Alex Neil took his Preston North End side to Middlesbrough on Wednesday night hoping to make it 6 consecutive away wins in the league, a feat not achieved in over 70 years. North End haven’t tasted victory on Boro turf since 1971, but Neil’s teams have generally performed well in the corresponding fixtures since he took over, so there was a sense of quiet optimism amongst the fans going into the game.
Coming just 3 days after a draining Lancashire derby, mentally and physically, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that we’d fall flat at the Riverside, with Boro being a side that want to drain the life out of you and test your concentration levels from all quarters. Whichever way you looked at this game, you knew straight away it was going to be tough.
There was one forced change to the lineup, with Darnell Fisher being suspended, and to the surprise of most of the PNE faithful Josh Earl came in from the cold around 2 months after his last appearance. Ben Pearson returned, of course, in what looked to be the usual 4-1-4-1 on paper, with 2 left footed full backs. With the continued absence of Potts and Barkhuizen, key components of an extremely well oiled away machine, it looked a tricky task for North End to win playing their usual way – pressing high, rotating the midfield, and drowning out the opposition. Probably with that in mind, it became evident after the opening exchanges that Neil had decided to match Boro up in a 3-5-2 system, with Josh Earl and Alan Browne operating as wing backs, with Andrew Hughes tucking in as a left sided centre back. Instantly this looked unnatural to a North End side who love to get high and to press, but the system didn’t allow for that. Instead, they sat deep and much like what happened at Ewood Park on Saturday, Sean Maguire was left isolated, this time alongside Lukas Nmecha.
Alan Browne particularly looked lost in the early stages, unsure whether to tuck in and which Boro man to pick up, his opposite wing back or Ashley Fletcher, who was roaming in between the lines. PNE conceded 4 corners in the first 8 minutes and could barely string 3 passes together, the system clearly confused them – Neil admitted as much after the game.
Boro’s somewhat fortuitous goal after the midway point of the first half had been coming since the first minute, Boro hitting the woodwork twice in the opening quarter of the game. Mo Besic got behind North End’s midfield, and slid in Ashley Fletcher in the left-hand channel who’s effort deflected up off Jordan Storey’s ankle(?) and looped over Rudd and into the back of the net. 1-0. Things looked ominous at that point. Meanwhile, Alan Browne had picked up a serious looking knock after getting into a tangle with Besic. I wouldn’t call it a blessing in disguise, certainly, but he made way for Joe Rafferty who took up his natural right sided position and PNE instantly looked more balanced.
At half time, Alex Neil introduced Brandon Barker, another who had come in from the cold, for Josh Earl, who had a nightmare in the first 45 minutes. North End reverted to their favoured 4-1-4-1 system with both City loanees flanking Maguire, with Gallagher, DJ and Pearson in the midfield. This was much more balanced and PNE began to do what they’d done so successfully on the road – controlling the game with Gallagher and Pearson, with Ben Davies stepping in and looking for forward passes. Admittedly, Boro are a team that sit in a deep and narrow 5-4-1 shape so North End were granted possession, but the team looked a lot more balanced and controlled.
The turning point of the constant came when Maguire stole the ball high up the pitch and fed the lively Barker, who got a slight touch on the ball only to be cleaned completely out by Daniel Ayala, a clear red card for excessive force. Anybody who remembers Stevie May’s injury at Fulham in 2016 will understand what I mean by “excessive force”.
Barker was fine to continue and from the resulting free kick, Paul Gallagher netted his 100th career goal in fitting style – a trademark free kick around the wall, how many of those have we seen in his time with PNE? So, in an instant, the game had turned on its head and North End were full of life, suddenly pressing higher up the pitch and looking to get a crucial winner.
The introduction of Jayden Stockley for Gallagher, nursing a twisted ankle, really opened the game up as it left Ben Pearson patrolling the midfield by himself, with Daniel Johnson 10 yards further up looking to unlock the still tight Boro defence, even with 10 men. Straight after the red card Tony Pulis withdrew a striker and put on Dael Fry, a centre back, to keep his preferred 5 at the back. This meant a 5-3-1 shape and Boro simply couldn’t keep the ball at the top end of the pitch, and it also made it easier for Ben Davies to step into advanced areas as Boro had one less man pressing the line.
The winning goal came with a huge slice of luck, Andrew Hughes’ shot deflecting off a Boro defender, to loop right into the path of the oncoming Stockley to nod in his 2nd PNE goal, much to the delight of the 400 travelling North End fans and the thousands more watching at home.
PNE faced a spell of late Boro pressure, but again the defence was resolute and Alex Neil’s boys held on for a crucial away win, the 6th on the spin, to claw Boro back into the play off race and to move to within 2 points of the plays offs. What a great night for Alex Neil, who redeemed his first half mistakes, to become the first North End manager to win on Boro turf since 1971.
A brilliant result, hopefully not at too much cost, as Gallagher and Browne were struggling with injuries. A quick turnaround again for North End who entertain Birmingham at Deepdale on Saturday hoping to make it 12 unbeaten. Is this the start of something special? Let’s hope so! Give us a follow on twitter and let us know if you think we can make a late push for the play offs.