Preston North End will face a tricky return to action in the Championship following the current international break. First, we travel to Pride Park to face Phillip Cocu’s Derby County before heading back up and over the Pennines to take on Hull City, all rounded off when we face current league leaders West Bromwich Albion at Deepdale on December 2nd.

West Brom are, incidentally, the only team that lies above PNE as we ‘enjoy’ this international break, with North End’s superlative start to the season being a matter of great enjoyment for fans. Noticeably, it has also been a source of unfathomable anger and incredulity from some, shall we say; “more entitled” portions of fanbases in the Championship?

“Should be wiping the floor with the likes of Preston” whinged a Leeds fan on Twitter, following the sides’ 1-1 draw under the lights at Deepdale on October 22nd.

At the time Leeds were only two points above North End. Two points of course, that we have since made up and currently sit above them on goal difference. A truly remarkable achievement when you consider, at least according to a lot of Leeds’ fanbase, that the size of their crowds means they have an automatic right to a win in every game.

I joke, and I’m certainly not blind to the idea that we’re punching above our weight with our league position somewhat, at least in terms of financial clout. How and why we’ve got where we are currently sitting in the table is a matter of much discussion. We at From the Finney have talked about it on podcasts, in tactical pieces about Alex Neil’s approach to games and of course, joined in the conversation in PNE-related corners of social media.

We have played some superb football this season, scored a lot of excellent goals and defended (for the most part) much more solidly than we have seen in recent years. Our home form has been particularly impressive.

All of that though, to hear it from some sides of the Championship observer base, is absolutely irrelevant. According to some, there is one reason and one reason alone why we are having such a degree of (what they at least determine to be) undeserved success.

Penalties

Yes, yes, we have had several penalties. Eight, in fact. More than some clubs often get in a season, let alone in the opening sixteen games of a season. In fact, should you be counting back to find North End’s last eight Championship penalties awarded prior to this season, you would have to go back as far as January 2018; almost two years ago!

It has been an exceptional season in terms of penalties, among other things, for North End. But, to take a leaf out of the book of the saying “you can only beat what’s put in front of you”, it isn’t exactly something we can be justifiably berated as a club for benefitting from.

So, eight penalties this season. Five taken by Daniel Johnson, with the other three taken by Paul Gallagher, all converted and all but one contributing to games in which North End took at least a point, the only exception being the first penalty of the season for DJ, coming in the 3-2 defeat at the Liberty Stadium on matchday 3. Has it been unfair though?

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The only way I can see to assessing whether it was fair for North End to be awarded these penalties or not is to, first take them as individual events and assess them, before looking at how our style of play is conducive to winning these penalties and whether or not the level is sustainable. So let’s do it.

Penalty Number 1

Daniel Johnson vs. Swansea (a)

The first penalty of the season came after a long diagonal from Darnell Fisher to Sean Maguire. The ball bypassed the defence and was half-controlled by Maguire which left him with a bouncing ball in the area up against young Swansea right-back Connor Roberts.

Maguire nodded the ball over the Welsh international and would have been alone in the 6-yard-box, had the Swans’ academy product not clumsily clattered into him. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and, in fairness to Swansea, there were few complaints.

Penalty Number 2

Daniel Johnson vs. Sheffield Wednesday (h)

Similarly, this penalty originated from a long ball over the defence. Again, it was to Maguire, but this time it came from goalkeeper Declan Rudd. Seani again controlled the bouncing ball and looked to squirm past the opposition right-back, his marker for the day Moses Odubajo.

We are all familiar with Maguire’s agility and low centre of gravity, contributing to excellent balance and ability to work within a small space. Odubajo couldn’t prevent Maguire squeezing goal-side and, just as Roberts had barged him over at the Liberty Stadium, Odubajo saw his only option to be to haul the Irishman to the floor.

Penalty Number 3

Daniel Johnson vs. Sheffield Wednesday (h)

Wait, this sounds familiar… The first of two times already this season we have had two penalties in the same game. Not only this, it was Sean Maguire again, and again, he was brought down by Moses Odubajo.

It came from a fairly routine throw-in, level with the 18-yard-box on the left side. The ball was thrown to Browne who controlled on the left edge of the box with his back to goal. Maguire ran, first towards the corner flag, before arcing his run and darting into the half-space between Odubajo and the centre-half Börner.

