Preston North End entertain Leeds United on Tuesday night, in what will be the last floodlit game of the season at Deepdale. Little over 72 hours after succombing to a well drilled Sheffield United team, Alex Neil’s men will be hoping for better fortune against Marcelo Bielsa’s side, who will be hoping to leapfrog The Blades back into 2nd place.
A quirk in the fixture list meant both Yorkshire outfits were facing Preston and Birmingham away from home in successive games, with Sheffield United coming out on top at Deepdale on Saturday, whilst Leeds lost at St. Andrews. On Tuesday night, Sheffield United travel to face Brum, whilst Leeds will be backed by 5,500 fans at Deepdale.
All of the focus will be on Leeds, with the game being chosen as the featured game on Sky Sports Action, but North End desperately need a win themselves to keep their fading play-off dream alive, and will be hoping to dampen the Sky Sports love in. Both teams come into this one on the back of a defeat, so the stakes have been raised, and I am expecting a frantic and fiery affair, especially under the Deepdale lights. With only 6 games to go, both teams know that there is very little room for error and so it promises to be an entertaining game with both sides desperate for 3 points.
PNE go into the game somewhat deflated, after an encouraging performance against Sheffield United, but ultimately no points for the second game in a row. Other results on Saturday meant that North End now sit 5 points off the play offs, having only been outside them on goal difference after Sean Maguire’s last minute winner against Birmingham 3 weeks ago – things change so quickly in the Championship. A few players are clearly being nursed through games at the moment as Alex Neil desperately tries to patch together a competitive side, with the likes of Alan Browne, Ben Pearson and Callum Robinson not operating at 100%.
Browne admitted after his 200th appearance on Saturday that he had torn two ligaments at Boro less than a month ago, so for him to start against The Blades shows great commitment on his part.
Others like Josh Earl and Ryan Ledson have come in for injured players but they look in need of time to step up to full sharpness – time that North End don’t have. Alex Neil today confirmed that Daniel Johnson missed Saturday with an inflamed achilles, whilst Paul Gallagher “wasn’t right”, and the same can be said of Pearson, Browne, Robinson and Maguire, all of whom are not where we need them to be. In fact, it could be argued that none of North End’s starting players are what you’d describe as “in-form”, perhaps apart from Ben Davies, and maybe we are starting to see the long season take its toll.
It remains to be seen who will be available for Tuesday night, with Brad Potts and Daniel Johnson missing out against Sheffield United and Paul Gallagher being described as not quite right. We already know that Barkhuizen, Hughes, Harrop, Bodin and Barker won’t wear Lilywhite again this season, so we are looking quite stretched again – it feels like we’ve been saying this all season, though. Callum Robinson benefitted from another 55 minutes on Saturday and along with his 45 minutes at Reading he looks to be slowly getting sharper. His impact against Blades was greater than at the Madjeski, but he still looks some way off.
Louis Moult also got another 40 minutes, so the pair both have around 90 minutes of league action in their legs since returning from injury. Sean Maguire looks jaded up front and Leeds themselves have struggled due to injury though Marcelo Bielsa still has plenty of options to change a game – often Jack Clarke, Stuart Dallas, Jack Harrison or Barry Douglas. The Argentine has also put faith in youth this season, with the likes of Clarke, Shackleton and Roberts seeing regular game time.
Leeds tend to set up in Bielsa’s sworn by 4-1-4-1 system, usually with two no.10s and two wide players getting into pockets, and full backs with a flexible role, much like Guardiola’s full backs at City. Champions League winner Kiko Casilla will start between the sticks, with Luke Ayling right back, Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper forming a colossus centre back partnership and winger Ezgjan Alioski is likely to continue at left back. Kalvin Phillips who has been named in the Championship team of the season will likely act as Leeds’ pivot with Mateusz Klich and Tyler Roberts probably playing as two no.10s ahead.
Out wide, Man City loanee Jack Harrison has held down a starting role in recent weeks, with seasoned pro Pablo Hernandez on the right flank, although he is a doubt for the game. Patrick Bamford has been leading the line in Kemar Roofe’s absence, although the latter is back available after an injury lay off. Whoever plays for Leeds, Bielsa’s philosophy of fast, intense, but also controlled football is unflappable, and I expect his side to press and play a high line, with emphasis on winger/full back relationships and the movement of the no.10s. Pablo Hernandez, a doubt for the game, is undoubtedly Leeds’ main threat, with the 33-year-old playmaker drifting in off the right flank to great effect.
