Preston North End vs. Cardiff City: Tactical Review


North End succumbed to a 3rd 0-1 defeat in a row at Deepdale on Sunday against a very well drilled Cardiff side, who made it 10 wins in 18 away games under Neil Harris. There’s been lots of talk about PNE’s home form, so I’ve tried to break down the game to see what went wrong, and why we struggled to create chances.

There has been lots said about Cardiff sitting in a deep block, which is true in their defensive phase, but they were actually very proactive in trying to stop PNE building a clean first phase. Using a 4-4-2/ 4-4-1-1 shape, Kieffer Moore pressed the ball-playing centre back whilst trying to angle his run to prevent an easy pass into Ben Pearson, whilst the number 10 tended to man-mark Pearson, or at least be within close contact.

Each winger tended to stay slightly deeper, equidistant between FB, CB and a midfielder – if the ball was played to our FB, or a CB who had moved wider, the winger would press. Cardiff’s two deeper midfielders would press to an extent in the ball was played into the middle areas, but they allowed Ledson to move freely into our defensive third, which he did a few times. They completely nullified our approach as seen below.

Moore ready to press either centre back, no. 10 man to man with Pearson. Each winger is seen deeper ready to press if the ball came into their vicinity.

We see Moore press the CB, he angles his run to prevent an easy pass back into the GK or LCB. Their no. 10 is man to man with Pearson, and the RW has come inside between the LCB and LB. There is no option but for Bauer to play long (Maguire vs Morrison).

Here, Kieffer Moore is ready to press Ben Davies again but is waiting for him to open up his body and look forward. If the ball goes to Bauer, he can press, and he can also cut off the pass into Pearson. The no. 10 again is in Pearson’s vicinity and we see the RW close to Hughes.

If North End were more insistent on a clean build up here, Bauer would move a lot wider and Rudd would join the line, but we don’t take those risks. It goes long again. This is great shape from Cardiff.

Again, we see a solid Cardiff shape. Again, Moore presses Davies from an angle that cuts off the pass to Bauer, and the no. 10 is man to man with Pearson. The RW is blocking the passing lane to Sinclair whilst also being ready to press Hughes who is wider. They clearly want to block central space and do so well. They manage to nullify Pearson again.

As North End start to realise that the build up phase is being nullified, they begin to bring a midfielder into the first line. Here, Ledson has dropped between the CBs. He is able to do this as the Cardiff set up doesn’t want their players to press our midfielder’s too high – their limit seemed to be the middle of PNE’s half.

So Ledson can drop into the space, and in theory, it now becomes easier for Davies to drive up the field. However, this does leave PNE a man short in the second line and they continue to struggle to build up cleanly.

This time, Ledson has stayed deep in the first line offering a wide option to Bauer. We see Bauer pressed by Moore who again cuts off Davies. Again, Pearson is man marked and cut off. Ledson means well here, but his position only invites the press from Hoilett and he ends up having to go long again.

North End are getting more impatient now and as we see Ledson drop into the first line again, we also see Rafferty staying deep to offer an extra option.

As Moore presses, PNE effectively has a 5v2, which is a waste of resources. I have highlighted Potts here as a simple movement can lead to him being found between Cardiff’s lines. If he moves into the circled half-space, Ledson can fizz a pass into him, as Hoilett’s momentum is towards Rafferty. It doesn’t happen and PNE move the ball slowly, going long again.

Again, Moore presses the ball playing CB. Pearson makes a clever blindside movement here as he is free, as the Cardiff no. 10 won’t follow him too high as mentioned before. The key here is Rafferty, he is far too deep to ever impact the play. If he’s 20 yards higher up, he can force Hoillett backwards and create more space for Bauer. Again though, this is very good from Cardiff.

In the second half as the game became slightly more stretched, we see a line of 3 again. With Pearson in the centre, the vacated space should be filled by an attacker which would allow Bauer to move the ball into the second line. Instead, we go long.

Same again here. Rafferty again too deep and not impacting the play, but Pearson is man-marked. Ledson, knowing he won’t be followed as Cardiff are now in a deep block, drops deeper. As Pearson pulls his marker wide and forces the no.10 to press Davies, Ledson has space to receive the ball and pass forward.

Rafferty’s reluctance is now causing PNE issues in terms of the build-up. As he lacks the pace and confidence to go outside, he ends up coming inside. He is tracked here and plays a pass into Browne who is pressed intensely by his opposite midfielder. Raff should keeping the width in the build-up and it was a major issue on Sunday.

Same again.

And again. Being so deep here, as a 3rd man in the first line, is just inviting the press. It’s safety first from an individual point of view, but Rafferty is not aiding the build up at all.

Here we see Rafferty’s initial reluctance to move up the pitch – Browne has to usher him forward. The space is clearly there in the wide area. On receiving the ball, Rafferty again lacks ability and confidence, going inside to Browne who is left 1v1 in a dangerous area. Really poor.

Again, all the space is wide. Look at how narrow Cardiff’s RB and RW are. Rafferty crosses here rather than taking Wilson on on the outside.

