspective, from a game in (say) Beijing against (say) Manchester City that couldn't be gained from a game closer to home. The fitness work, the tactical preparation, the beginnings of the bonds between new teammates: none of that requires travel any more than it requires elite opposition or a full stadium. It needs good facilities, and that's about it.

But from a wider perspective, that is partly irrelevant. Manchester United isn't just a football club any more; it's a brand, and an ongoing exercise in brand maximisation. This absolutely requires United's players to go around the world and pose with executives from Gulf Oil and Yanmar and Nissin and whoever else. You could even, perhaps, argue that the team have a moral duty to visit those parts of the world from which they are happy to take so much money and gather so many fans. Like the tours or not — and we can probably assume Jose Mourinho, like Louis van Gaal and David Moyes before him, does not — they're as fundamental a part of the operation of the club as the team itself. They're as necessary as goalscoring. And it looks like the brand got a pretty good run-out, even if the team didn't.

Jack: I agree with everything above. But to avoid parroting, I’ll try and make a small sporting case for the benefit of the much-maligned pre-season tour. Given that they’re increasingly occurring in countries with cultures quite alien to the players’ own (of course, long-haul trips to the United States excepted), there could well be feasibly some kind of team-bonding merit in taking the players on a big adventure to an exciting and exotic land. It’s admittedly tenuous, but it does slightly remind me of a concept seen quite often in Italian football: that of the ritiro.

Teams usually go into ritiro when they’re in a time of crisis, and it essentially entails packing the players into a coach and driving them to some remote training camp for a week or two, in the hope that a change of scenery will have the same effect on their fortunes. Of course, they only drive elsewhere in Italy and not to the other side of the world, but I can’t help but wonder if such a dramatic change of scenery may exaggerate the impact of the team-bonding exercise.

That said, the ritiro rarely seems to work as intended; and equally, United’s pre-season tour could well be nothing more than an exercise in footballing imperialism, civilising the masses with the corporate delights of Manchester United for nothing more than personal profit. On balance, I think the second explanation is more compelling than the first.

Manchester United v Borussia Dortmund - 2016 International Champions Cup China Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Ryan: Louis van Gaal made his feelings on these kind of tours well known, and towards the back end of last season, the feeling was that he was working on scheduling a less intensive and demanding pre-season tour, having been dissatisfied with last season’s preparations.

Obviously, van Gaal was binned before these plans could see the light of day; we’ll never know what exactly he had in mind for this summer’s trip, and how closely the tour ended up being to his ideal. But can a compromise be reached? Is there a happy medium between pleasing sponsors and fans in distant locations, while minimising the impact on the players’ preparations?

Andi: We can probably (or at least hopefully) assume that Manchester United do everything possible to ameliorate the effects of long-distance travel on the playing squad, though it was mildly amusing/concerning to learn that Mourinho, upon discovering that there wasn't enough room in business class for all of his staff, took himself off to economy to sit with the little people. You'd think somebody would have counted.

This is why the question of facilities is so important. We know that Mourinho was unhappy with both the pitch that United played on against Dortmund and the surface at the Birds Nest, even before the heavens opened. If these tours are going to happen — and they are — then it should be a given that the players aren't going to be any more at risk of injury than they would be playing at Old Trafford, where the club controls everything. Perhaps we can expect future tour arrangements to emphasise this more heavily, though obviously United can't control everything.

As for the fans, we can assume that there are a fair few very disappointed United fans in Beijing at the moment; some locals, some who will have spent a fair amount of money to travel. United are a global club with a global fanbase, and while it's easy (and probably even correct) to characterise pre-season games as glorified friendlies, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that for plenty of United fans, not to mention the "United followers" that Ed Woodward loves so much, these games are their best chance to see their team. Is it worth compromising the team's preparation a little to ensure that United fans in China, in the US and Australia have the chance to see Wayne Rooney's first touch in all its baffling glory? It might be.

Jack: There’s clearly always going to be conflict between corporate and sporting interests on this kind of issue, with each presenting themselves as the more important in creating a successful United. However, that doesn’t mean a compromise is impossible. Perhaps we could well take a leaf out of Chelsea’s 2014-15 book, in which they played a series of pre-season friendlies around Europe (Slovenia, the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, Hungary) and only played a couple of long-haul games once the season had finished (they played in Thailand and Australia in May and June respectively).

Such a solution seems to allow for the best of both worlds: fans in Asia and Oceania still got to see their heroes (and Wayne Rooney) in action, but fears about long-haul travel and footballing infrastructure were minimised when it really mattered — in the run up to the Premier League campaign. Of course, it’s very difficult to gauge the effect of pre-season accurately, but Chelsea certainly hit the ground running once the competitive action started: they won all but four of their matches to Boxing Day, setting the tone for their championship win.