The difference across the past two pre-seasons at Aston Villa is huge, and preparation ahead of this season looks very different to what fans saw last year.

Words: Daniel Bettridge | @DanielBettridge


What a difference a year makes.

Cast your mind back 12 months ago and things looked very different as Aston Villa prepared for the 2022/23 season. Back then, under the stewardship of managerial cosplayer Steven Gerrard, there was more hope than expectation. Indeed among some fans, myself included, there was a healthy dose of trepidation as we feared there would be rough seas ahead for the good ship Villa.

Now however things couldn’t be more different. 

The turnaround since the appointment of Unai Emery has been nothing short of remarkable. In a few short months, he took us from relegation flirters to a return to European football – a transition so rapid it left the Villa Park faithful suffering from a collective case of whiplash.

It should come as no surprise then that on the eve of another Premier League season, positivity is riding high in B6. And beyond. From supercomputers to pundits, Aston Villa are being touted as not-so-dark horses for the coming campaign.

But can we really believe the hype? To find out, I thought it might be a good idea to compare and contrast the current state of play with last year’s preparations in an attempt to take stock of the seismic changes we’ve experienced.

A man with a plan



Look, as anyone who listens to our podcast will no doubt know, I’m not a big fan of Steven Gerrard. The man who’s currently plying his trade in the middle echelons of the Saudi Pro League seems like he has finally found the right-sized pond after floundering in the open waters of the Premier League.

Looking back the writing was on the wall for the then Villa manager before a ball had even been kicked in anger. After a disappointing end to the preceding campaign, Gerrard then lost Michael Beale, his right-hand man and the tactical brain in a jar who was responsible for the tactical side of Villa’s game.

It was a hammer blow to a team that was still struggling to find its on-the-pitch identity and left Villa in the unenviable position of starting the season relying on managerial vibes rather than a reasoned tactical plan.


Today however things couldn’t be different. In the span of half a season, Emery has created a clear tactical plan and a style of play that the squad has all bought into. And he did that without the luxury of a proper pre-season.

Going into the opening game against Newcastle we all know how Aston Villa will play and probably have a good idea of how they’ll line up. That kind of consistency is absolutely vital. With the footballing foundations firmly in place, Villa can hit the ground running, avoiding the sluggish start that haunted last season.



If there was one defining feature of Steven Gerrard’s time in charge of Aston Villa it was perhaps the regularity with which he’d throw his players under the bus. A sort of Bizzaro-world Ted Lasso, Gerrard’s approach to man management wasn’t to build his players up but repeatedly put them down at every opportunity.

The players weren’t good enough, we were told. A top striker was needed. The squad lacked “magic”. The complaints eventually crystallised around the captaincy with Tyrone Mings stripped of the armband and eventually his place in the team. The situation was messy. Airing that much dirty laundry in public is bound to take its toll, and sure enough, as the season got underway we found out just how damaging the soap opera had been to morale. 

It wasn’t just in the dressing room where the cracks were starting to show however, there was also rising discontent among the fanbase too. This time last year was characterised by division among the Claret and Blue faithful, you were either Team Gerrard or you weren’t. On social media, an environment that’s toxic at the best of times, the discourse was particularly bleak.

The connection between fans and football club, which had been rekindled in the Smith/Grealish era, had all but been severed. It was far from ideal preparation. A good start would have papered over the cracks, but a few bad results and things would turn for the worse.


It’s amazing what winning will do for a fanbase. But the sense of positivity that surrounds Aston Villa at the moment isn’t solely down to the results that we’ve witnessed on the football pitch. Sure, famous victories against the likes of Spurs, Manchester United, and Newcastle help to put a spring in our collective step. But the feel-good factor is based on so much more than the table alone.

Partly it stems from the aforementioned plan. It’s so much easier to support a team if you can understand what they are trying to accomplish on the pitch. A style of play that’s built on hard work and dogged resilience has also gone a long way to winning over the fans, as have some glorious moments of self-expression and basic footballing brilliance.

The messaging from the top has also changed. It turns out that Villa already had a top striker. That there was quality throughout the squad. And that magic could be found in the boots of players like Ramsey and McGinn. Then there was Tyrone Ming’s renaissance. The narrative had shifted. Emery was effusive in his praise for his players. No one was thrown under the bus. Instead, everyone from fans to footballing decision-makers were encouraged to get behind the boys in Claret and Blue. And the impact was palpable.

That same sense of positivity has been evident in Villa’s pre-season this time around. Robin Olsen has perhaps been the key beneficiary with Emery publicly praising the Swedish shot-stopper at a time when fans have been quick to discard him. Now as then, it’s a calculated gambit from a manager who understands the impact that the feelgood factor can have, especially during the opening salvoes of a Premier League campaign.




Aston Villa had limped over the finish line towards the end of the 21/22 season, securing just two wins in the final ten games. It was relegation form and a hangover that would continue into the summer and beyond.


In stark contrast Unai Emery’s Villa finished with six wins from their final ten fixtures, securing Europa Conference Football on the final day of the season in front of a giddy crowd at Villa Park. Momentum is firmly with us as we head into the new campaign.

Pre-season preparations


We all know that it’s hard to read anything into pre-season results. The summer matches don’t tell us much about how the team will perform during the heat of the Premier League battle, instead, it’s a time for fitness and familiarisation. But while we can’t learn much from the on-field exploits the same can’t be said about events off of it.

Rewind to last season when the team’s preparation was anything but ideal. The winter World Cup means that Aston Villa would get less time to prepare for the season ahead. Games were also disrupted by the lingering spectre of COVID-19, with Villa’s final pre-season match against Sevilla called off at the last minute. And then there was the pre-season tour of Australia. I don’t care how luxuriously you travel, a trip Down Under is going to take its toll on you both mentally and physically.

It was hardly ideal preparation.


Fortunately for Emery, there is no World Cup in Qatar to contend with. There are no COVID concerns and even though Aston Villa jetted off to the United States to take part in the alliteratively-named Summer Series – a flight to the Eastern Seaboard is a much easier ordeal to handle.

We know that Emery is a fastidious planner and so it should come as no surprise that, at the time of writing, Villa’s preparations have all but gone to plan. But Emery has also benefitted from circumstance.

In fact, this will be the first time in three seasons that Aston Villa have enjoyed a proper pre-season, something that can only be good for the team as we move into the new campaign.

Signs of success?


Look, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that Aston Villa’s pre-season preparations have been far preferable this summer than at any point during the last few seasons. There’s clearly a different vibe around Villa Park. From the people in the stands to the players on the pitch, there’s a feel-good factor about the place, and with a bonafide manager in charge, there’s a sense that anything is possible as we head into a new season.

While you can’t win the league during pre-season I do think that you can use it to your advantage. Fail to prepare properly and you start the season on the back foot, stuck in second gear while the rest of the league are purring along in fourth or fifth. Pre-season has a very real impact on physical performance, but there’s also an important psychological aspect. Villa are better placed now than they were at any other point since we returned to the Premier League. And while it’s no guarantee that we’re going to enjoy a successful campaign, if we can keep the good times rolling there’s no reason why we can’t start the season strongly.

And from there, who knows?

One thought on “A year of change: Aston Villa’s contrasting pre-seasons and the season ahead”

  1. A proper manager in place. I can’t really recall such a thing in our dugout since Big Fat Ron. I could be missing Graham Taylor but I’m getting old and the past seems like looking through a telescope the wrong way. On the other hand the future is looming large and it looks good.

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