If the Championship season had started on October 1st, Preston North End would be sitting nicely in 6th position, occupying the final play off place. Since the start of October, starting with that crazy game at Villa Park, North End have picked up 32 points from 20 league games, with just 4 defeats, collecting 1.6 points per game, which works out at 74 points over a season – usually enough to sneak into the playoffs. Before the 3-3 draw at Aston Villa, North End had just 5 points on the board from the opening 10 league games, were languishing in the relegation zone, and the pressure was starting to mount on Alex Neil.
Comparisons had been drawn about his time at Norwich, where he supposedly “lost the dressing room” towards the end of his spell there, and a few even predicted a relegation with a record low points tally. He kept switching between 3 and 4 at the back, goalkeepers were being rotated and we were conceding over 2 goals per game – it looked ominous for the Scot. So, how did he turn PNE from one of the worst performing teams in the league to one of the best?
When PNE opened the season with a typical 1-0 home win against QPR, many thought it was going to be more of the same from last season. A solid enough home performance, defensively assured, but with little attacking impetus. However, few thought that it would be our only win until October 6th. Following the QPR game, North End lost 7 and drew 2 of their next 9 league games.
The Start of a Poor Run
The first thing to note about the horrific opening 10 games is that PNE actually played 4 of the current top 7 away from home (Norwich, Derby, Leeds and Sheffield United). In isolation, defeats to each of these teams would probably be reluctantly accepted, but as they came in 4 consecutive away games, and as the table was still not fully formed, these defeats appeared much worse than they actually were, at a time when hysteria was in full flow around the club. PNE performed admirably at Carrow Road and succumbed to 2 late Norwich goals (a theme at Carrow Road all season) – it could’ve been so different had Callum Robinson’s superb solo run and effort had been a few inches lower with the scores at 0-0.
They were the better team at Pride Park before the opening goal, and the second half performance at Bramhall Lane was a positive sign of things to come. Leeds away at Elland Road was the only time North End were well beaten, with Bielsa’s machine very well oiled and they simply played us off the park, which they have done to many teams this season. So, this sequence of 4 away games was very unfortunate for PNE, and the fixture computer certainly could’ve been kinder. The fact that these 4 away defeats happened in succession, before the table had formed, mounted pressure on Neil. In hindsight, performances were OK and they are now clearly very tough venues to go – those 4 teams have collectively won 34 of 59 home games this season, 58%, which isn’t to be sniffed at.
A theme from all 4 of these away games was that we conceded from a set piece in each of them, as we did at Swansea away in the first away game of the season. There are numerous arguments about why we have conceded so many set-piece goals, 16 according to Whoscored.com.
My main theory is that we have lacked height and aggression from set-piece situations, and another theory is that Declan Rudd’s main weakness as a keeper is commanding his area. The goal conceded from the corner at Derby came from Paul Huntington being bullied in the air, and Declan Rudd failing to make a routine save. Rudd made a clanger for Leeds’ first goal at Elland Road from yet another corner. Bramhall Lane saw Andrew Hughes beaten very easily in the air from a wide free kick, and Norwich scored from the second phase of a corner.
So, when you’re conceding a set piece goal in almost every game, you’re immediately 1-0 down. Paul Huntington has been beaten directly by goal scorers from 5 set pieces and doesn’t have anywhere near the physicality he once did, so hopefully, Storey and Davies can improve us in that respect. Declan Rudd seems to have moved on slightly from his awful run of form, but he still seems to lack that true self-belief to dominate set piece situations.
Rather than those tricky away games, the home form was my main concern in the opening 10 games. A narrow 1-0 win vs QPR aside, we drew 2-2 with Stoke and Bolton and lost 2-3 against Reading and West Brom. 5 points from 5 home games is not absolutely terrible, but it is poor form. Out of those teams, only West Brom occupy a top half place at the moment, so a 5 point return looks below average. QPR aside, the defending over the course of these games was pretty horrific. Performances against Stoke and Bolton were good enough to win the game, comfortably, but Stoke stole a point via a late set-piece goal and Bolton scored 2 goals from a combined distance of around 50 yards (thanks Declan). Against Reading and West Brom, Alex Neil, already under massive pressure, decided to try out 3 at the back to offer more central stability, but we were shakier than ever.
A theme for me over those first few home games, which not many people agreed with, was the role of our full backs/wing backs. In my opinion, they were being asked to play a lot higher than they had been in 2017/18, and we would regularly see Hughes and Fisher’s average positions be way higher than our central defenders – which is normal, but it felt like they were very high. On top of this, Hughes and Fisher have an above average output in the final third, as you can see from the tweet below.
