When PNE host Bristol City on Saturday we seem to be in store for a much sterner test than we have experienced from Lee Johnson’s side in recent years. Both sides have been in superb form of late. North End are currently eight unbeaten, but City have just started to falter, with two straight losses following a long streak without a defeat.
This will be the second consecutive game that North End have had a number of days more recuperation time than their opponents. Millwall’s fatigue from a midweek fixture compared to our freshness was almost certainly a key factor in North End’s quick start and the final result.
The Lilywhites will be hoping to press home the same advantage against The Robins, who visit Deepdale on Saturday having played, and lost, at home to Birmingham City in midweek after their winning run came to an end at the weekend against top of the table Norwich City.
North End have already collected our seemingly mandatory three points at Ashton Gate this campaign. Having also beaten QPR and Millwall both home and away, The Lilywhites will be hoping to complete our third ‘double’ of the season. Callum Robinson’s winner having handed the victory to the Lilywhites at Ashton Gate in November.
Speaking of Millwall away, the superb win at the Den last week did have one fundamental drawback. Ben Pearson picked up his tenth yellow card of the season in that victory which means he will be ruled out for the visit of Bristol City and the subsequent derby at Ewood Park. My fellow contributor Oli Gornall recently wrote a piece examining how and why Ben Pearson is such a big miss to North End, which you can read more on here.
Much of Bristol City’s somewhat surprising success this campaign has been thanks in no small part to the coming together of expansive attacking football, and well organised defensive play, that Lee Johnson has quite clearly been trying to find in his time at Ashton Gate.
74% of City’s attacks have come down either wing this season and their fast-paced build-up allows them to spread the play quickly from one side to the other. With talented players such as Callum O’Dowda and former North End youngster Josh Brownhill capable of putting quality balls into the box, and a big powerful striker such as Famara Diedhou, Jordan Storey and Ben Davies will have to have their wits about them in the air this weekend.
One to Watch
Marlon Pack is a particularly effective midfielder for The Robins. He has an impressive passing range, including the capacity to try a number of long passes to etiher wing that can really stretch the play to his side’s advantage. Pack leads the way in City’s squad in terms of tackles per game, a sign of how integral he is to breaking up opposition play as they approach the final third. He also has the highest number of clearances per game outside of City’s defence to back this up.
Prior to City’s loss at Norwich last weekend, they had been on that incredible thirteen game unbeaten run in the Championship since November, the final seven of this run being all consecutive wins!
The vast majority of their wins during that run, it has to be said, were by a single goal. The Robins, in fact, have only won four of their fifteen wins all campaign by a margin higher than a single goal. We could say that this tightness in their victories is something that could easily have gone the other way, particularly with the nature of some of their recent results, for example, their controversial 93rd minute penalty winner against QPR, but I would perhaps argue that these results are indicative of the work Lee Johnson has been doing in BS3.
Johnson has built a team over the course of the last few years that can grind these types of results out. Their position in 6th place is a direct result of how they have managed to keep the club’s ambitious ethos despite a constantly evolving squad. Well, that and what seems to be a friendly relationship with Chelsea, three of Maurizio Sarri’s brighter young talents being on loan at Ashton Gate!
Grinding those results out has however relied, for the most part, on a steadfast, stubborn defence as opposed to a particularly prolific front line. A steadfast defence that has been showing signs of cracking, conceding five goals in their last two games.
The last 11 games between the two sides have seen North End pick up a staggering 27 points from the 33 that were available with last time Bristol City winning a game against us coming all the way back in February 2011.
Selling your three best players (albeit for around £20m) is going to make any team weaker in theory, and after a bright start when we went on a little run of wins, I think for the first half of the season there was much of what we expected – mass inconsistency (we lost at Wigan, Reading and home to Sheffield Wednesday, but won at Brentford and beat Hull – but ultimately we were a side marooned in midtable, not good enough to challenge, but with too much about us to get dragged into the relegation zone.
I wouldn’t say we were playing particularly well either, some really awful performances in amongst them, but then at the end of November we came back to win a quite dreadful quality game of football at Ipswich 3-2 (on my birthday!) and we’ve been on song ever since. I’d say it’s only really Bobby Reid’s energy and goals we’ve properly missed – and Aden Flint’s threat at set-pieces, but the replacements have largely slotted in well.
Main striker Famara Diedhiou had struggled to get going during that poor run but then scored an incredibly fortuitous goal in that Ipswich win, and his improved form since then has certainly helped. Callum O’Dowda has come back from injury around the same time and is playing superbly, scoring our goal of the season at Norwich on Saturday, whilst Jamie Paterson – often the fall guy – has worked himself back into some form and slotted in more centrally to help bolster our midfield.
But the stars of the show so far have been our two centre-backs, Tomas Kalas and the imperious Adam Webster. We’ve got (comfortably) the second best defence in the league and these two have been described by some as the best centre-back pairing they’ve ever seen at City. Kalas is the more aggressive one – as much as you can be these days – but can play a fair bit, whilst Adam Webster brings the ball out of defence as well as John Stones. He’s a fantastic footballer, regularly dribbling it forward through the midfield and knocking 40-yard balls with either foot at ease – he becomes a midfielder with the ball and that extra man can make such a difference in the engine room.
For most of the season we’ve been playing with a different Goalkeeper and at least three different defenders to those we had at the club last season, so Johnson, his coaching staff and the scouts deserve a great deal of credit for sorting out something that was a problem for us and gaining such consistency.
We’re obviously right in the mix and if you look at the number of points that have been required to make sixth place over the years, we probably need another six or seven wins. Our run-in is tough though, playing all of the top half of the table within our last 16 games, but that means wins will have extra significance if we can eke them out. We play Derby on the penultimate Saturday of the season so that could be really massive!
Our line-up will likely be something as follows, a bit of a 4-1-4-1 but the midfielders are pretty fluid.
Fielding (unless Maenpaa is back fit)
Wright, Webster, Kalas, Dasilva;
Weimann, Brownhill, Paterson, O’Dowda;
With our appalling record against you lot it’s hard to predict anything other than a Preston win, but perhaps this really is our year and we can scrape a dreadful 0-0 draw instead!
I don’t expect the North End team to change a great deal from last week. Whether or not Darnell Fisher has recovered from the knock that kept him out of the clash at The Den remains to be seen and Tom Clarke put in a defensively solid and goalscoring performance that day, making it a possibility he could retain his place either way.
Ben Pearson is sadly suspended of course, with the obvious choice of his replacement being Ryan Ledson. With Pearson out of the side suspended, North End’s midfield does lack everything he brings to the table. And he brings a LOT. With this in mind, my head is telling me to predict a 1-1 draw. Meanwhile, my heart hopes for yet another win over Lee Johnson’s men.
Let us know your predictions! Do you think North End can keep our excellent record against Bristol City running? Or do you perhaps think all good things must come to an end? Will Bristol City’s impressive season might make it sooner rather than later? Get in touch @fromthefinney on Twitter to have your say!