Preston North End: The Return

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Saturday, March 7th, 2020. What were you doing that day?

If like me, you’re a PNE fanatic, you would’ve been at Deepdale witnessing a second-half collapse as North End succumbed to an energetic, youthful QPR side. It was North End’s 4th defeat in 5 league games, and tensions were starting to run a little high. Alex Neil sounded fed up in his post-match interview, players looked dejected, fans were squabbling on Twitter. Bubbling in the background, however, was something that would change football, and the World as we know it; COVID-19.

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When North End next line up in league action, it will have been 15 weeks, 105 days, since that QPR defeat. It feels so long ago, yet it also feels like yesterday. I don’t think anyone us, walking away with a feeling of discontent at 5pm that day, could’ve foreseen such a drought of league action. To contextualise, there are usually 12 or 13 weeks between the final league game of one season and the first league game of another.

This has been the longest football drought since World War 2. Socially, this has been the most turbulent few months outside of Wartime that we’ve ever known. On Saturday though, amidst the backdrop of all that, football is back. In this article, I will look at the challenges that COVID-19 will throw at the “new” football, how I expect North End to cope, and what I think the outcomes will be. Buckle in.

Below I have outlined my main considerations, from a football but more specifically a North End point of view, to bear in mind when football does return on Saturday.

  1. No fans
  2. Time period
  3. Squad
  4. Intensity/Injuries
  5. Run In

You’ve Got No Fans

The most widely documented change to football. Every weekend across the U.K., over 600,000 fans attend the 22 games in the Premier League and Championship alone, with thousands more attending football at all levels down the pyramid. Humans are vocal, passionate beings and exude energy, which undoubtedly feeds off on the players on the pitch.

Take away the fans, and you remove all of that raucous energy that is felt and reverberated inside stadia. This will no doubt impact both home and away players but, ceteris paribus, it will undoubtedly impact the home players more. Liverpool never beat Barcelona 4-0 without 60,000 emotional scousers screaming them to victory. Home fans are absolutely key to home advantage. The 12th man is not a myth.

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We’ve already seen proof of this in the Bundesliga, which, after 55 games so far, has only seen 11 home wins (20%). Before the COVID-induced lockdown, home wins were at 43%, which is akin to levels seen around all of Europe. So, with a healthy sample size, home advantage in the Bundesliga has more than halved without the backing of home fans.

Removing home fans removes a strong and irrefutable variable. It is really that simple. A caveat to this would be that English football stadia are much more unique than Bundesliga stadia – I see German stadia as pretty identikit, large arena type stadia where the dynamics are all pretty standard, give or take. Thus, home advantage is built from more than just home fans.

In the Championship, you can go from Deepdale, to Loftus Road, to Griffin Park, to Elland Road – all very different experiences as a fan, and I’m sure as a player. So “home advantage” in the U.K. may mean more in itself. Brentford players will be used to playing in a very tight environment, whereas Man Utd players will be used to playing on a huge pitch in a vast space. There are a lot of older stadia too, with their own quirks, from dressing rooms, to dugouts, to tunnels; all small variables that probably lean towards favouring home players.

So, I expect home advantage to diminish in the U.K, but not as much as we’ve seen in the more “samey” Bundesliga. Removing the home fans variable leans itself towards teams who simply have more quality, and rely less on that energy as an input to their performance.

What does all this mean for PNE, you ask?

North End’s home record as of now reads: P:19, W:11, D:3, L:5. 36 points from 19 games, working out at 1.9 points per game – promotion form. In fact, until recently, North End were top of the “home table”. We lost the last 2 before the break though, and we now sit 4th in the home table – only Fulham, Derby and Leeds sit above us. North End have scored 35 goals in those home games (compared to a solitary 15 away). Impressive.

So, why do North End have such a good home record, with a relatively low attendance in Championship terms?

