A week ago on Saturday, North End found themselves on the losing side for the first time in 13 games. It wasn’t the loss itself so much as the manner and the situation of the loss that seems to have knocked the wind out of some fans’ hopeful play-off sails over the last week.
A couple of defensively poor goals conceded and a lack of creativity up top, added to the prospect of losing another pair of players to injury in the shape of Brandon Barker and, much more worryingly, Ben Pearson (no disrespect to Brandon Barker, but we all know how crucial the presence of Ben Pearson is to this team).
Still, despite the seemingly mandatory per-game double injury and the end to our long unbeaten run, there’s nothing to do after falling off the horse than to get back on again and North End have the chance to do so on Saturday at home to Sheffield United.
Sheffield United themselves currently occupy a play-off spot, but sit comfortably in 3rd place and the Blades are only looking up. They’re just two points behind Leeds in 2nd, and a win at Deepdale on Saturday could move Chris Wilder’s men back into the automatic promotion places should Leeds drop points, continuing the topsy-turvy battle between the two Yorkshire clubs for that second place spot.
Preston and Sheffield United have had a remarkably similar run of form in 2019, with both teams going unbeaten since January until last weekend. North End’s run halted as mentioned at the Madejski by Reading, and the Blades’ unbeaten stretch stopped by an Andi Weimann hat-trick for Bristol City at Brammall Lane on the same day.
A reason to worry about The Blades, from a North End fan’s perspective, would be that during their unbeaten run they picked up results such as away wins at Leeds and West Brom, and a romping 4-0 victory over Reading, who last weekend looked considerably better than us on the day.
Whilst the two clubs are matched in having only lost twice each in the league since the beginning of the new year, it has to be said Sheffield United’s run looks arguably more formidable on paper, playing the likes of Leeds and West Brom and winning. Also, The Blades have drawn only 3 games in that time, away to Norwich, Aston Villa and an impassioned derby at Hillsborough against Wednesday, compared to Preston’s 4.
Before their home loss to Bristol City last weekend, the Blades had won three in a row and also drawn the Steel City Derby without conceding a single goal, with their 1-0 victory at Elland Road and two 2-0 home wins against Brentford and Rotherham.
North End have ourselves taken points from play-off contenders recently, most notably winning at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium, but find ourselves in 10th place following the loss at Reading and with work to do to make up space between us and the playoffs come the end of the season.
Sheffield United are likely to line up in a 3-5-2 type formation, with three centre-backs and wing-backs supporting the midfield. The wing-backs, most likely George Baldock and Enda Stevens, have a tendency to get very high up the pitch in the Blades’ attacking phases, so much so they almost become out-and-out wingers.
What is particularly dangerous about Sheffield United is an extremely unorthadox system of overloading the wings. When the wing-backs become wingers, the centre-backs of that side push wide and higher up the pitch becoming secondary wing-backs. Also joining the attack on that side will be the no.10, most likely Kieran Dowell, and one of the two base central midfielders.
This gives them a lot of options on the side they are attacking and a lot of chances to play the ball around and find room for a cross in towards the strikers and the onrushing wing back on the opposite side. Due to the overload on one wing, defensive players might be drawn out of position to try to cover the extra men, meaning when a ball is finally played into the box there is room that players of the attacking quality of Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick can exploit.
The space created in the way that Sheffield United attack has meant that the two wing-backs, Baldock and Stevens, combined with the most common partnership at the base of midfield, Oliver Norwood and Jon Fleck have provided 21 assists between them over the course of the season.
This number is incredible when compared to North End’s most commonly used players in similar positions, Paul Gallagher and Ben Pearson at the base of midfield and Darnell Fisher and Andrew Hughes as the two full-backs providing 13 assists between them in comparison. While Fisher and Hughes are admittedly not utilised as wing-backs, this underpins just how effective Baldock and Stevens are in the attacking phase for Sheffield United.
What’s also notable is that the 3 most commonly starting centre-backs, Chris Basham, John Egan and Jack O’Connell all feature in the top 7 members of the Blades’ squad in terms of key passes per game, joined again by Fleck, Norwood and Stevens. This highlights the propensity with which Sheffield United’s centre-backs step out from the back and how comfortable they are playing dangerous forward passes, getting involved with the attack and supplementing the numbers in the attacking phases.
I’m not certain what to expect from Sheffield United at Preston on Saturday and a lot of that is down to the fact that I don’t know what to expect from Preston.
North End are one of the most improved, if not the most improved team in the Championship this season.
You can see that in this chart, which shows league position since January.
The Blades have made a name for themselves – and achieved great results – on the back of a distinctive style of play under Chris Wilder and assistant Alan Knill.
