It was only a few years ago that Arsenal’s preseason campaign consisted of an opener at Barnet and a quiet training camp in Austria. There was no fanfare; it was all focused on getting the squad ready for the new season. Arsene Wenger liked the quiet, understated nature of preseason.
That has all changed for the Gunners. The first-team squad has jetted off on its third consecutive preseason tour of Asia. Arsenal will face an Indonesian dream team, Vietnam, Nagoya Grampus and Urawa Red Diamonds in Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. From a football point of view, matches with these sides won’t tell Arsenal fans too much about the squad as match fitness and finding form will be the main aim. The team will be tested more later in preseason in the Emirates Cup against Napoli and Galatasaray and the friendly with Manchester City in Helsinki, Finland.
The trip to Asia is about much more than the football. For a club that prides itself on being self-sustaining, it could be seen as strange that Arsenal have taken longer than other big clubs to increase their commercial activities. In the Premier League era, Manchester United were one of the first clubs to go on a big preseason tour, and their worldwide support and sponsorship deals have subsequently given them an advantage over the rest of the league. Whether it was Arsenal’s desire for a quiet preseason or just an unwillingness to expand their commercial horizons, the grand preseason tour was long overdue by the time the Gunners flew out to Asia in 2011.
For some, the tour to Asia is just another distraction from making signings in preseason. With stories about Higuain, Suarez and Rooney, the likelihood is that it will be difficult to secure the signing of one of them when on a different continent. To get a new signing integrated into the squad, there would be only the Emirates Cup and Manchester City friendly before the start of the season.
The catch-22 for Arsenal is that these preseason tours do boost the club’s commercial profile. If fans want the club to compete for big-name signings and have the big money to spend on them, it needs to compete commercially with Manchester United, Chelsea and even Liverpool in terms of the deals that can come with greater appeal globally.
With all the extra activities that the players are taking part in during the tour outside of training, it is great for foreign fans who don’t have the chance to see the squad during the season. I'm not a fan of the "39th game" idea for the Premier League of having one match a season played abroad, but the preseason does offer teams the chance to engage with loyal supporters who aren't within reach of Emirates Stadium. Some English fans might question who the club is catering to and which group of fans its priorities are for, but you can’t ignore the support in the global market of football. Some of the images of Arsenal arriving in Jakarta this week have been extraordinary, and anyone who wants the club to be successful should be heartened to see the support for the Gunners across the globe.
While a long-distance trip to Asia might not seem ideal for preseason preparation as there will be distractions from the football, Arsenal have to embark on these tours to engage with fans across the world and increase the commercial potential of the club. Financially, it’s needed to compete with other clubs and make the big signings all fans hope for. Plus, it’s just going to be good to see an Arsenal team back playing football again Sunday. It’s felt like a long two months since the end of the season.