Well, for a start, the Town End do make some noise. With North End usually kicking towards the Town End in the second half of games, we’ve scored 20 goals after the interval, compared to 15 before the interval. The weird caveat with this is that North End have only scored 3 goals in the final 15 minutes of games this season – no team has scored less. This is a worry as we seem to “run out of legs” as it is in normal times, never mind after 15 weeks off.

North End have tended to start home games pretty fast. We’ve scored 5 goals in the opening 15 minutes at Deepdale, with only Fulham and West Brom starting home games quicker (6 goals apiece). That is as much down to the intensity demanded by Alex Neil as anything, and I’m not sure how much the home fans impact this.

Our home form has been underpinned by intensity as a whole – both from Neil, the players, and the fans. Clearly, we set up to play very intensely at Deepdale, and managers have spoken about coping with the first part of the game of Deepdale, so it’s clearly a trend that people have noticed. Our tactics at home have been more aggressive, particularly with the full-backs getting high to provide attacking width, something we don’t really see away. Intensity from the home team has definitely dropped off in the Bundesliga, and I’d expect similar here – the players will be undercooked.

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The biggest variable that I pin on North End’s home form is our tactical approach and intensity, not the fans, therefore losing them may not have the same level of detriment as it does to the likes of Leeds, Derby or Fulham. North End’s tactical set up at home has been the key – we are a very attacking side at home. I’m not sure if that will change in the last handful of games.

I’m expecting the Championship’s home form to take a dip, but not to the extent that we’ve seen in Germany – mainly because English home form is built upon quirks, foundations, and history – as well as tactics, which in the U.K. are pretty distinguished between home and away games.

Time Period

As I said before, by 3pm on Saturday, it will have been exactly 15 weeks since North End last played league football. An incredibly long time. Not just that, but a normal pre-season usually lasts 6+ weeks and involves 6+ games. With COVID, we are heading into the “new” season cold – North End have had around 3 weeks of full-contact training and have only played 2 friendlies.

So, if you considerably lengthen all non-footballing time, and considerably shorten “pre-season” time, you will probably end up with half-cooked players. There is absolutely no chance that these players will be in peak physical condition, and nobody expects them to be. These players are going in cold, and we shouldn’t expect too much. In my eyes, there are two wholly distinct ways of looking at which clubs this benefits.

    1. This benefits the squads who play a more intense style of football, who press more, and who are more physical. This is because these squads, Leeds, North End, Brentford etc, are more used to expending more energy, and therefore will be able to push themselves to the limits more in the 33 days of football that remain. You could argue that these types of teams, against the more passive teams, may come out on top in terms of energy and intensity, and thus won’t be relying solely on footballing ability – players will be very rusty in footballing terms. Of course, there are other factors to consider
    2. This benefits the squads who are more passive, more compact, and expend a lot less energy, maybe more defensive and relying more on set pieces. I’m thinking here of sides like Cardiff and Millwall in particular who are very organised from a defensive point of view and don’t press with any real intensity. You could argue that they won’t have to raise their levels as much, and so “going in cold” won’t be as much of a challenge to them.

Personally, I think that footballing sides may benefit over physical, intense sides – their ability to keep possession and their lack of reliance on fans to add to their intensity may see them come out on top. At Premier League level, for example, this break definitely benefits Man City over Crystal Palace. PNE are strange in that they are highly intense, but also dominate possession for large spells in games, so it’s hard to say how we will be impacted compared to other sides.

Another point to consider here is that in 15 weeks, dozens of players across the league can either return from fairly long-term injuries, or more probably, players can rid themselves of knocks that they’d probably played through for months. I estimate that at any point in a season, more than half of a squad are playing through knocks/niggles/stiffness. North End can welcome back Billy Bodin and Tom Bayliss from injury, whilst Ben Pearson was carrying an injury before the break. So, in one sense, the break has done the squad some good. The players themselves may be feeling as “fit” as they’ve ever done, simply due to resting and rehabilitating like they’ve never had the chance to do before. This, of course, affects the whole league though, and not just North End.

