Tactical Preview: Preston North End vs. Derby County


North End entertain Derby on Wednesday night in what will be our 5,000th league game, the first football league club to ever reach this feat. The Sky cameras will be present, but that will mainly be to gush over Wayne Rooney and his fellow young starlets. Derby travel to Deepdale in fine form, winning their last 4 games and scoring 11 goals in the process. The Rams are level on points with PNE, behind only on goal difference, and it looks as if the two are heading in different directions.

Derby’s good form is rather more prolonged than just the last 4 games. Since Wayne Rooney joined Philip Cocu’s men in January (as Mel Morris once again found a way to circumvent FFP), no Championship team has picked up more points. Derby’s record in 2020 reads P14, W8, D3, L3. 27 points from 14 games – very impressive form in a division where it’s very tricky to pick up wins.

So, we should expect a very confident side to come to Deepdale. They are full of good young players, boasting one of the best academy systems in England, with the likes of Max Lowe, Jayden Bogle, Max Bird, Louie Sibley and Jason Knight coming through, as well as the highly-rated Morgan Whittaker. Alongside that exuberance, the Rams do have some expensive older heads – Curtis Davies, Andre Wisdom, Chris Martin, Martyn Waghorn, Craig Forsyth and of course Wayne Rooney, who I rate as the best Englishman to have played the game.

Before the lockdown, Derby had only won 2 away games all season – at Swansea and Sheffield Wednesday, so question marks remain over their form on the road. However, as I spoke about in my coronavirus piece, home advantage has all but vanished and I don’t expect Derby to be at all intimidated by visiting an empty Deepdale.


Philip Cocu has used a narrow 4-2-3-1 for large parts of the season, relying on his full-backs to provide the attacking width. They look to overload central areas, with the narrower wide players and the no.10 looking for quick combinations around the edge of the box. Packing central areas and keeping possession has been a blueprint of Derby under Cocu, with the Rams averaging 52% possession this season (6th in the league) with a pass accuracy of 79% (5th in the league). Further highlighting their love of the zones 2, 3 and 4, 71% of all of Derby’s shots this season has come from the middle third of the pitch (4th in the league).

Unsurprisingly then, a league-high 30% of Derby’s attacks are through the middle third – most teams use the wide areas for 70%-80% of their attacks. So, we know what to expect from Derby, and will have to act accordingly – potentially Pearson alongside Browne again to force Derby wide.

Derby are expected to line up something like the graphic below – we must note that Andre Wisdom is now ruled out after being a victim of a horrific knife attack on Monday. The highly paid, highly experienced Curtis Davies will likely replace the former Liverpool man. Duane Holmes, another predominantly central player, is likely to replace the now suspended Tom Lawrence, who is usually very bright against North End. In Lawrence, Derby will miss the Championship’s most prominent long-range shooter, so they may have to work to get into better shooting positions on Wednesday night. Ben Hamer in net represents Derby’s main weakness, in my opinion.

Derby Set Up

To further highlight how narrow Derby like to build up their play, I have included their average positions from Saturday’s 2-1 home win over Reading. Note that they build up the first phase in something like a 1-2-4, a regular continental 1st phase system. Pep Guardiola aside (1-2-3), this is the most common way of creating a clean build up in the English game at the moment. Wide centre backs, with the full-backs wide, in the same line as the double pivot.

The “front 4” are all incredibly narrow and they will look to play in the pockets inside our full-backs and behind our midfield line. Whether North End aim to press Derby in the build-up and force them long remains to be seen – this would seem likely, however, with Chris Martin up front, Derby have a very astute no. 9 who won’t mind the physical battle if they look to play over the press to him.

Derby Avg Positions vs. Reading

So, when Derby build-up, we may see this sort of shape. Obviously, it depends how North End set up, but Neil has generally opted for a mobile 4-1-4-1 against such sides in the past.

With the new rule with players being allowed inside their own box, a new problem has been posed for the defending team from these situations. Matt Clarke, who is exceptional on the ball, may come short, where he will be pressed by North End’s striker. Alternatively, there will be a 2v1 on Derby’s right, with the RCB and Rooney being available for the short option. Our no. 10, take DJ for example, will be tasked with that “half-half” role to try and remove Derby players from the first phase, however we usually see teams play out of this.

Max Bird, the second pivot, may drop slightly deeper to create a 5v3, however, this poses an issue for Bird’s marker, as if he follows Bird, that left-hand half-space will be hollowed for Holmes to receive in. Alternatively, Hamer could go long to Martin who will be closely flanked by the 3 in the 4-2-3-1, or they could even find Waghorn. Either way, Derby’s set up forces a lot of tactical issues.

Derby Set up 1

In previous games, opponents have opted to use two-man markers on Derby’s double pivot in order to try and remove them from the build-up. With Matt Clarke being the better of the centre backs with ball progression, this has often left Andre Wisdom being the spare man in the build-up. Rooney, with his game understanding, moves into a wide area, followed by his marker, and this creates central space for Wisdom to carry the ball into and to progress via dribbling, instead of passing.

Curtis Davies lacks the same mobility and probably a bit of ability, but this could be another option for the Rams on Wednesday night. This will create a dilemma for Preston’s no.10, who will remove himself from the game if he follows Rooney, or if he doesn’t follow Rooney, he will leave the Liverpudlian with acres of space to progress the ball. Derby will use various methods to try and create as clean a build-up as possible.

One thing they may lack is runners off the ball, so Preston may try to condense the pitch and engage as high as possible, knowing that Martin, Holmes, Waghorn and Sibley are unlikely to cause them real issues with penetrating movement off the ball. However, if Jack Marriott enters play, that’s another story.