Most well-known perhaps is that we have played with so-called overlapping centre backs. That means that any of the two right and left CBs can end up bombing forward to the opponent’s final third. Most often that sees them helping out with build-up play high along the flanks and sometimes making crosses (or even getting on the end of them!).
But, that part of Sheffield United’s game is usually an addition to the core style of Wilder and Knill’s Blades. That style is built around a lot of possession in the final third, starting on the flanks, with overloads created to unbalance the opposition before picking out a route to near the six-yard box.
This style has a definite preference for getting in close before making attempts at goal. United are among the most efficient in terms of shots-to-goals ratio in the division and among the lowest for shots from outside the penalty box.
You can see in this chart that United are – averaged over the season – a team that spends a lot of time in the opponent’s final third and pass the ball a lot when they’re there.
That’s the style of play the Blades have become known for this season.
So, why am I not certain they’ll play that way at Deepdale?
Well, anyone who has watched Sheffield United in televised games recently may have seen very little that type of play.
That’s because there has been a run of games recently that haven’t allowed that trade-mark style to come to the fore.
Since beating Reading 4-0 at Bramall Lane in mid-February:
- United have ground out a 0-1 away win at WBA,
- taken part in a cagey and tense 0-0 Steel City derby,
- defeated a 10-man ultra-defensive Rotherham 2-0,
- taken victory from an ultra-defensive setup when down to 10 men against Brentford (2-0) and,
- absorbed intense pressure, played on the counter, roughed up and beat Leeds United at Elland Road (0-1).
In other words, for quite a few games now the Blades have not played in the way we’ve become known for this season. Instead, Sheffield United have developed something of a ‘plan B’ and an ability to sit back and play a longer, quicker, more direct game to take the chances that arise.
You can see from this chart that the number of passes made within 20m of the opponent’s goal line (aka Deep Completions) has declined since February for the Blades.
The more direct way of playing has lately often seen Kieran Dowell selected in midfield over Mark Duffy (who may well still be injured anyway for this Saturday). Duffy typifies the play-high-and-pass-a-lot Blades. Dowell is pacier – a 22-year-old Everton loanee – and suits a more direct style of play from deeper positions.
So, which Blades will we see at Deepdale?
If I had to bet I’d put money on the latter. Preston North End are the most dangerous and in-form club we now have to play on our run-in.
Playing away always tends to mean playing against a team urged forward by the home crowd, so I expect us to have to spend some time absorbing pressure and taking our chances when they arise.
But, I have no access to what Wilder and Knill are thinking.
And I often think how opposing managers approach a football match is a bit like a game of rock-paper-scissors. If one sets up one way and the other succeeds in stifling that, then it’s time to try something else.
The Blades are coming off a defeat to another in-form side (Bristol City, 2-3) in a match that was characterised by effective pressing by the Robins and full of tactical shifts and gambles (won by Lee Johnson).
Preston show up in similar areas in terms of pressing intensity and quantity and quality of shots as Bristol City.
So, on the face of it, I expect our forthcoming fixture to be similar as our last, but hopefully not in outcome.
But you never know. This is football. And we can’t say for certain what tactical setups our managers will pull out from behind their backs.
This week’s predictions depend very much on the availability of Ben Pearson, after North End’s number 4 limped off the field of his own accord at the Madejski last week after playing almost 20 minutes with an as yet unspecified by the club thigh injury.
We have looked in the past at how likely the Lilywhites are to take maximum points from a game without the diminutive midfielder and those stats do not make for pleasant reading with the prospect of him being out injured. As the title of the post suggests, Ben Pearson is certainly the man that makes North End tick.
Still, for all those who think he’s not quite ready for regular first-team responsibilities, Ryan Ledson is available to step in should he be required and has improved his game over the course of this season, albeit still with lessons to learn.
With Pearson, I think we stand a chance of getting a result by having his extra tenacity and defensive nouse to smother a very fluid and effective Sheffield United attack and might predict a 1-1 draw or 2-1 North End win, depending on the availability, fitness and sharpness of Brad Potts and Alan Browne who are both touch and go for this game and also Callum Robinson as he continues his return from a 4 month injury lay-off. In fact, any sharp and fit combination of those three, let alone all three, would be a sight for sore eyes!
Without Pearo I fear the worst and can see us getting over-run in midfield, at which point it depends quite how on top of their form the back four and Declan Rudd are. Fisher and Earl will have to be absolutely on top of their game, particularly in terms of positioning and awareness, if we are going to escape unscathed here. Without Pearson, I fear a 2-1 or 3-1 reverse in the Blades’ favour.