The Spaniard really makes Leeds tick in an attacking sense, not just via his dribbling ability, but his cleverness to move into pockets of space and play intricate passes through the eye of a needle. He has 12 goals and 11 assists to his name in 33 games this season, an astonishing record for someone in the twilight of his career. If Hernandez misses out, he will have an able replacement in Kemar Roofe.
The 26-year-old attacker is somewhat of a hybrid, not an out and out no.9, not a winger, and not a no.10. His movement though is fantastic and he is very good at drifting into the half spaces, or alternatively, he can get on the blindside of a defender and use his finishing ability to score. The former Oxford frontman had scored 14 goals in 27 league games before injury, and was surely on course to challenge for the top scorer award. He has scored against PNE in the past, and if he starts on the right I would expect him to give Josh Earl a tough evening.
Ahead of the game against Leeds United, we decided to bring you something different with one of our resident authors, and author if this post, Oli Gornall adding a bit to the opposition view as well as actual Leeds United fan Marco Hopcutt.
Marco is a trainee sports journalist at Leeds Trinity University and you can follow him on twitter here – @MarcoHopcutt77.
We will dive right in with Marco’s thoughts first on his beloved Leeds United.
Tuesday night’s fixture at Deepdale is one in which Leeds United need 3 points after a disappointing defeat to Birmingham at the weekend.
United are in the hunt for automatic promotion after a fantastic season under Argentine Marcelo Bielsa. Leeds currently sit in third place just a point behind the automatic places currently held by Norwich City and Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United, a win in Lancashire would potentially put Leeds back into second place depending on Sheffield United’s result at Birmingham.
Its been a breath of fresh air for United this season under the spell of former Argentina boss Bielsa who has had Leeds playing some of their best football since the glory days of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but a worryingly thin squad mixed with an injury list as long as his arm has seen Bielsa suffer a few slip-ups in what has been a very exciting season for the Leeds faithful.
United finished last season in mid-table under Paul Heckingbottom, looking at the side we have seen this season you’d think it was a completely different squad, however, the fact it is pretty much the exact same shows the impact ‘El Loco’ has had in West Yorkshire. With the season coming to crunch time it is now where Bielsa and his men will be truly tested to see if they have what it takes to take Leeds United back to where many would say the club belongs.
With only six games remaining and a far from easy run in it will be a huge test of character for this United team, with the play-offs being a worst case scenario it has to be said that whatever the outcome, Bielsa and this squad of 2018/19 have had a fantastic season.
My predicted XI is as follows: Casilla; Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Alioski; Phillips; Hernandez, Klich, Roberts, Harrison; Bamford (4-1-4-1). I obviously want a Leeds United win but I can’t quite call it. So I’m going to wait and see what unfolds on Tuesday night in Preston.
Now, for a North End point of view on how Leeds United have done this season under ‘El Loco’.
Leeds went into the season with a real sense of optimism after the drawn-out process of recruiting Marcelo Bielsa as manager. The highly rated, somewhat bizarre Argentine has had spells in charge of Newells Old Boys in his home country, who named their stadium after him, Espanyol, Bilbao, Lazio, Lille, Marseille and now Leeds, as well as forays into international management with both Argentina and Brazil.
The eccentric 63-year-old, ‘El Loco’, is regarded as some to be one of the very best in football, from a tactical point of view. Mauricio Pochetinno references him often as a huge influence on his career. He hails from Rosario in Argentina, the same hometown as Lionel Messi, and he is well known for meticulous preparation tactically and statistically, and it boils down to an obsession with the game. It may seem strange that a manager with limited success in terms of trophies is held in such high regard, but his legacy in South America and his influence on Latin coaches cannot be underestimated.
Pep Guardiola called him “the best coach in the world”, because coaches should be rated on their influence rather than any number of trophies. To have any such manager in the second tier of the English game is a huge coup in itself, and it seems a good fit for Leeds, who are a sleeping giant in the English game.
