Preston North End vs. Birmingham City: Tactical Review


Gary Gardner’s late winner for Birmingham made it a horror show for North End on Halloween. 5 defeats from 5 league games at Deepdale now this season. Here’s a quick look at how Brum got the better of us.

Alex Neil made 5 changes from the midweek loss to Millwall, with Stockley, Harrop, Fisher, Barkhuizen and Gallagher coming into the side.

This is how the sides set up.

Birmingham’s back 5 meant that all 5 sides to have visited Deepdale this season have played a back 5 so far. They played a 5-3-2 with Sanchez and McGree locking on to Gallagher and Browne, with Jonathan Leko and Lukas Jutkiewicz locking onto our centre backs. This created a congested 4 v 4 central box and left the space wide to PNE’s full-backs.

Birmingham’s wing-backs orientated towards our full-backs if the ball went wide. North End struggled 2v2 at the back due to Juke’s strength and Leko’s pace. Brum later changed to a 4-2-3-1 to cope with North End’s wide attacks.

I have broken down the game below.

North End’s centre backs, particularly Storey, struggled 2 v 2 against Leko and Juke. Neil has sometimes decided to revert to a back 3 when coming up against 2 strikers, however, he went man for man here. We normally hear about the +1 method in defence, which is essentially matching up the oppositions attacking numbers and then adding an extra defender. So, against 1 striker, a back 2, and against 2 strikers, a back 3. When the numbers are equal, it becomes an individual battle and Birmingham’s pairing came out on top.

Long ball. PNE have 6 v 2 behind the ball and both centre backs up against a striker each. Leko’s pace absolutely kills Storey here.

Storey is left grounded by Leko’s pace. Bauer has to cross over to cover, leaving Juke free. The ball falls to Juke who finds McGree – he has run off the back of our midfield – a risk that Neil took as a Johnson/Gallagher double pivot has no defensive instinct.

McGree fires home. North End’s midfield is miles off him. This was a sign of things to come. Gallagher, at 35, does not have the physicality to match runners, and Johnson lacks the defensive awareness. McGree ran beyond PNE’s midfield to good effect.

Here we see each centre back up against a striker again. Bauer duels with Juke who wins a flick on, and Leko once again kills Storey for pace. Note the distance between the midfield and the defensive line here within the first 10 minutes of the game.

Massive distance between centre backs as Bauer doesn’t recover from the duel. Leko then beats Storey for pace, again. McGree gets the wrong side of Johnson. 2 v 2 is a risk, and a Gallagher/Johnson double pivot is a risk. Not all risks are as obvious as you might think.

Leko gets his shot off and if the ball ricochets to McGree, he is the wrong side of Johnson.

Here we see a cross from wide. Again, it is 2 v 2 in terms of centre backs, vs strikers. Leko ghosts between and heads over.

Again, it is 2 v 2. Leko constantly on the shoulder of the last man to stretch the distances, and Juke always available to pin the centre back. This combo caused us big issues. Note, neither no.6 is screening the ball into Juke (no +1 method).

Again, 2 v 2 and McGree runs off the midfield. We took risks.

Same here. Juke pins Storey and he struggles to deal with him physically. Leko ready to run beyond Bauer. McGree bursting beyond Johnson. The repetition of these events left North End very wary on defensive transition.

You get the point here. Again, Juke holds the ball, pins Storey, and advances the play into a wide area.

Deep into the second half when Brum have reverted to a 4-2-3-1, Juke is still holding off Bauer and he brings Jeremie Bela into play.

So, the first key point is that Neil took a risk by going 2 v 2 (he normally uses the +1 method) and both centre backs struggled individually. Neil took a risk going 2 v 2 and not going 3 at the back, and not using a midfielder as a defensive screen, but his players need to take some responsibility for 1 v 1 scenarios.

Birmingham’s shape without the ball resembled a 5-1-2-2 of sorts with them creating a central shape to once again force North End to build wide. We did this to better effect at times than we had done in previous home games, because of our better quality from deep (Fisher, Gallagher, Johnson). We also had the option to go more direct to Stockley if Birmingham’s midfield pressed higher and left spaces.

Birmingham’s midfield and strikers incredibly compact, forcing Storey long.

North End forced wide.

As Hughes receives, Cogley (RWB) engages man to man and forces Hughes back inside.

You can see where the space is.