Let’s not forget though, even if the players are as fit as ever, the players are going from 0 games in 105 days, to 9 games in 33 days. Incredibly hectic and unprecedented. That brings me onto point 3.

It’s a Squad Game

This is a lot truer in football now than it’s ever been. 23-man squads are the norm – there was a time in football where there was only 1 substitute permitted. With 9 games in 33 days, I don’t doubt for a second that every outfield player in North End’s squad will probably get some minutes on the pitch. I’m going on the premise that Declan Rudd will play every game – but I’ve broken the squad down into 5 categories to analyse what I expect in terms of rotation purely in terms of physical exertion that will be put on the players.

  1. Centre Backs
  2. Full Backs
  3. Central Midfielders
  4. Wide Attackers
  5. Strikers

Centre Backs

The least taxing outfield role on the pitch. We’re blessed with a very well-balanced pairing. Ben Davies and Patrick Bauer offer everything you want from your centre backs – strength, mobility, aerial prowess, composure, pace. 9 games in 33 days will be incredibly taxing, but I expect Neil to try and push these two through all 9. They are both vital in the balance that they provide. Both have had their niggles this season, Davies in particular, but because they are such a well-balanced spine ahead of Rudd, I’d expect them to be pencilled in for all 9 – allowing for injury/suspension.

Full Backs

This is where I feel some issues may arise. I know this causes a lot of contention, but for me, Fisher and Hughes offer the best balance as a full-back pairing. Darnell is a complete full-back, whilst Hughes offers that aerial presence and natural balance being left-footed. They’re both expected to bomb on and provide width, meaning that their roles probably cause them to cover the most ground out of any position in the team. For this reason, neither will play all 9 games. Hughes, in particular, has struggled to string together more than 3 or 4 consecutive games, so that’s a concern.

Behind those two are Tom Clarke and Joe Rafferty – both what I’d call “able deputies”. With Clarke, you get a narrow full-back who stays close to the RCB to protect his lack of pace and§ mobility, but he does offer solidity and aerial ability. He’s very limited in offering attacking width. Rafferty will be in contention for the left-back spot – again, he’s a solid option but is fairly limited. He does seem to be quite robust though and will definitely feature in a fair few games.

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My initial thoughts are that Fisher will be pencilled in for all of the home games, along with Hughes/Rafferty competing for the left-back spot at Deepdale. I imagine Clarke will probably feature in the physically “tougher” games – potentially Huddersfield away, maybe Cardiff at home. Clarke featured in pretty much every game against Millwall who were managed by now Cardiff manager Neil Harris, so that’s something to consider. Another option is Alan Browne, whose fitness levels, mobility and general ability mean he’s a solid option for the right-back berth should such rotation be necessary. Given the demands of that position though, I expect all 5 of the aforementioned to feature at some stage over the 9 games.

Central Midfielders

Pre-COVID, Ben Pearson and Daniel Johnson were nailed on to start most games in two of the three central roles. The third player depended on opposition, form and injury, but it was mainly between Paul Gallagher and Alan Browne. We know that Ben Pearson is a vital cog in this side, but he won’t be able to play 9 games in 33 days. We are well stocked in the central areas, with Ryan Ledson, Brad Potts and even Tom Bayliss available, so in essence, there 7 players to go into 3 spaces. You could even add Josh Harrop into the mix, he has featured as an 8 or 10 on occasions.

At 35, you would expect Paul Gallagher to be saved for the “calmer” games, perhaps the games where we will be afforded more time on the ball, maybe in home games against deeper defences – Cardiff and Birmingham at home spring to mind here. We would expect to see Daniel Johnson start as many games as physically possible, in a role that is very demanding where he is expected to run beyond the striker to stretch a defence – he could start 6 or 7 games if he remains niggle free. Alan Browne will be a reliable option and may be played more in that role when Jayden Stockley starts upfront, as they link up well together in a slightly more direct approach. Potts has been trusted by Neil in big games where we play with two “pressing 10s” so we may see his energy reserved for the likes of Brentford away, Derby at home and Bristol City away. I’d imagine Ryan Ledson will fill in here and there, and Bayliss will be afforded opportunities when they arise. Let’s remember there are 5 subs in each game now, so they will all have ample time to put their stamp on proceedings.