Browne spotted the run from his Republic of Ireland teammate and fed the ball into his path. Seani’s touch out of his feet on the run was good, taking him past Odubajo who instinctively stuck a leg out. Too late, though. No complaints from the former Hull defender. As “stone-wall” as they come in my opinion.

Penalty Number 4

Paul Gallagher vs. Bristol City (h)

It was Gallagher himself who swung in a trademark free-kick from deep. As his deliveries often do, it caused havoc in the Robins’ defence and there was a bit of pinball involving Bauer before it fell to DJ on the edge, who goes to shoot. His left leg is clipped as he pulls it back for the shot and he goes down.

This is probably the pick of the penalty decisions that have had the least to do with North End’s attacking guile, just a clumsy challenge after a bit of a scramble. Arguably, it’s also the most debatable decision of the lot. There was certainly contact, but enough for DJ to go down?

Penalty Number 5

Daniel Johnson vs. Bristol City (h)

It might be time to insert that meme of Brenda from Bristol saying “you’re joking, not another one!?” at the prospect of a General Election.

For the second time in three home league games, North End had their second penalty of the game. Barkhuizen dropped deep from his role as the centre forward, a position he’s impressed in when asked to fill in there this season. This pulls the defender who was initially marking Maguire into the midfield.

Maguire again peels off having lost his marker, whose attention has switched to Barky, this time peeling away and to the right. Ashley Williams is pulled out of position into the left-back role and uses his forearm to block Maguire’s cross.

Unnatural position? Certainly. Done in desperation as part of an out of position and backtracking defensive line who had all lost their marking charges? Maybe. Caused by PNE’s forwards’ movement? Definitely. Penalty? Stone-wall.

Penalty Number 6

Daniel Johnson vs. Blackburn Rovers (h)

It was a fairly innocuous long ball up from Rudd to Jayden Stockley, who had been brought on in the first half to help combat what looked like a lost cause after going 2-0 down inside 12 minutes of this Lancashire derby.

In fact if anything, the ball from Rudd looked a little short at first. Stockley, whose run to meet the ball had drawn Tosin Adarabioyo out of position, took advantage of Adarabioyo misjudging his jump to flick the ball on into the path of Alan Browne who was making a darting third man run through the heart of the defence. Cue panic in the Blackburn defence.

Derrick Williams intercepts at first but his swiping effort to clear only serves to poke Browne further through on goal. Suddenly, we look nailed on for what felt like an unlikely equaliser, with Browne running through on goal with the ball sitting up beautifully for him to crash it home. Tracking across the defence was Elliott Bennett, covering from right-back who seemed to be the only one who had spotted Browne’s run, gets to the Irish midfielder and, in a flurry of limbs tugs on his arm in desperation as North End’s number 8 looks certain to score.

Browne went down rather theatrically in honesty, but it was probably a penalty (although, to play Devil’s Advocate, they definitely had a bit of each other).

Penalty Number 7

Paul Gallagher vs. Charlton (a)

This one was as clear as they come in all honesty. Joe Rafferty picked the ball up on the left flank and his cross from deep was looking plum for the head of Jayden Stockley. The big centre forward was looking ready for his first goal of the season, only to see it be delayed (albeit only for a week) when he was hauled down to the ground by his marker and saw the ball fly over the both of them.

To be frank, it was more a rugby tackle than an attempt at an aerial challenge. Again, fairly basic tactically-speaking this time. Stone-wall penalty.

Penalty Number 8

Paul Gallagher vs. Huddersfield (h)

This one was similar in a lot of respects to the Bristol City handball, but with Maguire and Barkhuizen swapping roles. Maguire carried the ball in a deeper central position while Barkhuizen this time peeled off to the right. Huddersfield were much better organised defensively than Bristol City, with Trevor Chalobah seeming to marshall Maguire quite effectively until he played the ball out to Barky. With Fisher overlapping in the wing-space, left-back Terrence Kongolo had to maintain his position and not closely mark Barkhuizen, who was occupying the half-space, too closely.

He stands off because he needs to both pressure Barkhuizen but also be able to close down Fisher should the ball be played into the channel. Huddersfield seem to be defending this situation quite well at this point, but Kongolo puts his body in an unnatural position, blocking Barky’s cross with his upstretched hand. Clear penalty.

It was one of the more “unnecessary” penalty concessions we’ve seen but, at least in my opinion, it’s odd to begrudge a team from benefitting from a moment of madness from their opposition.