The same 5-man shape here and the LWB (Pedersen) engages man to man with Fisher.

North End ended up managing to combat this shape by playing more direct balls. This stretched Birmingham’s midfield shape and they were unable to be as structured as the game became less congested. Even if Stockley didn’t win the header, it created more space for North End over a period of time.

Once these spaces started to open up due to Brum becoming less vertically compact, North End used wider overloads to advance possession – this isn’t something we usually see that often with PNE.

Browne and Gallagher peel wide to form a triangle to create a 3 v 2.

Quick combination ends with Harrop being found between the lines. Creating triangles in wide areas to overload is a very basic approach but if you have your better technical players on the pitch it can be effective.

Once again PNE create a wide 3 v 2 with Gallagher pulling to the left and this results in Harrop crossing.

These wide combinations worked well for North End but they couldn’t find the finishes from the crossing opportunities.

This continued into the second half as Ledson came on and was very left sided.

More quick combinations leading to a corner.

When PNE eventually went long, Barkhuizen’s penetration created space between the defence and midfield for Stockley, who volleyed in from 30 yards. PNE didn’t do this early enough.

Another key tool in North End’s progression was Fisher. He advances so well either via passing or dribbling.

3rd line pass finding Harrop who has taken up a good space.

Another excellent vertical pass takes 5 Brum players out of the game and finds Barkhuizen in between CB and LCB.

This time Fisher uses a progressive run to win a free kick entering Brum’s final 3rd.

Fantastic cross which Browne should probably score from.

A combination of strong running and good forward passing finds Browne in the final third. We were such a threat down the right that Karanka changed shape to a 4-2-3-1, to allow Pedersen a helping hand whilst defending the left.

As Fisher was bombing on so aggressively, Pedersen was often left 2 v 1 against Fisher and Barkhuizen. However, Rafferty came on and so Karanka’s defensive change may not have been needed after all, as Fisher picked up cramp.

Shape change. 4-2-3-1 with Bela helping Pedersen to defend Fisher and Barkhuizen.

2 v 2 now. Did Karanka sacrifice a striker to try and cope with Fisher?

Birmingham’s wide distances are now very compact.

2 v 2.

Astute tactical change from Karanka.

Another player who helped North End creatively was Paul Gallagher. Out of possession, he was exposed as I mentioned earlier, but he created North End’s two best chances and helped North End’s build-up.

Gally receives the ball in space, first time pass into space for Barkhuizen. Only he possesses the quality to see the pass and to execute it.

Barkhuizen ends up in a fantastic crossing position and Stockley is behind the play.

Gally takes 5 defenders out of the game with a composed pass. Browne should score.

Another composed pass has gifted Barkhuizen a chance which is well saved. On another day Gally has a couple of assists to his name. North End missed 3 golden chances – created by Fisher and then Gallagher – our productivity waned when they left the turf.

I touched on Neil taking risks perhaps in not the most obvious of ways earlier, and below is another example. It made me think of his comment after a late winner at Hull in his first season where he said something along the lines of “I’d rather risk a point to try and win three”.

Alex completely opened the game up in the last 20 minutes leaving his wide attackers as “cheat defenders” and taking a risk that way. Ultimately it didn’t pay off.

The last goal was a continuation of Storey’s deficiencies and it led to many people overlooking what was a riskier and more positive approach.

North End are 3 v 3 in the scoring area of the box. Storey has eyes on his man. There is a dummy run which creates space for San Jose who isn’t picked up by Johnson (fatigued). Harrop is man orientated with Pedersen (RW vs LB).

San Jose has acres of space to cross first time. Storey is watching the ball here and Gardner manages to create a small amount of separation which is all that’s needed.

Gardner has now ghosted behind Storey who is helpless. Bauer was pinned by Juke and there wasn’t an awful lot he could do. Should Rudd be punching that on his 6-yard line?

So, North End took more risks, were the better side with Gallagher and Johnson on the pitch and missed some golden chances. As a result of what I’ve mentioned, and defensive lapses, we gave away a few good chances too.

Was Neil wise to go 2 v 2? Was he wise to go with Johnson and Gallagher? Was he unlucky with Fisher and Hughes injuries?

Let us know what you think on twitter – @fromthefinney.

Finally, if you want some more about the defeat to Birmingham at the weekend, make sure you give episode #13 of the From the Finney podcast a listen below, in your usual streaming apps or by visiting our podcast page.