Wide Attackers

Sinclair, Maguire, Bodin, Barkhuizen and Harrop are the five primary options for these roles. Again, due to the nature of the wide positions in an Alex Neil side, lots of energy will be expended. Tom Barkhuizen and Sean Maguire, on the right and left respectively, have been Neil’s “go-to” players – they understand the tactical elements (tucking into narrow areas defensively, stretching the game in transition, and attacking the box based on triggers) so you would expect them both to start a handful of games at least.

The North End faithful have yet to see the best of Sinclair since his January arrival, but he offers undoubted quality, albeit he is still getting to grips system-wise – we may see him used, similarly to Gallagher, in certain games where we are afforded more space to attack against more conservative full-backs. Josh Harrop has been used as an inside forward off the left on occasions this season, similarly to Maguire, but Harrop prefers to drift slightly deeper and probe with the ball. He’s improved this season and will no doubt play a big role in the coming weeks, however, he’s another who’s struggled to get a consistent run of games under Alex Neil.

Billy Bodin, by the time we restart, will have barely kicked a ball in 25 weeks, which is an incredibly long time – particularly for a player who relies so heavily on technical sharpness. We will definitely see him used, probably as a rotation option to begin with – he has undoubted quality to change a game against tiring defenders.

Strikers

This is the position that I feel could solve Alex Neil the most issues. I maintain that since we sold Jordan Hugill, two and half years ago now, we’ve struggled here. Jayden Stockley lacks the mobility to be a regular starter in Neil’s system – he’s only started 6 Championship games this season. 5 of those 6 starts came consecutively in November and December, with only 1 goal being scored in that time. He hasn’t started a league game in 2020 and there are big question marks, for me, over his ability at this level. Alex Neil clearly feels the same, however, there will surely be occasions for him to start if North End look to go more direct against teams who sit deeper – potentially Cardiff and Huddersfield at Deepdale. Stockley rarely features in the games against the “better” opposition where Neil likes to press high. He is firmly Plan B.

David Nugent, at 35, offers a similar story. He has only started 10 Championship games this season, with a solitary goal against Fulham at the back end of 2019. Nuge never looks like scoring, for me, but he does offer a bit more of a complete no.9 role than Stockley does – he drops in well, drawing out centre backs and leaving space for midfield runners (see Barnsley at home), and he still has a degree of mobility to keep a backline busy. However, he is a very average option, all things considered. At his age, it’s hard to envisage him starting more than 2 or 3 games in a row.

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Sean Maguire, according to WhoScored.com, has started 8 games up front this season. I’m a big fan of what the Irishman offers, and Neil knows what he’s going to get from him, but his confidence took a hit pre-COVID, and to me, it looks like his hamstring issues of the past 3 seasons have taken a toll on his acceleration – he looks fairly one-paced to me now. He’s an option, no doubt, but I feel he’s better suited to that freer wide left role where he can front up full-backs, rather than leading the line himself.

Tom Barkhuizen, Mr Reliable, has started a similar number of games to Maguire as that central striker, but when he does it’s usually hand in hand with a more fluid attacking set up, with a front three all rotating and causing issues with their movement. I think Barkhuizen is quite effective in that central role, and he’s a good finisher, but again, I think he’s more suited to the wide right role where has can run from out to in, into the space behind the central defenders.

So, North End have no standout option to lead the line, and it will likely be the case that the 4 mentioned players will share the role between them.

To summarise this point, I expect the following:

  • Rudd, Bauer and Davies to be omnipresent.
  • Fisher to be pushed at much as possible, rotation between the other 3.
  • Pearson and Johnson to be pushed, but plenty of midfielder rotation.
  • Barkhuizen and Maguire to be pushed as much as possible.
  • Plenty of no.9 rotation.