How Do We Win So Many Penalties?

So what do most of these situations have in common? There are various situational differences to all of them but, in all but perhaps the first against Bristol City and the one at Charlton, there is something of a constant. That constant is the fluidity and movement within Preston’s front four.

Maguire and Barkhuizen are particularly conducive to this side of North End’s game. They both have good pace and an ability to utilise small pockets of space, although Barkhuizen favours the former and Maguire the latter, and this means that when the two are always moving, especially when combined with the movement of others, North End’s attack is very difficult to keep track of for the opposition.

Key to both of these players is the use of the space in which they like to operate. Maguire favours the half-space on the left-hand side, getting himself between the full-back and the centre back. A prime example of this is the second penalty he won against Sheffield Wednesday at Deepdale in August. His run, arcing back and sprinting into the half-space was too much for Moses Odubajo who brought him down in the blink of an eye.

The players around Maguire and Barkhuizen contribute to this too, the physicality of Stockley (when he utilises his aerial ability effectively) is often too much for defenders. In fact, in the Huddersfield game, he should arguably have been given a penalty himself and probably would have been when he was shoved in the back in the 6-yard-box as he looked set to head home his second. I think this would have been given had Alan Browne not been positioned at the far post to score anyway.

It’s important to also not underestimate the uses of the midfield. Alan Browne darted in behind the defence with a third man run to win the penalty against Blackburn and, although it has to be said Browne was operating on the right of the supporting three and not his standard deeper midfield role, a run such as the one he made for the penalty is not something we would be surprised to see in his usual game.

Third man runs are utilised perhaps most notably by Chelsea under Frank Lampard and was a method they employed under Maurizio Sarri too. The ball into the attacking third is collected by a player dropping deep, usually a forward, whilst another player, midfielder or winger runs beyond him. The ball is then played through the gap created in the defence by the centre-halves being pulled out of position.

Another instance of North End using the third man run that sticks in the mind is Daniel Johnson’s second goal in the 5-1 demolition of Barnsley. Sean Maguire this time running back to receive the ball close to the halfway line, pulling defenders with him before knocking the ball to Paul Gallagher.

The defenders pulled out by Maguire gave DJ acres of space to run in behind the Barnsley defence, allowing Gally’s expertly weighted through-pass to put DJ in on goal and he finished with aplomb. This was a fine example of the quality of goal North End’s movement allows us to be capable of from open play.

Will it Last?

Now for the main question; is this it sustainable? There has been a fair bit of discussion amongst North End fans and other media outlets (Hi, Not the Top 20 chaps!) as to whether the rate at which we’re getting and converting penalties is sustainable.

There’s a couple of answers to this in my opinion, or rather, you have to choose which question is a priority. Firstly, you might ask if we’re likely to continue getting a penalty every other game, to which the gut instinct would be to reply something along the lines of “No, of course not, that would be silly”. Will we get 23 penalties this season? I doubt it.

But, in my opinion, there’s a more important underlying question; Will not being awarded penalties for the rest of the season, at quite the same astonishing rate as we have in the first third of the campaign, definitely affect the way in which we’re currently competing at the top end of the table?

For this rather long-winded question, I would say “not necessarily”. You only have to look at the way in which we’ve won the penalties we’ve had so far this season to see why. Barring a couple of unnecessary errors from opponents, such as Terrence Kongolo’s handball for Gally’s penalty in the Huddersfield game, all the penalties have been a result of swift, fluid attacking play in the opposition area.

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There is, of course, the hypothetical of what might have happened should the foul or handball have not been committed and we have talked about a prime example in Alan Browne’s goal against Huddersfield, which almost certainly should have been called back for a penalty for the push on Stockley should Browne not have been there.

So, to answer that all-important question a little more satisfactorily than “not necessarily”, I would say that we are unlikely to carry on getting a penalty every other game, but it’s just as likely with our very good attacking play that we find goals from other situations. We would, after all, be the joint fifth-highest scorers in the division even if we had been awarded no penalties at all this season!

Long story short, my message to those fans both of PNE and otherwise, who are concerned about the number of penalties we’ve been getting and whether it means we deserve our position would be this;

Don’t panic, because we’re a damn good side anyway.

Finally, a shameless plug for our podcast. If you haven’t yet listened to any episodes then just hit the play button below to get your North End fix ahead of the weekend’s game. We have also recently released a new episode of From the Finney Meets… with Neil Mellor.