The Aston Villa players did not envisage, of course, that midsummer would entail 1am match debriefs and team barbecues at a Birmingham hotel, or hours in the video room analysing how Lazio and Liverpool defend.
Nor that those hours in each other’s company would put them in control of their own Premier League destiny on Sunday.
The table did not look pretty for them before football restarted. Second bottom, with the most porous defence and no firepower to speak of.
Dean Smith has turned Aston Villa’s season around and they are now on the brink of survival
But a win by two goals at West Ham on Saturday will probably be enough to keep them up and a draw would do the same, should Watford fail to win at Arsenal. This new landscape has not materialised entirely by chance.
The managers who have enjoyed most success these past few months have generally been those who used the enforced break to make changes to their team’s structure and methods.
Dean Smith’s work at Villa was arguably the most substantial of all. Smith, like Graham Potter at Brighton, felt that pre-season had not given him enough time to fully prepare for this season.
Villa’s ageing Championship squad was rebuilt, with 11 players leaving and 12 coming in after promotion last summer — some arriving only two days before the new season.
Villa’s Premier League future is in their own hands as they enter the final day of the season
The £120million spend was no trolley dash. The average fee was around £9m. Some felt that the club, who finished fifth in the Championship, were promoted too early.
The 100 days between their 4-0 defeat by Leicester City in March and the restart at home to Sheffield United was a chance to make up lost time.
Smith sat down with each of his squad to undertake individual performance reviews. He set up small groups of players to review videos of Villa games together and report back on what they felt could have been different.
‘They presented back to us what they thought was good and what wasn’t,’ said Smith on Friday. ‘When we came back, we had an agreed plan of what we wanted to do. When it’s an agreed plan, I can go and nail someone and say, “Hang on, you agreed to this”.
‘That’s certainly what we did! We’ve done a lot of video coaching that I never thought I would have to do, by Zoom calls.’
Smith had his men spend hours in the video room analysing how teams like Lazio defend
Without a great strikeforce, he concluded that making Villa more robust and effective on the break was vital, sending the squad videos of teams whose defensive work he considers exemplary. He, rather than assistant John Terry, drove this defensive focus.
Opta data shows they have faced on average eight fewer shots per game since the restart and improved their clean sheet ratio by nearly 20 per cent.
The 100-day hiatus also created time to work with Douglas Luiz on how to perform the defensive midfield role he was brought in to play last summer at a cost of £15m from Manchester City.
A Portuguese translator has been drafted in to help the Brazilian with his English skills but the break has also allowed time for the 22-year-old’s football instruction. His contribution since the restart has been a huge part of Villa’s recovery.
So has Smith’s decision to keep the players together more than any other Premier League squad and generate a tournament mentality.
Each match — home or away — has entailed two nights at a team hotel, with barbecues and debriefs into the early hours.
Smith has kept the players together as much as possible to generate a tournament mentality
‘To be together was the best way of doing it,’ said Smith. ‘It’s felt like we’ve been in a tournament. The players and staff have not seen much of their families but we felt it would help us.
‘We would do debriefs at 1am after an evening game and then quickly move on to the next one.’
It helps that he displays such remarkable mental equilibrium because there have been some dark moments. The criticism was at its fiercest when Villa lost at home to Chelsea three weeks ago, without any attacking threat.
The 3-0 home defeat by Manchester United looked like the beginning of the end. But those who have worked with Smith this season describe an equanimity amid football’s highs and lows.
The contrast with Watford —whose football has been terrible since the restart — is unmissable. Watford’s decision to dismiss manager Nigel Pearson just before Villa’s win at home to Arsenal seems an extraordinarily bad one, although a view of Pearson up close suggests that he is a difficult individual.
The overhead kick by Danny Welbeck which secured three home points against Norwich last month gave Pearson a chance to celebrate and motivate the player publicly. Yet when asked if the goal proved that Welbeck was of world-class quality, he chose to pick holes in the question.
‘You seem to have decided what to write,’ he replied.
Ben Foster admitted that the team’s confidence was ‘crazy low’ after the 4-0 midweek defeat at home to Manchester City tipped Watford into the relegation zone.
Smith described earlier this season Villa’s habit of ‘catastrophising’ when they fall behind and it is at moments like this that a 33-year career in football helps.
Villa’s future remains on a knife-edge with the club setting out plans for both scenarios
The 49-year-old recalled on Friday the last day of the 2005-06 season as assistant boss of Orient, who needed a win for promotion.
They got it, relegating Oxford to the Conference in the process. Four years later his Walsall side lost to Southampton but avoided relegation from League One because of results elsewhere.
Villa’s future remains on a knife-edge. The club have already set out plans for a Premier League and Championship future.
Smith will sleep soundly on Saturday night, which is more than can be said for his wife. ‘She seems to be the one who bears the brunt of the pressure and stress levels and I don’t think she’s watched any of the last six games!’ he said. ‘Our daughter has to tell her with an alert on the phone.’