Derby Set up 2

So, Derby will try and create a clean first phase, with short passes and movement in the half-spaces, from where they like to use the “up, back, through” method and get their narrow attackers to drive at the heart of the opposition defence. In aiming to create this type of build-up though, Derby do leave themselves very open to transition if mistakes are made.

Below is a graphic I have recreated from Derby’s win at Millwall. Andre Wisdom is dispossessed and Millwall almost score from the transition. Note how high the far side full-back is (Forsyth) – with many teams nowadays we usually see that full-back tucking in on the defensive line to resemble a back 3, however here they are very open.

Derby v Millwall

Note that Millwall leave their RW in a “half-half” position to maximise the threat of transition, much like we saw from Hoilett at Cardiff in my previous tactical preview. Millwall find the RW in acres of space. This may suit Preston, who love pressing their opponents high. These types of patterns are common themes for Derby, and these are the types of risks you need to take if you want to be an expansive side – this may be Preston’s biggest strength on Wednesday night. Hence, we may see the likes of Potts, Browne, Maguire and Barkhuizen in a high pressing system. If Derby make a clean first phase, they become very dangerous with narrow attacks and fast interchanges around the final third.

Apart from the obvious threat in Wayne Rooney, Louie Sibley has been a revelation for the Rams post lockdown. Playing as a no.10, he looks to have exceptional football intelligence, constantly finding pockets of space behind midfield lines, and possessing great balance. As a natural left-footer, he is very comfortable on his right and has a very rare quality in that he is desperate to get shots off.

If Sibley is found in space around the box, he is outstanding at wriggling past defenders and getting shots off from “zone 14”, more commonly known as the central space around the box. He will shoot off both feet with limited backlift, and without wanting to hype him up, he looks like a special talent with one thing on his mind – goals. In fact, of Derby’s 12 shots against Millwall, Sibley was responsible for 8. Below is his shot map from that game – 6 shots inside the width of the 6-yard box and a couple from range. His hat trick contained a bit of everything – power, agility, balance, close control and incredible finishing ability. As I said, look out for his limited backlift.

Louie Sibley shot map v Millwall

Out of possession, Derby don’t rank particularly highly in terms of pressing, ranking 14th in PPDA (passes per defensive action). Derby, on average, allow the opposition 11 passes before they regain the ball. North End on the other hand rank 3rd. This doesn’t correlate with results, as we know (Barnsley rank 2nd), but it’s a good indicator of what to expect when the Rams are out of possession. Ranking in the middle, we can probably expect an initial press when they lose the ball, but Cocu won’t have his players busting a gut to win the ball back instantly. This for me is where a weakness of Derby’s arises.

With Max Bird and Wayne Rooney “protecting” the back 4, and with full-backs who get high and wide and attackers who get narrow, there will undoubtedly be occasions for North End to attack in wide areas, drawing out the likes of Rooney and Davies, to overload in the middle. Again, this is something that we saw from Millwall in the first game post lockdown. As Derby’s front 4 is quite fluid, and their double pivot lacking genuine defensive instinct, there will be holes to pick against a side who have conceded 52 league goals so far this season – only Bristol City in the top half have conceded more. So, there will be chances in transition, but there will also be chances if North End build up sustained attacks, as there is little to no defensive instinct in front of the back 4.

Against Millwall, we often saw Rooney in particular caught in a 50/50 position out of possession – not pressing his opponent and not cutting off a passing lane behind him – this means he is often out of the game and his lack of recovery pace means he struggles to get back into a defensive shape – DJ could exploit this space. Millwall’s first goal is shown below, with Rooney and Bogle caught, and Duane Holmes struggling to recover from his high, narrow attacking position.

Millwall Goal v Derby

Derby lost the ball in the middle third, with Rooney and Holmes ahead of the ball, and they struggled to recover into a shape. Bogle with his recovery pace managed to square up his attacker, but a 2v1 was created as Holmes did not recover, and Rooney lacks the athleticism to fill the space. Matt Smith headed home at the back post. The wide areas are where Derby will be most vulnerable and least dangerous, so it is up to Alex Neil to attack this.

So, we know that Derby will be vulnerable in transition and wide areas, but another Achilles heel is their vulnerability from set-pieces. The Rams have so far conceded 14 set-piece goals – only 5 teams have conceded more. It must be said that they aren’t the biggest side, however, Curtis Davies coming in may improve them in this respect. Matt Clarke isn’t the biggest centre back, and neither full-back is aerially imposing. As they prefer a more technical, fluid approach in possession, this lends itself to smaller players, and thus they lack height in those more forward positions (Martin aside). So, this is something North End may look to exploit.


• Derby love the central areas – no team builds up more centrally, and few teams shoot more centrally.

• Derby love possession with quick, narrow interchanges and fluidity – 393 short passes per game – only 5 teams play more. Will build up short with overloads.

• Louie Sibley is a special talent – football intelligence, balance, dribbling ability and finishing off both feet.

• Vulnerable in defensive transition.

• Lacking defensive instinct.

• Vulnerable from set-pieces – lacking height.

Overall, this is a very tough game. We know what to expect from Derby, and I hope Alex Neil attacks this positively with a high press and quick transitions – Barkhuizen, Potts, DJ and Maguire behind Sinclair, for me.

Derby will be in high spirits with some very confident youngsters and some very experienced heads. A Derby fan I spoke to expects a 0-3 win, I think North End will succumb 1-2.