Preston North End’s home defeat to West Brom back in September isn’t a game that will stick in many North End fan’s minds. You may be thinking back, vaguely remembering another run-of-the-mill home defeat, another leaky defensive display, or, some may remember it for Andrew Hughes’ free kick, his first goal for in a North End shirt. But there was something special about that fixture… it was the last time Preston North End lost a football match that Ben Pearson completed.
Yes, that’s right, it’s been 21 weeks, nearly 5 months since North End lost a game that Ben Pearson has finished. An incredible stat which shows just how integral “the best number 6 in the league” is to this side. What’s more, North End have lost only 4 of the 25 games that Pearo has played all season (discounting Sheffield Wednesday where he received red after 26 minutes). So, why is Ben Pearson so influential, and what does he bring to the team?
No Pearo, No Party
First of all, to show in detail just why Ben Pearson is the most important player in the Preston ranks, before even analysing his ability, we can compare our results with and without him. It’s been well documented that he’s missed 8 games through suspension this season, as well as missing a couple of games at the start of December with an injury. He also missed the league cup game against Morecambe at Deepdale, so he’s missed 11 games this season, a good sample size.
In those 11 games, North End have lost 7, drawn 2, and won 2. That record equates to a measly 8 points in 11 games, or 0.73 points per game – an extremely worrying statistic. For a bit of context, Bolton Wanderers, one of the worst sides I’ve seen at Championship level, are currently picking up 0.79 points per game. So, immediately alarm bells are raised, we’ve played almost 25% of a full season without Pearson, and in that sample size we are simply relegation fodder. I’m not saying for one moment that if he had been sold last summer, that we’d have been relegated this season, but it is certainly worrying, given that he’s almost certainly going to be the subject of some serious interest this summer.
Comparatively, with Pearson in the team, we’ve played 25 games (discounting his cameos at Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday), and in those 25games we’ve won 11, drawn 10 and lost 4. That gives North End 43 points in 25 games, equating to 1.72 points per game, which is promotion form over half a season. Middlesbrough, who have been in the top 6 all season, currently average 1.73 points per game, to give more context. It’s also worth noting that all 4 defeats with Pearson in the team came in August or September when the team was going through a transitional period before the new year.
So, essentially, with Pearson in the side we have been a top 6 side, and without him, we have been a bottom 3 side – a big concern heading into 2 huge games.
We’ve established that Ben Pearson’s absence turns North End from one of the best teams in the league to one of the worst, but what are the reasons for that?
Firstly, we can look at Pearson’s role as a protective shield for the back 4. He has an outstanding intangible quality to read the game and smell danger, and he is often the first to a 50/50 to stop a potential counter-attack. But the underrated quality that goes alongside that is his turn of pace over 10 yards, he’s probably got the best acceleration of any defensive midfielder in the league. Next time you watch him, look at his reaction when the ball goes loose – he reads the game better than anybody and he is so quick off the mark over those first few yards. Those qualities combined make him a perfect player to sit deeper and close the gaps left by other players, whether that be the full backs and or the other midfielders.
When you take this out of the team, you lose a great ability to protect the defensive shape, and teams can cut through us much easier. For example, in Pearson’s absence at home to Reading, their 3rd goal came on the counter-attack where Daniel Johnson simply didn’t have the defensive instinct or ability to stop the midfield runner, and a London bus could’ve been parked between the defensive line and the midfield, as you can see in the image below. Simply put, this doesn’t happen with Ben Pearson patrolling the midfield.
The beauty about Ben Pearson is that he can fill spaces horizontally, usually covering for his full backs, but he can also press forward aggressively and turnover the ball in the middle third. His technique at turning over the ball is exceptional and although he has done it less this season as he’s been playing deeper, very much a lone pivot, he has a great ability to press on the blindside and catch an opponent midfielder off guard with his aggression. In essence North End have somebody with the ability to sit and read the game from a deep position, but also with the ability to press and harry at the same time. This is certainly a rare combination at this level, especially compared to other defensive midfielders who lack the same mobility and ability to press forward – Livermore, Colback, Morsy, Huddlestone, Lowe etc.
Compared to all other defensive midfielders in the league, Ben Pearson is 3rd for interceptions per game, making 2 on average. He is behind only Jason Lowe and Corry Evans in this regard, but Preston have more possession on average than both Bolton and Blackburn, so Pearson has less chance to make interceptions over 90 minutes. If anyone reading knows much about Lowe or Evans, you’ll know that they lack mobility and are limited on the ball, and they are more ‘screeners’ than midfield patrollers. Pearson is also by far the youngest player in the top 5 interceptors, so his potential to improve is great.
