North End returned to Deepdale for the first time in 3 weeks on Saturday as we welcomed a Sheffield United side backed by 5,500 fans, in what was a huge game for both teams. Having both been on a fantastic run of form, both teams lost going into this one, PNE at Reading and Sheffield United at home to Bristol City, so it was crucially important for both to bounce back as we are firmly into the business end of the season. Something we looked at in the match preview was Sheffield United’s unorthodox style, with overlapping centre backs, and it looked set to be an intriguing game, especially after the high octane 3-2 defeat at Bramall Lane in September. PNE got the better of the Blades on both occasions last season, winning 1-0 both times, and with the 3-2 reverse from September, this looked set to be another extremely cagey game, most likely decided by one goal.

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Once again, North End fans went into the game speculating on the fitness of a few key players, with doubts over Browne, Potts and Pearson, with Alex Neil confirming that Barkhuizen and Hughes’ seasons had ended. Pearson limped out of the defeat at the Madjeski with what looked like a bad hamstring issue, whilst Browne and Potts have been carrying injuries for the best part of 2 months. Callum Robinson and Louis Moult were still regaining full match sharpness after layoffs and it remained to be seen whether they would get the nod, or whether Jayden Stockley would replace Sean Maguire after an impressive 45 minutes in the Reading defeat, topped off by a last-minute consolation goal.

As it was, Browne and Pearson made the game, with Potts missing out. Daniel Johnson, who wasn’t presumed to be a doubt, missed the game as well. We started in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with the usual back 4, with Pearson sitting in front, Ledson and Browne as no.8s, with Nmecha and Robinson flanking Maguire, in what looked to be a dynamic front 3. Ledson came in for the injured Johnson instead of Gallagher, probably because Neil wanted us to press from the middle, which Ledson is capable of doing, whereas Gallagher probably doesn’t have the legs to get up and down the pitch. We had been used to seeing Ledson in the no.6 position, but partnering Browne as a no.8 gave us plenty of energy and tenacity in the middle third, as we essentially matched up Sheffield United with 3v3 in the midfield.

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The midfield trio perhaps lacked the creative spark of either Johnson or Gallagher, but it was clear that Neil was focussed on pressing high and turning the ball over in dangerous areas, rather than building up with patient possession in the middle third, as we have seen quite a lot in recent months.

Sheffield United started in their usual 5-3-2 shape, which very evidently became a 3-5-2, which then became something very unorthodox indeed as the wider centre backs in the back 3 joined wide attacks, with the wing back and central midfielders, to give wide overloads. We saw an example of this within the first minute with RCB Chris Basham crossing in the final 3rd – you’d never see Paul Huntington attempt anything of the sort. Enda Stephens, John Egan and Chris Basham made up the back 3, with Kieran Dowell and George Baldock operating as wing-backs. Oliver Norwood and John Fleck started in central midfield with the influential Mark Duffy returning in front of them, with Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick up front, the latter regularly popping up in pockets of space all over the pitch. Looking through that side, there is a lot of Championship experience and nous, something that perhaps gave them the edge in the end.

The blades, although using 3 centre backs, didn’t put too much emphasis on building up play from the back, instead they went fairly direct and wide, wanting to overload us in wide areas and cross to the prolific Sharp or other oncoming players. They started fairly strongly and when they created a 3v2 in the right channel in the first minute, crossing into a flooded box, it was a sign of things to come. North End however defended crosses pretty well and in the first 25 minutes Lukas Nmecha offered a great outlet on the right wing, causing left wing back Kieran Dowell all sorts of problems defensively. Dowell, usually a no.10, couldn’t deal with Nmecha’s physicality or dribbling ability, and it ended up with the Everton loanee being carded. Nmecha got behind their left-hand side on a couple of occasions, resulting in good opportunities for Browne and Robinson, neither of whom could take their chances.

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Another chance came for North End after good work from Browne to turnover the ball very high, with Robinson forcing a good save out of Blades keeper Dean Henderson, who will surely be playing Premier League football next season. Robinson had 3 big chances in the first half, and I think it’s still a case of him getting up to full sharpness, back in November he would’ve taken at least one of those chances

It turned out to be the usual sucker punch for PNE, with their achilles heal causing Sheffield United’s goal. A corner, forced by a cross from an overload, was not dealt with sufficiently by Rudd, and David McGoldrick tapped in from 2 yards. The blades worked the corner well, with John Egan spinning to be back of the 6-yard box, and a blocker stopping Robinson from following him. He headed back into a dangerous area, Rudd made a mess of it and McGoldrick tapped in. Yet another set piece goal conceded for North End, something we can’t afford to do in a game of such fine margins. Prior to the goal, North End were arguably the better side, disrupting Sheffield United’s rhythm high up the pitch and creating 3 good chances, but it was a story we’re all too familiar with. Post match, Alex Neil said it was reminiscent of the Derby game last season, another 0-1 defeat at the same stage of the season. North End created 3/4 guilt edged chances and were made to pay by a sucker punch set piece goal. Against a side that had kept 7 clean sheets in 8 games before the clash, North End really couldn’t afford to concede first, as the Yorkshire outfit are so well versed at keeping things tight at the back and seeing out games.

As the game wore on, PNE became less inventive and less able to press high, and the game fizzled out into a 0-1 defeat. The withdrawal of Nmecha seemed odd, as he was a constant thorn in United’s left-hand side in the first half, pinning them back and carrying us up the pitch. Louis Moult came on and showed some tidy touches, but in a game like this with very little space to operate, physicality is the key to disrupting the opposition and creating space for others, and Moult doesn’t offer much of that. Paul Gallagher came on for Ledson, as United dropped deeper, but he didn’t offer his usual control and creativity from the central position, maybe it’s a case of him needing to start games to be effective now, as he struggled to adjust to the fast pace of the game off the bench. His set pieces were largely ineffective as well, apart from a 93rd-minute corner finding the head of fellow substitute Jayden Stockley, who headed narrowly wide. North End huffed and puffed but Sheffield United, who ended up in pretty much a back 6, saw the game out expertly to move into 2nd position. They are clearly a very organised side, with lots of experience, and they held North End at arm’s length pretty much all afternoon. A costly 0-1 defeat that left us 5 points shy of the play offs – it looks a huge ask now. Ben Pearson looked distraught at full time, and had to be consoled by Alex Neil – perhaps he knew we had to win this one?

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PNE are again paying through a small injury crisis. Potts and Barkhuizen have been big misses, as has Andrew Hughes who has become such a solid left back. Browne, Pearson, Robinson, Moult and Maguire are not up to their usual levels of sharpness, all perhaps being asked to play through knocks and niggles. At this stage of the season, you need all of your players to be bang in form – when players are returning from injury or playing through injury, it’s hard to find momentum, and I think North End are paying the price now. The only player who looks to be visibly improving is Lukas Nmecha, which is why I found it strange that he was replaced. He now looks to be improving quickly, and it would be a great shame if he was to go elsewhere next season.

We now go into Tuesday night’s game against the Blades’ fellow promotion hopefuls Leeds, in what will be another high intensity and high stakes game. Hopefully, the likes of Robinson, Moult and Browne have benefitted from Saturday’s game and go into Tuesday night, the last floodlit game of the season, with more sharpness. PNE cannot afford another defeat, and even a draw wouldn’t really suffice. Leeds are in the same boat, and backed by 5,500 fans, it makes for another crucial game at Deepdale.