Match Preview: Preston North End vs Birmingham City

North End’s third game in a week comes at home to Birmingham City, who sit just 4 points behind the Lilywhites, so this is a real 6 pointer in terms of the play-off push. Alex Neil and his men will be hoping to extend their unbeaten run to an astonishing 12 games after an impressive victory against Middlesbrough in midweek, but will find it tough against a dogged and well organised Brum side, managed by Garry Monk.

After 2 very hard fought away wins in the past week, we can probably expect some changes to what has been a fairly settled PNE line up. Alan Browne and Paul Gallagher were both withdrawn early at The Riverside on Wednesday night, with the Irishman, in particular, looking to have picked up a nasty strain to his ankle. Darnell Fisher is available again after serving his suspension, whilst Brad Potts, Callum Robinson, Tom Clarke and Louis Moult could all come into contention after injury.

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It would be a fitting return for Aston Villa fan Robinson, who was in the away end at last week’s fractious Second City Derby, but I would expect him to get 15 minutes at most if he appears at all.

Recent Form

Birmingham, who will be backed by more than 5,000 travelling fans, come into the game in a sticky patch, having won 1 of their last 6 games, losing 4. Prior to this spell, they were well in play-off contention, but they will know that a defeat at Deepdale will more than likely end any lingering hopes.

A potential points deduction looms over St. Andrews, and with the controversy surrounding last weekend’s antics against Villa, Gary Monk’s side will be hoping that the season doesn’t fizzle out badly. Birmingham’s away form has actually been ok, winning 4 and losing only 2 of their last 9 on the road, so they will be a tough nut to crack, especially in what will be a slog for both sides, this being the third game in a week. Brum will likely sit in a narrow shape behind the ball, hoping to catch North End on the break, which they did effectively in the reverse fixture in November, a game that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons for North End fans after Declan Rudd’s howler.

They don’t tend to deviate too much from their settled system, home or away, so Alex Neil will know what the expect. In recent weeks they have been leaking goals more, conceding 3 at QPR, Norwich and Swansea and conceding 2 at Hull, so they can be breached.

North End come into this one on the back of some mixed home form, having won only once at Deepdale in 3 months, a brilliant 3-1 win against table-toppers Norwich. That win highlights North End’s strength, which is getting at teams who want to play football and overrunning them in midfield with the likes of Ben Pearson patrolling and helping to break up the play. Most teams who have come to Deepdale in recent months have sat deep and narrow, parking their full backs, and PNE have found it difficult to grind out wins – definitely missing key technicians like Robinson, Bodin and Harrop.

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Birmingham will likely follow suit, probably being direct and looking to play off Jutkiewicz, so it will be interesting to see how Neil approaches this one. 5 draws from the last 6 at home is something that needs to be improved upon if Alex Neil’s side hope to break into the play-offs, and with this likely to be a battle as much as a football match, I feel like an early goal will be vitally important for either side.

Potential Dangers

The Blues generally line up in a narrow 4-4-2 shape, with Che Adams and Lukas Jutkiewicz leading the line, 2 very physical strikers. Isaac Vassell partnered Che Adams in Tuesday night’s home defeat to Millwall, so a fresh Jutkiewicz could be primed to return. Gary Gardner and Maikel Kieftenbeld are likely to sit deep and narrow in the centre of the pitch, flanked by any of Jota, Jacques Maghoma, Connor Mahoney or Kerim Mrabti – so they have plenty of depth and variation in the wide areas, depending on how the game is progressing.

The star man for Birmingham is undoubtedly Che Adams, with 21 goals to his name so far this season. He’s a brilliant finisher and possesses good physical attributes, with the ability to breeze past defenders. He’s a handful but has only scored 2 goals in his last 6, so he isn’t red hot at the minute. But at the age of 22, and with his physicality, he is destined to become a Premier League player.