In terms of tackles per game, Pearson makes 3, which has him in 5th place in the league compared to his fellow defensive midfielders. This is a part of his game that has caused a fair bit of contention, and it is undoubtedly something he needs to work on – especially if he is to play Premier League football, where every tackle will be scrutinised by Alan Shearer and the like every Saturday evening. Whilst there is room for improvement on his technique (often his trailing leg catches his opponent) and his tackle selection, he still ranks highly compared to his counterparts. Again, within the top 5 tacklers, he is easily the youngest, which shows that defensive midfielders tend to peak at a later age, with the majority being aged 27+. The room for improvement is remarkable, and hopefully, he will mature as he becomes more experienced.
So, Pearson ranks as one of the top 5 defensive midfielders in the league for both tackles and interceptions per game, and noticeably he is the ONLY defensive midfielder in the league who ranks in the top 5 for both. Added to the fact that he is the youngest player in the upper echelons of the rankings and suddenly it looks like Pearo is an extremely exciting talent.
This is why he’s so important to North End defensively – he is literally the only defensive midfielder in the league who is fantastic at both tackling and intercepting. His range of defensive qualities is hard to rival and no doubt his acceleration and mobility gives him the edge
If you took his defensive qualities out of even the richest team in the league, they would naturally become more brittle, so if you take him out of North End’s team, with only 21-year-old Ryan Ledson as a natural replacement, you can understand why we struggle. Ledson, undoubtedly a promising player, is still adjusting to this level and we don’t have seasoned defensive midfielders waiting on the bench to step in, so the adjustment has been tricky and Alex Neil has struggled to find the right balance in the absence of Pearson – it hasn’t just been a like for like change with Ledson filling in.
The 2 wins without Pearson have come against Morecambe in the cup, but the big one was away at Forest, who were around the top 6 at the time. So only 1 win in the league without Pearson tells us that Neil has struggled to find the right balance – when a player as good as Pearson is unavailable, it’s hard to make a like for like change, so Neil has decided to change shape more often than not.
In his first suspended game, Neil decided to go to a 3-4-3 with Gallagher and Johnson as a midfield pairing, choosing to bolster the defensive line rather than stick to the 4-1-4-1, as he obviously didn’t trust any other midfielder to carry out the role of Pearson. In the next game, admittedly away at Leeds, Neil went with a 4-2-3-1 with Browne partnering Johnson, augmented by Harrop as an 8/10, and then away at Sheffield United, he reverted back to a back 3, this time with Ledson and Gallagher as a double pivot with Browne slightly higher. In that 3 game spell, we conceded 9 goals and lost all 3 games, so Pearson’s absence hit us hard. Neil couldn’t settle on a balanced midfield, reverting to a desperate back 3, and Ledson was only introduced in the final game of that spell. Clearly, Neil was snookered by the lack of Pearson in that spell, and maybe in hindsight, he would have thrown Ledson straight in rather than changing the defensive shape, which upset the balance of the team.
Pearson’s next suspension came after 5 yellow cards and he missed Hull away, where North End were lucky to escape with a point after a lot of good fortune in Humberside. This time, Browne and Ledson partnered each other, with Johnson slightly higher, so for the 4th game in a row without Pearson the dynamic of the midfield changed. A point away at Hull isn’t the end of the world but the fact that on another day we could’ve been beaten 4-1, by a team who were in the relegation zone at the time, is worrying. With Pearson missing in December we were beaten 3-0 at Birmingham, a game that will be remembered not for Ben’s absence, but for Declan Rudd’s clanger – North End were in the game before that. Then we went to the Forest ground, with Gallagher, Browne and DJ as a midfield 3 and we did a great job on Forest, riding our luck at times but coming away with 3 points.
That was the first league win without Pearson, and the first time we played with that midfield 3 which certainly looks well balanced on paper. Gallagher with the experience and ability to get on the ball from deep, DJ with the legs to get box to box and Browne with the energy to press and break up play when needed. So finally, after 5 games, it looked like Neil had found his team without Pearson.
However, after the red card at Sheffield Wednesday, we only picked up 1 point from 3 league games, added to an FA Cup defeat at home to Doncaster. So again, we struggled. It’s a conundrum that is so hard to solve, simply because he is an outstanding player at this level and his qualities are so difficult to replicate, almost impossible. Because of this, Neil chopped and changed to find a balance, but the record speaks for itself.
Removing Pearson from the equation not only makes us defensively vulnerable, but it changes the whole balance of the team. Pearson acts as the pivot, between the defensive and midfield lines, and sets the tempo for the team to attack – he is so composed on the ball and his pass selection is usually excellent. The technical side of his game is underrated, and when we lose his ability to take time on the ball, to set the tempo and to orchestrate the team’s composition, to be blunt, we look like a high-end League One side lacking direction. This ability is often referred to as “pausa” and it’s underrated in the English game.
