Pre-season is as meaningless as it is crucial. Fitness is regained, new signings are bedded in, friendlies are played and scorelines are forgotten.
For the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’, more so than most clubs in England, pre-season is also a vital tool to continue building the brand abroad, with Asia and America the biggest markets for that. The likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham have been making the most of their tours across those continents.
Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United have also been in action overseas, and we’ve already learned plenty about all six clubs ahead of what could be a special 2019/20 campaign.
Certain senior players have been left out of squads for a number of reasons, while various youngsters have made the most of their rare opportunities to impress in the first-team.
So, what exactly have we learned about the ‘Big Six’ in recent weeks? Here are six talking points.
1. Ndombele is unique in Tottenham’s midfield
Tottenham’s new record signing, Tanguy Ndombele, made an instant impact in the club’s first pre-season friendly against Juventus. The Frenchman came on midway through the second half and registered an assist for Lucas Moura’s equaliser within two minutes.
It was a moment indicative of what Spurs hope Ndombele will bring to the side. He pressed high, intercepted the ball and played a perfect pass through to Lucas, who couldn’t miss.
After the game, Harry Kane – who produced the moment of the match with an unbelievable stoppage time winner from the halfway line – was asked about Ndombele’s contribution. The England captain talked up the key attribute his new teammate will provide this season.
“He’s been great,” Kane said. “He intercepted that ball very well and put it through to Lucas. That’s a strength of his – playing that through ball, that forward pass.
“That’s something we’ve missed over the last year or so – that really decisive pass in the final third. He looks like he can do that. With any player who comes in, he’s still learning how we play and the way the manager wants him to play. But he’s working hard. That’s all we can ask for.”
That level of incisiveness has certainly been lacking in the Spurs line-up under Mauricio Pochettino, who is also said to be keen on Real Betis star Giovani Lo Celso. Add the possibility of Christian Eriksen staying put and Tottenham might end up with plenty of passing ability this term.
2. Mason Greenwood genuinely could start for Man Utd v Chelsea
With two goals in three games, including a brilliant winner against Inter Milan, 17-year-old Mason Greenwood has certainly taken his chance to convince Ole Gunnar Solskjaer he is good enough to fill a space in Manchester United’s first-team squad this season.
Romelu Lukaku’s absence from the side amid talk of a move to Inter has handed Greenwood an opportunity, and it is one he has grabbed with both hands. The teenager’s footwork and finish for his goal against Lukaku’s potential future club were a joy to behold.
Greenwood also found the net in a 4-0 victory over Leeds United in Perth. His performances have given Solskjaer something to think about ahead of next month’s season opener against Chelsea at Old Trafford.
“He’s got a chance to start that one definitely. He’s capable, more than capable,” Solskjaer said.
Starting against Chelsea would mark a stunning rise for Greenwood in a short space of time. His 30-minute cameo against Inter saw him run the gamut of his wide-ranging skill-set. What would Solskjaer have to lose by throwing him in the deep end on the opening day?
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3. Arsenal need a new centre-back… and captain
Arsenal were left stunned when captain Laurent Koscielny refused to travel with the rest of the squad on the club’s pre-season tour. The Frenchman is apparently keen to return to his homeland and was dismayed by Arsenal’s refusal to grant him a free transfer.
Koscielny has one year remaining on his current contract, so it’s not difficult to see why Arsenal will feel they can collect a transfer fee. Regardless of how his exit comes about, it’s clear the Gunners are in need of a new centre-back.
It’s not only the Koscienly situation that has intensified Arsenal’s desperation. William Saliba, the teenager set to arrive from Saint-Etienne, will be loaned back to the Ligue 1 club, meaning Unai Emery’s squad will not immediately be strengthened.
In fact, it will be weakened by Koscielny’s exit unless he is replaced. Shkodran Mustafi continues to be an accident waiting to happen, replicating his shaky displays from the second half of last term in pre-season. Nacho Monreal also looks sporadically out of place in a back three.
What’s more, Emery will have to decide on a new captain if Koscielny departs. The obvious solution would be for Arsenal to sign a centre-back who also possesses leadership qualities, but that may not be as simple as it sounds, particularly with the club pursuing expensive deals in other positions.
4. Man City still require a long-term left-back solution
Left-back has been an issue for Pep Guardiola ever since he arrived at Manchester City. Midfielders Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko have ended up playing in the position more often than anyone else while Benjamin Mendy has spent time on the sidelines with knee injuries.
Zinchenko finished last season excellently on the left of the back line, but the club have strengthened in the position this summer by re-signing Angelino from PSV Eindhoven. However, his arrival hasn’t had the desired effect yet.
After questionable performances against West Ham United and Wolves during pre-season, Angelino received heavy criticism from former City defender Andy Hinchcliffe.
“Angelino was absolutely awful in both games,” Hinchliffe said. “He was dreadful. He did so well in Holland last season and City bought him back but seeing his performances in these two makes you wonder why.
“They’ve got Benjamin Mendy and Oleks Zinchenko – there’s no way Angelino is going to get into this City team. His performances have been dreadful. Maybe he’s trying too hard, trying to prove how good a player he is, but positionally he was all over the place, one-on-one he wasn’t good enough.”
With Mendy’s injuries continuing to be a concern, it’s clear City still require a long-term solution at left-back. That player is unlikely to arrive this summer, but Guardiola will surely have his scouts on the lookout.
5. Chelsea’s Hazard replacement is… Willian?
Willian’s future has been a source of speculation for some time now, with Barcelona reportedly having multiple bids turned down over the last year or so. However, it looks like the Brazilian will play a bigger role under Frank Lampard.
Speaking to the Brazilian media, Willian confirmed he will wear the number 10 shirt for Chelsea next season, saying: “I was offered the number 10 jersey ahead of next season and I will take it.”
Willian spent the first half of the summer at the Copa America with Brazil, for whom he also wears the number 10. The number might have been given to new signing Christian Pulisic, who has been labelled by some as Eden Hazard’s direct replacement.
But if we dare read into what Willian’s new shirt number may mean, it looks like Lampard could be planning on using him more regularly in a 4-2-3-1 formation this term, a system Olivier Giroud says Chelsea are still getting used to under the new regime.
“We’re working on the tactics when we don’t have the ball and playing this 4-2-3-1, we have to know each other a bit better as well,” Giroud said.
Despite the club’s transfer ban, Lampard appears to have a number of options when it comes to filling the three attacking midfield spaces behind the centre-forward, and Willian looks certain to be a key option.
6. Liverpool have unearthed two understudies
Rather than sign another expensive star player this summer, Liverpool look set to bolster their squad with a couple of useful additions. Most pressingly, the departures of Daniel Sturridge and Alberto Moreno have left gaps up front and at left-back.
But two young players have perhaps solved Jurgen Klopp’s problem without the need to spend any money. Rhian Brewster has already scored four goals in Liverpool’s pre-season campaign, including a penalty against Borussia Dortmund. He could battle Divock Origi to be Roberto Firmino’s understudy this term.
Meanwhile, right-footed left-back Yasser Larouci has also impressed. Klopp has been coy about Liverpool’s pursuit of backup for Andy Robertson. “We will see. It’s not a yes, not a no,” he said when asked if the club is chasing a new left-back.
Unfortunately, Larouci was on the end of a dreadful tackle in Liverpool’s 2-1 friendly defeat to Sevilla and left the pitch on a stretcher. Depending on the seriousness of his injury, the 18-year-old could find himself involved with the first-team in 2019/20.