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His strike partner Jutkiewicz has 10 goals to his name, but more impressively he has 10 assists, which is a phenomenal return. He is excellent in the air and his ability to pick passes out of the air with his head, chest, knee, you name it, is very underrated. He doesn’t need great service to create things and we will have be wary of long balls into him. Apart form those two, Birmingham possess little threat, Jota is always a live wire and picks up great pockets of space, but has only 2 goals (9 assists). Jacques Maghoma always plays well against North End and will be hoping to add to his 5 league goals, he scored at Deepdale last season.

The blues are generally compact and don’t overcommit bodies, so the duty is usually left to the front 4 to create things without too many attacking patterns – if North End can keep the front 2 quiet, they stand a chance of getting something from the game.

Opposition View

This week, we’ve got the excellent Gabriel Sutton from thefootballlab.co.uk giving us his thoughts on Birmingham’s season to date. You can follow him on twitter @_footbalLab – if you do, say hello, he’s a friendly chap.

In terms of our season so far, I’d say it’s been mixed.

In the first two months or so, we produced some very strong performances but small glitches at both ends meant we didn’t win a game until late September.

Then the 2-1 win at Leeds sparked a period in which we were playing well and getting the results, with target man Lukasz Jutkiewicz finding a real purple patch around October and November, then speedster Che Adams took the baton from then on.

Adams’ form continued into the New Year and to date but that probably masked a lot of defensive issues because, since finishing 2018 with three consecutive clean sheets, we have conceded 23 goals in 12 games.

I don’t think we’ve ever necessarily been a great side defensively.

I love Michael Morrison for his commitment and leadership over the last half a decade but I feel Championship managers are starting to get rewards for being bold with younger, more mobile and technically-capable centre-backs – Jordan Storey and Ben Davies have clearly been excellent for you guys and are a prime example.

Even when we had been getting results, it was mainly because of the intensity we played at in the middle third, with ball-winner Maikel Kieftenbeld playing such a key role.

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Incidentally, I think the battle between Kieftenbeld and Alan Browne (if he is fit) promises to be a fascinating tussle as I would suggest we’re looking at two of the most driven, energetic midfielders in the Championship.

Kieft aside, the energy in our performances has perhaps wavered slightly (apart from Sunday’s game against Villa).

Part of the problem we’ve had is, whether with the 4-2-2-2 we used in the first half of the season or the diamond more recently, there’s always been space out wide.

Since the turn of the year, we’ve faced more intelligent sides like Norwich and Hull who have had the composure to hold onto the ball under the initial press and then pick open the spaces.

Off-field issues mean we do not necessarily have the technical quality to play in a way that does not rely so heavily on high-energy, so to be in the top half at this stage with the word ‘play-offs’ even mentioned previously is a credit to the job Garry Monk is doing.

What I like about Monk is that, when he took the job, he’d clearly done a lot of preparation on the PR side of things which I feel is an underrated facet of management, especially with social media and everything else.

He’s thought about how he wants to come across to fans, which I think has been a considerable part of his success and something some of his predecessors had not necessarily grasped in quite the same way – there’s a sense of focus and professionalism about everything he does.

As for a starting XI, I’m writing this before Millwall at home on the Wednesday, but for now I’ll plump for:

(4-2-2-2) Camp; Colin, Dean, Morrison, Pedersen; Kieftenbeld, G Gardner; Jota, Maghoma; Jutkiewicz, Adams.

As for a prediction, I’ll go for an optimistic 2-2.

As an outsider, I’m a big admirer of Preston, the way your team has evolved since promotion in 2015 and I think your recruitment and development of young players is something a lot of clubs can learn from. All the best with your late play-off push.

Predictions

As far as the game itself, I will keep this short and sweet. I’m predicting a tough game and a 1-1 draw with Jayden Stockley bagging for the Lilywhites and, I’m predicting changes in the XI from Alex Neil. In terms of formation, I think it will be a 4-2-3-1 as follows: Rudd; Fisher (in for Rafferty), Storey, Davies, Hughes; DJ, Pearson; Nmecha, Potts, Gallagher; Maguire.

How do you think we will get on against Garry Monk’s Birmingham side? Will we make it 12 unbeaten come 5pm on Saturday? Follow us on twitter and let us know what you think will happen in the game.