It is rumoured that when he was interviewed for the Leeds position, he had watched all 46 league games from the previous season, had identified strengths and weaknesses in his team, and also had a clear understanding about the identity of the other teams in the league. On accepting the job, Bielsa couldn’t speak good enough English and he is still shadowed by a translator now, although it doesn’t seem to have had a negative effect on his players, who have performed admirably this season.
Leeds sit 3rd in the league, but they have been in the automatic places pretty much all season. Bielsa’s football is based on rotation and movement, and setting up in a 4-1-4-1 shape allows the 4 behind the striker to interchange, and Leeds play a “positional game”, with the position of teammates influencing the actions of others.
For example, if a winger is pinned to the touchline, the full back will narrow into a different vertical lane, to create another angle for the winger, making it harder for the opponent to press. Leeds fans will also often see their team’s shape change in and out of possession, with Bielsa often moving his full backs into central midfield when they have the ball, to overload central areas and isolate the wingers, who have a 1-on-1 advantage. The level of tactical development shown by Bielsa has rarely been seen in English football, and certainly not in the second tier.
Leeds have had success in the 4-1-4-1 system, but as Leeds fans will confirm, it is a formation only in name, with the positional style causing players to end up everywhere.
They started the season like a house on fire, with Kemar Roofe leading the line as an unorthodox striker, relying on blindside movements, with players like Mateusz Klich and Pablo Hernandez thriving in the new system. Losing only 3 of their first 24 league games, including a 7 game winning run before Christmas, Leeds sat top, getting all of the plaudits from the media and looking sure to return to the Premier League for the first time in over 15 years.
But, injuries hit the squad, and with Bielsa only wanting a very specific type of player, Leeds’ transfer business was limited in January, and they look to have suffered for it. Since beating Blackburn on Boxing Day, Leeds have lost 7 of their last 16 league games, and have dropped to 3rd in the league, one point behind Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United.
Amongst this was the controversy of “Spy Gate”, with Frank Lampard’s Derby County complaining after it emerged that Leeds had sent a teenage intern to spy on not just Derby, but most/all of the clubs in the division, to give Bielsa an advantage. Bielsa held an astonishing press conference, highlighting the incredible depth that he and his analysts go to in preparing for a game. Whether that whole saga has had an effect on the team’s performance is unknown, but it doesn’t seem to have helped. 2 of the 7 defeats have come against Norwich and Sheffield United, damaging their automatic promotion chances, and they are now playing catch up with 18 points left to play for.
Kemar Roofe’s absence has been felt, but the 26-year-old now looks set to return at Deepdale on Tuesday evening after regaining fitness for the run in. Looking at the squad, there is a slight lack of depth and maybe there has been some over-reliance on certain players who now look to be suffering as a result of the long season, especially given the intensity that Leeds play at – a similar story to North End.
It remains to be seen whether Leeds can get over the line in the race for automatic promotion, but after the recent turmoil at the club, I can imagine “Bielsa Ball” has been a revelation for Leeds fans, who have had to endure managers like Steve Evans, Dave Hockaday and Neil Redfearn in recent seasons. The football purist in me would love to see Leeds get over the line, mainly because I would love to see Bielsa try his hand at Premier League level, going up against some of his disciples. Leeds would certainly bring freshness to the Premier League, so after Tuesday night, I wish them all the best in their hopes of greatness.
North End look to me to be on their last legs, with injured players, players playing through the pain barrier, or players not yet sharp after returning. The average age of the outfielders on the pitch against Sheffield United on Saturday was lower than 24, and we lacked a bit of nous to get back into the game. Leeds themselves are a young side, but have the likes of Jansson, Ayling, Casilla, Bamford, Hernandez, Roofe who are of good pedigree at this level.
I expect Leeds to start fast and finish strong, and I also expect PNE to go for it early on, much like when we entertained Norwich at Deepdale. The midfield battle will be key, and I half expect Neil to use Pearson and Ledson as two no. 6s to deal with Leeds’ two no.10s, with Browne ahead. If Browne successfully locks on to Phillips, who is the pivot to Leeds’ build up, we could get joy in high turnovers and create chances. There will also be room for Robinson and Nmecha to play in, which will suit them.
We generally score, and Leeds generally don’t draw, so I’m edging towards a 1-2 Leeds win. I think that with their little bit of extra quality, and more ability to shuffle things around, I would back Leeds if the scores are level going into the final quarter of the game.