How important are full-backs to Championship teams this season? Of course, these metrics won’t give you the full picture but they do point one in the right direction. pic.twitter.com/EKqnWhIgB3
— Ram Srinivas (@rramesss) February 6, 2019
Quite simply, when both of your full backs are very high, you are very exposed down the sides, especially if your central defenders are not comfortable covering in wide areas. I think this ploy cost us a few goals early on, the main example being Erik Pieters goal for Stoke – notice Graham Burke’s role in this as well – he is badly lacking in tactical awareness. The switch to 3 at the back was presumably aimed at counteracting the gaps left by the high fullbacks, but it confused the players more than it helped them, and we continued to concede from wide areas – again, lacking height and aggression.
As the season has gone on, we have improved in this respect, Barkhuizen and Robinson understood clearly the role of protecting our full backs, whereas Barker and Burke didn’t in the early weeks of the season. Clearly, our fullbacks have been reigned in the further into the season we have gotten. The introduction of Clarke for Fisher was a natural remedy for this, and Hughes has been more cautious going forward in recent months. This has made us more stable and less vulnerable to wide attacks.
The loss of Sean Maguire and Billy Bodin on the eve of the season was a huge blow, in more ways than one. We will never know, but judging on pre-season and Alex Neil’s comments, they were both penned in to start the season, along with Callum Robinson in what sounds like a very dynamic front 3. Losing both of them immediately left us short up front, and we effectively replaced them with Brandon Barker and Lukas Nmecha – with a combined Championship experience of 4 games, all coming from Barker’s loan spell at Rotherham. So to replace 2 key attackers with a couple of loans with no experience at the level immediately upset the balance of the team.
Maguire and Bodin are both unique players, the way Maguire drifts past players, runs in behind, drops into pockets and links up play was a key cog to our system for a lot of last season. Bodin was the only left-footed attacker and definitely one in the mould of “technician”, he glides past players and commits defenders like nobody else.
So we lost 2 very important cogs to our system, not just in an attacking sense, but in terms of the balance of the squad. Rather than sign another left-footed wide player, Graham Burke was shoved into the wide right position and looked completely lost in the early part of the season, and he is now playing in League One. It cannot be underestimated the amount of tactical detail Alex Neil demands from his wide players and attackers, so to be left with Burke, Barker and Nmecha as 3 of the main attackers on the eve of the season set us back a few games. Whilst we did score goals in that early spell, the balance of the team was clearly not right.
It is worth noting as well that after Ben Pearson’s red card against Bolton, we lost 3 in a row. After his red card against Sheffield Wednesday, we lost 2 and drew 1 of our league games (also lost vs Doncaster in the FA cup). It is safe to say that Ben Pearson is the key player in our team, we simply can’t get close to replicating him, which is understandable because I firmly believe he is better than most Premier League defensive midfielders.
An End to a Poor Start
So, there were a few key reasons, I believe, for our poor start. Simply, the fixture list was very unkind. We struggled with set pieces, and our full backs’ role in the team was too adventurous. Huntington’s rapid decline cost us goals, as did the lack of tactical understanding from the new players chucked in at the deep end. The whipped up hysteria, mainly from Twitter, caused Neil to change the system, which only exacerbated the problem. Add in Pearson’s absence and suddenly it looks like Neil’s hands were very tightly tied in that early run.
Whilst our form since that Villa game has been due to correcting the wrongs I have mentioned, it simply coincided with players gaining form. Ben Davies, who had struggled alongside Huntington early on, once again looks like the Rolls Royce defender we saw last season. The recent introduction of Jordan Storey has been positive, as it allows him to confidently step up into the midfield areas knowing that his partner has the mobility and ability to cover him. Storey has only conceded 1.21 goals per game in the league, whilst Hungtington has conceded 1.66 – so the new partnership is much sounder defensively, as well as more balanced in possession.
The reintroduction of Paul Gallagher has added some much-needed control and experience in central midfield after he only started 4 of the first 10 league games, and he has been one of our better performers, contributing with some excellent, mature performances. In Pearson, Gallagher and Browne, Neil found a very nicely balanced midfield, and now with the introduction of Potts, allowing us to play 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1, the midfield looks formidable.
Players have visibly matured and improved as the season has progressed, and they are now better players than they were in August. Davies, Hughes, Nmecha, Storey, Browne and Pearson have all improved in my book and particularly the latter two look very comfortable at this level and I have little doubt that they could play even higher. That is the beauty of having a young squad, and there’s no doubt that they will keep on improving.
During that horrific run of games, I had little doubt that we would turn it around, and I still thought we’d be comfortably in the top half come May. Whilst any talk of a late playoff charge looks extremely unlikely, I retain the belief that we will be in the top half after 46 games. We have an excellent squad and an excellent young manager who, in my opinion, needs to be backed from all sides of the club.