In terms of passes per game, Pearson ranks 8th amongst his fellow defensive midfielders, making 52.8 per game. Remove his ability to pass and move, and “attract to release”, and we lose a lot of dynamism in the middle of the pitch. He is often seen at Deepdale waiting for a man to press him, to create space for another player, usually Ben Davies, which creates a spare man and allows us to progress up the pitch. This is an intangible quality, so it goes under the radar, but it is so important in terms of controlling a game – and we can’t replace it.
The way he controls a game both in possession and out of possession is fantastic, and more and more we have seen opposition teams set up primarily to stop Pearson getting on the ball. Forest came to Deepdale and played a narrow 4-4-2 diamond, with Joe Lolley given the role of pretty much man marking Ben Pearson from the number 10 position, aiming to remove him from the build-up phase and to force us long. In fairness, it worked superbly well for Forest and it was PNE’s most toothless home performance in some time. On Saturday away at Millwall, who always play a 4-4-2, Tom Elliott was the given the task of dropping into a number 10 position and screening passes into Pearson, but he failed miserably.
Pearson’s blindside movement is fantastic, and he can pass and move his way out of most situations with relative ease. Other teams have focused on stopping Pearson in recent months, at Bolton he was man marked by the closest midfielder, but he still managed to control the ball. The attention on Pearson in recent weeks has given license for Gallagher to dictate play more deep, as Pearson is intelligent enough to move away from him and make him the free man, usually coming in off the left. This has been a great tactical ploy from Neil and it has worked to great effect. So in the last few weeks of the season, I’d expect more of the same in terms of teams man marking Pearson, which shows how highly opposition managers rate him. You can pretty much guarantee that the same treatment wouldn’t be given to Ryan Ledson, which is no disrespect, it just shows that Pearson is levels above him at this moment in time.
Pearo’s Favourite Colour
Pearson’s needless yellow card at Millwall, triggering a 2 game ban, once again opened up the debate about his mentality, and some have even said he’s a liability, or that he’s just a daft person. Whilst I agree that his decision making with referees is poor, I wouldn’t go as far as to say he’s a daft person. In his interviews, he comes across very well, and I think it’s more a case of him struggling to control his emotions, especially if he feels an injustice has been done. There are flaws in every player’s game, particularly at this level, and Pearson’s petulance is pretty much his only flaw, in my opinion. He needs to cut it out as soon as possible, but he’s still young for a defensive midfielder and I don’t feel he gets enough protection from referees.
Pearson now has 10 yellow cards this season, which is the same as Sam Morsy and Jack Colback, and 3 less than Barry Bannan who tops the league with 13. Jason Lowe, Jake Livermore and Adam Clayton all sit on 9 yellows – so that is the par score for a defensive midfielder at this stage of the season. For me, the amount of yellows isn’t a big issue, and the yellow card suspensions are part and parcel of being a combative defensive midfielder in a 46 game, ultra-competitive division. The issue is the petulance with referees, and it must be improved upon. Probably contrary to popular opinion, I feel like Pearson does have the ability to control himself quite well, but he is susceptible to the odd moment of madness because he plays with such emotion.
Maybe surprisingly to some, he is only 10th in the league of defensive midfielders for fouls committed per game, at 1.5. He is also the 4th most fouled player on the list. Maybe he isn’t yet cute enough at racking up fouls and getting away without a caution, or maybe he is unjustly treated by referees who seem to go into a game having earmarked him for a ticking off inside the first 10 minutes.
If we look at Pearson’s disciplinary record in his 3 full seasons since he joined the club, he has improved. In his first full season, he was picking up a yellow card every 184 minutes. In his second full season, was picking up a yellow card every 202 minutes, and this season he has picked up a yellow card every 218 minutes. So in each season, the frequency of yellow cards has actually decreased – he is getting better as he becomes more experienced.
So, in summary, Ben Pearson is one of the most rounded defensive midfielders in the league, and he is younger than most of his counterparts. His upbringing at Manchester United combined with his tenacity and physical qualities means that he is well capable of playing in the Premier League. Yes, there are question marks over his ability to control his emotions, but the stats show he is picking up yellow cards less frequently as the seasons go on.
Alex Neil has made his feelings about Pearson clear, saying he is the “best 6 in the league”, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. He is THE vital cog to this machine, both in and out of possession, and he is pretty much irreplaceable. He’s vital to any promotion hopes we harbour for next season and the club must endeavour to keep him at Deepdale if they’re serious about reaching the top flight and with 2 years left on his contract at Deepdale in the summer, Trevor Hemmings, Peter Ridsdale and Alex Neil won’t be forced into selling arguably their prized asset.