Intensity/Injuries

In “normal times”, the injuries that North End pick up, due to limited “genuine” squad options as well as the intensity that Neil demands, are plentiful. We can only expect these issues to be exacerbated to due to COVID-19 – Danny Rose said that he thought players were being treated as “guinea pigs”, and I have to admit, it feels like we will be playing Russian roulette when it comes to who picks up bad injuries, and who doesn’t.

According to sports scientist Joel Mason, there were 0.88 injuries picked up per game in the first round of Bundesliga action, compared to 0.27 pre-COVID. Essentially, every club picked up one injury on that first weekend. Another sports doctor, Wilhelm Bloch, commenting on the Bundesliga, claims that players will be physically exhausted by the 60th minute in games and that higher workloads will inevitably lead to more injuries. He believes that the risk of injury is infinitely higher than the risk of the virus. This trend has continued in the Bundesliga with over 60 injuries reported so far. This is a serious concern.
We must remember that there was only around 60 days of non-football in Germany, compared to 100 in the U.K – so one would expect the issue of “coming in from the cold” to be greater here.

Also, the period of contact training before games was longer in Germany was longer than we have seen here, so again, there is likely to be a greater risk here. In Premier League action on Wednesday, Arsenal had to remove Granit Xhaka and Pablo Mari inside 20 minutes.

When we look deeper, we see other issues that may lead to more injuries. Social distancing measures mean that when players have been training, they haven’t been doing their usual “prehab” or “rehab”, instantly meaning that activation and recovery aren’t optimised – instantly increasing injury risk. Moreover, when players in the U.K. finish games, there won’t be any ice baths, again, increasing the risk of injury. These are stark, and frankly concerning issues.

So, what does this mean for the Championship, and North End? Well, this obviously is of detriment to all clubs, but it will impact those more with lesser squads.

According to Transfermarkt, North End have used 25 players in league action this season – only Millwall have used less (23). In contrast, Huddersfield have used 36, Stoke have used 33, Bristol City 31 and Derby 29. So, you could argue to a certain extent that budget is correlated to players used. This hinders North End massively looking at rotation options, and freshness, in the final 9 games. North End may have used 23 players, but we all know that Alex Neil probably “trusts” around 15 or 16, so again, we will probably be punished for this.

If you pair our limited squad size with the intensity that we use, it makes for a potentially very dangerous combination going into 9 games in 33 days. We would correlate high intensity with a higher injury rate, and it was well documented that North End had external auditors perform an investigation into last season’s high injury rate. Alex Neil used the findings to increase his rotation slightly, but clearly, with only Millwall having used less players, we are very reliant on a small group of players.

Here is a summary of games missed due to injury in the 37 games so far this season (excluding Louis Moult who is an outlier due to his ACL injury in August).

PNE players games missed through injury - 2019/20

According to the data I have collated for the 22 prominent players this season, players have missed on astonishing combined 115 games due to injury so far in the 37 games this season.

This averages out at each player missing around 5 of the 37 games due to being injured (14% unavailability). This means, that each player, on average, is unavailable due to injury every 7th game. Therefore, we would assume, if “normal trends” continued, that each player would probably miss 1-2 games in the last remaining 9 due to injury. Keeping up? An issue with this is that we assume that the normal trends continue, however we know that injury risk post-COVID is heightened due to the aforementioned reasons.

We can see in the graph that certain players are more injury-prone than others – Hughes, Bayliss, Bodin and Clarke have all had long spells out this season – therefore they should be treated with specific caution in the run-in, and we may see them used more sparingly. Behind them, the likes of Johnson, Gallagher, Nugent and Fisher have all missed a fair amount of game time – all pretty important squad players. Again, there may be an increased risk that they miss more than an average number of games due to injury.