This is in the 84th minute. Rafferty, who should be providing our attacking width, is our deepest player. Limiting us massively.

So, that shows us why PNE failed to create a clean build-up. Cardiff did a real job on Pearson and they used a good shape to inhibit us. They engaged positively.

Our lack of adventure in the build-up and lack of width meant we went long far too many times and lost possession, failing to build up a head of steam. Once we got into Cardiff territory, we were very narrow. As already highlighted, Rafferty is a very negative player and Hughes, despite being slightly more willing to run with the ball, isn’t great either.

As usual, our wide attackers are very narrow, and there is no width from the full backs who are 30 yards behind play – because they stay deep in the build-up, they are so far behind play when the ball goes long. They became passengers to an extent due to this theme.

Cardiff’s back 4 are narrow and are happy to defend aerially, whilst their 2 sitting midfielders are happy to win the scraps.

Same here. No width and Cardiff have a 6v4.

On the occasions that PNE managed to venture into Cardiff’s half cleanly, there was a lack of clever attacking movement. Cardiff are in a narrow 4-4-1-1 shape here. Potts and Rafferty are so deep that they aren’t impacting play. There is no movement in the spaces between Cardiff’s midfield. It’s all a bit cautious.

Sinclair does find space behind Cardiff’s midfield here, but instead of finding him with a chipped ball, Rafferty goes for the easy long ball option up to Maguire.

Again, Cardiff’s back 4 defends the width of the box. Browne, on the right, has occupied the LB and by moving inside, he creates an acre of space on the right flank for Rafferty to attack.

He is not even in picture and the attack ends with Potts being crowded out ending in a tame shot.

No real options for Sinclair. The team are stuck deep and Rafferty again not in the picture. North End’s narrowness and Rafferty’s lack of aggression, in particular, led to Cardiff being able to defend central areas very comfortably. So, how did North End get any sort of joy?

A common North End tactic – Andrew Hughes.

It’s well known by opposition by now that he’s a massive aerial threat, and we often see 2 defenders contest aerials with him, as above. This creates space for Sinclair if Hughes wins the header. It’s a common theme now and it ends with Maguire shooting on target. Hughes won 7 aerials with 6 of those coming on the left flank.

Transition. There was the odd moment where PNE won the ball with Cardiff’s back 4 disjointed as above. We lacked quality in pass selection and execution.

We do this a lot. Our no. 10, usually Browne, peels into a channel off the centre backs and wins a header into the vacated space. Increasing the distances between Cardiff’s back 4, and creating space this time for Maguire who is 1v1 in the penalty area. Again, we lack quality.

Again, Browne runs the channel and Maguire is 1v1 if he can be found.

Riis now has a go at this and wins a corner, although nobody was attacking the box.

Cardiff allowed PNE to cross the ball, knowing that we lacked quality. Quality in terms of delivery, but also in terms of pass selection. Too many times we crossed without adequate numbers in the box, and without a good enough angle – often a lazy option. Don’t forget as well that as soon as the ball is in the air, it’s no longer under control. North End completed 1 cross out of 26.

Rafferty crosses instead of going outside his man to get closer to goal. Cardiff have 9 men behind the ball.

Cardiff have a 5v2 advantage in the middle of the box. North End have 2 players who have pulled deeper, who can be found with composure from Hughes. Instead, it goes into the middle and Cardiff clear.

Rafferty crosses with only Sinclair in the box. North End have a 4v4 overload on the right, with Pearson as a deeper option, but Rafferty crosses. Poor selection and poor delivery.

Browne crosses here with only 1 man in the box. Sinclair, Ledson and Potts highlighted are simply not impacting play. Cardiff score from a transition from this cross.

North End have 5 in the box here but again, it is a cross badly lacking in quality.

PNE’s only successful cross of the day comes from Davies who whips it in with great technique.

So, North End badly lacked quality in delivery and in decision making. The movement was poor – standing still in the box is easy to defend again. Crosses were poor and again, their angles were easy to defend against.

Our full-backs lack the pace to beat a man and we have no genuine wingers to beat a man, meaning that when teams offer us wide space, we’re easy to defend again. It’s incredibly hard to score from high crosses as it is, but when you lack the quality we do, it’s more or less impossible.

This highlights just how ineffective Rafferty and Potts were.

Cardiff’s 36 clearances – bread and butter.

As well as this, are there arguments that PNE are too cautious at home?

North End with all 11 men back for set pieces. Neil has referenced the data when defending this, but it does make us easier to defend against.

We are aware of Neil’s preference for our full-backs to narrow into the box with the opposition wingers, and for our wingers to be man to man with the opposition full-back. Here we see Potts and Sinclair deep in our half, with 10 men behind the ball.

Can we take more calculated risks?

So, overall North End:

  • Badly lacking attacking width – no wingers, and cautious full-backs who lack quality and physicality
  • Struggled to cope with Cardiff’s first phase set up – lacking ambition with the build-up (low risk)
  • Lacking quality on transition
  • Over cautious with 11 back for set pieces and 9 or 10 men behind the ball at times
  • Lacking crossing quality and selection

Fair play to Neil Harris who read us like a book for the second time in a few months.