Pre-Season: How Much Can We Learn?

While pre-season is a great time to see new signings (or should I say “signing”) in action and to see the boys back playing after a long summer break, does it have any bearing on the competitive season?

A batch of friendly fixtures is a necessary precursor to any season, for one it allows the players to build up match fitness before an arduous competitive season, but it also gives Alex Neil a window of opportunity to tinker with the system and unlock the perfect formula.

With all of this in mind, I took a look back in the archives to see if pre-season results should concern us, or if instead they can be completely ignored.

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Is there a link between pre-season and our final league position?

Preston North End typically play between 5-7 pre-season friendlies and this normally includes at least one game against Premier League opposition, along with fixtures against a host local teams.

In the 2011-12 season, our first back in League One, Preston finished 15th, despite winning four out of seven pre-season fixtures. To be frank, this was one of the most disappointing finishes in recent memory. Graham Westley took over mid-way through the season, and despite having 21 games to turn our fortunes around, he could only muster up three wins.

Clearly there was no correlation between our pre-season success and then subsequent failure in the league.

Our worst set of pre-season results in recent history belong to the 2013-14 season. First off, we lost two games, with one of these being an embarrassing 4-0 defeat away at Fleetwood. And we have only ever lost two pre-season friendlies twice in the past eight years. But despite a poor pre-season, we actually went on to finish in the Play-Off places, before eventually losing out to Rotherham United.

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Again, this just proves that there really is not much point trying to spot a trend between pre-season form and final league standing.

Since 2011, we have won four or more pre-season games, six times. Yet this has seen us finish anywhere from as low as 15th to as high as 3rd. So the link between pre-season form and final position completely breaks down.

But how does pre-season impact the start of the competitive season?

Well, this is where it gets a bit more interesting.

In that dreadful 2011-12 season, despite the foul finish, we actually made a blinding start. In pre-season our record was – W4, D2 and L1 and then in the league we W5, D1 and L1 in our opening seven fixtures. Pretty similar and it does just go to show how important momentum can be in football – whether you’re playing Bamber Bridge or Barcelona… (Maybe that’s a little bit of a stretch but you get my point).

Yet this doesn’t always stand true and last season can be used as the perfect example. Our pre-season record was W4, D1 and L1 – including an impressive 2-2 draw against West Ham and 25 goals scored in total across the six games. Yet despite winning our first competitive game 1-0, we then went on to draw two and lose three. In fact, after winning that opening game, we would have to wait until October before we picked up another victory.

But there can often be a clear correlation between our pre-season form and our form at the beginning of the season.

In the pre-season of the 2012-13 campaign, our record was W2, D1 and L1. This included a draw against Chorley and a defeat at the hands of Morecambe. And the first four fixtures of the competitive campaign saw a similar set of results, as we just lacked momentum.

Whenever we have either drawn or lost our last pre-season friendly in the past eight seasons, we have never won our first game of the season. Yet on two occasions when we have won our last pre-season game, we have also gone on to win the first game of the season.

But before I write to the club requesting that we play non-league opposition for our final pre-season game, a good pre-season doesn’t necessarily mean a good start. But there is definitely a case to be made for momentum and getting into that winning mentality. Equally, it is also crucial that we are tested. Beating teams like Bamber Bridge and AFC Fylde is all well and good, but it isn’t exactly peak preparation.

So, while we shouldn’t take an awful lot of notice of the pre-season results, it could be suggested that a decent pre-season leads to a better start to the competitive campaign.