On the other hand, the more robust players appear to be Browne, Potts, Maguire, Barkhuizen, Stockley, Rafferty, Huntington, Sinclair and Ledson. In terms of the latter five, we can correlate lack of injury with lack of game time. The first four, however, have proven to be robust enough to be available for 90%+ of games, therefore they may be expected to be pushed in the 33 day spell.

In between these extremes are the likes of Davies, Bauer, Pearson and Harrop who have missed a few games with knocks here and there, so they shouldn’t be huge worries going into the final 9 games.

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Overall, we should definitely expect injuries during the last 9 games. I would suspect somewhere between 8-12 “injuries” within the squad in the 33 day period – using the extrapolated numbers, and increasing slightly due to the “standing start” factor – however, this is speculative. An increased consciousness on rotation and the 5-substitute effect may limit these.

Therefore, I have summarised the risks below, based on the number of games missed so far, with factors such as position on the pitch, age and previous muscle injuries into account.

PNE Injury Risk 2019/20

Based on this, full-back may be particularly troublesome and we may see Browne there on more than one occasion. There are a lot of key players in the “medium risk” category, and our form in the run in may be dependent on keeping these players as fit as possible, but rotation and intensity is obviously going to be a key factor, and this inhibits us due to Neil’s limited trust in some of the squad players.

To limit the injury risk, North End will have to use heavy rotation, and will probably have to limit their intensity, something we rely upon to get the upper hand in many games. Neil has been well known for pushing his players to full throttle in training as well as in games, and he has been accused in the past of using players even when running on empty. These two factors don’t bode well at all, so Neil has a conundrum on his hands.

The Run In

I have a very scary statistic to share with you all. In the 21 games this season against the current top 14, North End have only 3 wins (14%). All 3 were at home, and pre-COVID we’d gone 4 months without a win against the current top half…

Our season has been built on putting away the bottom 10 clubs. Against the bottom 10, we have the following record: P: 16, W: 13, D: 1, L: 2. 40 points from a possible 48. 2.5 points per game. An ASTONISHING record. But, one that is quite worrying all the same.

Only 16 points in 21 games against the “top 14”. 0.76 points per game. A frankly disturbing contrast to games against the bottom 10.

North End do have a tough run-in, facing 5 top-half teams. Starting on Saturday, we have 3 very arduous away journeys at Luton, Brentford and Bristol City. It may seem a negligible point, but given the new social distancing rules, away preparations will be distinctly trickier.

The other 2 away games, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield are easy enough journeys.
We’ve only picked up 5 wins on the road all season – all against teams currently in the bottom 9. Against top half teams, our away record reads played P: 9, W: 0, D: 4, L: 5. 4 points from a possible 27. With games at Brentford and Bristol City to come, this doesn’t bode particularly well. However, as already mentioned, home advantage may be a thing of the past, so this argument may be completely futile.

As touched on, our home form is very good. We’ve seen off the current bottom 10 with ease, playing 9 games, winning 8, scoring 22 goals in the process. Birmingham are the only bottom 10 side still to visit Deepdale and you’d hope we manage to put them to sword in similar fashion. Games against Derby, Forest and Cardiff will all pose threats as well.

Essentially, North End beat the bottom 10, and don’t beat the top 14. We have 5 games against the top 14, and 4 games against the bottom 10. So, you’d expect around 14 points from 9 games based on our season so far – that would probably see us miss out on the play-offs.

It remains to be seen if North End will continue to struggle against the top 14, but one thing is for sure, we really need to win at Luton if possible.

Conclusions

  • Home advantage will diminish, but this won’t impact North End as much as others.
  • “Footballing” sides will benefit over “intensity” reliant sides (North End are in the middle).
  • Alex Neil will need to trust his squad more.
  • Expect North End injury havoc.
  • North End only beat the bottom 10 teams.
  • I expect North End to finish around 10th. All things considered (squad size, intensity, injuries, run in), I think we’ll fall short. Please let me be wrong.