Preston North End vs. Millwall: Tactical Review


Millwall came and did a job on North End at Deepdale on Wednesday night. The Lions controlled large spells of the game (you can control a game without the ball), but they didn’t sit in a boring, deep block as some have alluded to. They used aggression in the wide areas, they used Ryan Woods really intelligently and they use their CBs well too. Here’s how they beat North End.

Millwall set up in a 5-2-3 on paper. However, their WBs starting position was very high, and their WBs looked to engage 1v1 with our FBs, leaving their wider CBs to deal with Sinclair and Potts who played very narrow. This allowed their WBs to press up onto our FBs if they received the ball in wide areas. Their 3 CBs covered the width of the pitch well and dealt with channel balls with ease.

Malone (LWB) ready to engage man to man with Rafferty (RB) if the ball is played square. This forces either a channel ball, or it forces Rafferty to play back inside where there isn’t much space.

As you can see, Millwall used this box 2-3 box shape to compress the central areas and force us to go wide. They maintained this shape well throughout and used it when we were in our first phase of possession.

This limited our access to play centrally particularly as Alan Browne was not adept at playing through the lines.

Millwall maintained this shape in the second half as you can see above. Their distances were good and there was little room for PNE players to move into, meaning that we either had to try and go direct by bypassing the middle third, or play wide to the FBs.

So, this basic shape once again forced North End’s build-up wide, outside of the shape, or long, over the shape. Millwall knew that PNE lacked the quality from CB, CB, 6, 6 (Storey, Bauer/Hunts, Ledson, Browne) to play incisive passes through the shape. This is a personnel issue (more on that later).

As the play progressed into Millwall’s half, they compacted into a tighter 5-4-1 shape with Wallace and Bennett dropping deeper into a line of 4 with Woods and Leonard (CMs). This compacted the space between the defensive line and the midfield line, meaning there was no room for PNE to operate in central areas. Again then, North End had to make us of the wide areas to stretch Millwall’s shape – but we lack quality in wide areas.

Here is an example of the 5-4-1 shape. It is not particularly deep, I would call it a mid-block. As we can see, the shape has shifted over to the ball side, leaving all of the space on the ball-far side where Rafferty is.

This is a popular theory with a lot of managers, as the only way to find Rafferty is with a long diagonal ball – when the ball leaves the ground it is not in control, and as the ball travels through the air the Millwall shape has time to shift across. It’s not a danger unless you have an exceptional passer of the ball.

Same again. A compact 5-4-1 shape with all of the space on the far side. Ledson tries an intricate pass into Sinclair but it is easily dealt with. So, when North End got into final third areas, they lacked quality in wide areas to cross and make a contact, and they lack penetration/dynamic movement behind Millwall’s back 5. This led to just 0.48 xG for PNE (our lowest of the season).

Whilst Millwall’s initial shape (5-2-3) and secondary shape (5-4-1) were effective, they were also very aggressive in their use of the wing-backs both with and without the ball. Romeo, in particular, offered plenty of energy and pace to move Millwall up the pitch and to pin Andrew Hughes. As mentioned earlier, Millwall’s wing-backs were playing directly against North End’s full-backs, and Millwall’s aggression resulted in both Hughes and Rafferty being pinned deep for a lot the game.

These 4 screenshots show the aggression of the wing-backs out of possession. They’re either prepared to press if the ball is played to the full-back, or as in a couple of cases, the wing-back has pressed really high and forces the full-back backwards.

Malone and Romeo showed good discipline and energy to maintain this for 90 minutes and won the battle in the wide areas. Rafferty and Hughes, both limited physically, didn’t manage to beat their wing-back in 1-on-1 situations and this resulted in them being pretty futile as an attacking force.

When Millwall had the ball, the wing-backs’ positioning was aggressive again – mainly Romeo who is adept at advancing the ball via dribbling and also offers great width with off the ball running. This was another theme and again it forced North End’s full-backs to remain deep. It also dragged Potts/Sinclair backwards on occasion to double up 2v1.

Firstly, let’s take a look at Millwall’s back 3 in their build-up phase, as their positioning allowed the wing-backs to move high up the pitch. Millwall’s wider centre backs (Hutchinson and Wallace) often moved into full-back zones, which allowed the wing-backs to move 20 yards higher.

The centre backs’ positioning created dilemmas for Preston’s press, as we like to press centrally, but Millwall’s widening of the centre backs increased the distances for us to cover, and they managed to play out successfully with quick combinations, with Ryan Woods showing good movement to receive the ball.

Expansive back 3 who are effectively acting as a back 4 would, just with 1 centre back. This allows the wing-backs to move across the half-way line.

Murray Wallace (LCB) has moved into the LB area. A quick triangulation of the ball, and good blindside movement, allows Woods to be found facing forward.

As PNE’s no. 10 (DJ) was beaten with the circulation, and Ledson jumps up to press Woods, there is acres of space for Bennett to attack. He has then dropped into the space vacated by Ledson who was trapped into pressing, and suddenly Millwall are behind our midfield. Note Malone’s (LWB) positioning throughout this – high, wide and on North End’s last line, pinning Hughes. Really good from Millwall.

This is an example of North End missing Ben Pearson, as Ledson got drawn into situations that he shouldn’t have.

Again, Millwall’s wider centre backs are in full-back areas. Another triangulation which draws DJ to press, and again Woods is found easily with acres. Millwall made the pitch big to great effect and North End seemingly struggling to cope.

Again, Millwall open the pitch up with their LCB in the LB area. Both wing-backs are so high that they aren’t even in the shot. Millwall certainly aren’t 4-4-2 and long ball.

Millwall’s aggressive starting positions meant that their wing-backs carried a threat in transition, and when they turned the ball over, a wing-back was always prepared to drive forward quickly. This ended up pinning back North End’s full-backs.

These 3 scenarios all occur in the first 30 minutes. Romeo’s positional aggression and pace causes North End issues and due to the attacking threat he poses, Hughes really struggles to have any sort of impact on the game.

Hughes was caught up field here and Romeo has carried the ball 30 yards, pinning back Potts and drawing Storey into a wide area – not where you want your centre back to be defending. Romeo is a great outlet.

Same again. Millwall breaking at pace and disorganising North Ends’ shape. Teams who carry this threat but then can also defend space like Millwall can are very hard to beat – they disorganise your structure but remain very organised themselves.

Millwall attack with one wing back who crosses to the other. With Millwall’s width this high, North End are pinned again and there is no wide outlet – there is only Riis up against 3 centre backs.

At 0-1 away from home, Millwall’s LCB is providing attacking width, and the LWB has moved to the inside channel attacking the box. North End’s RB and RW are back in their own box due to this. Millwall certainly aren’t a defensive deep block.

Attacking transition in the 75th minute. Both wing backs providing attacking intent.

80th minute. Romeo (RWB) has pinned our LW, and Hutchinson (RCB) has pinned our LB. Attacking intent. North End were forced back by the aggressive wide dominance from Millwall and it played a major part in their win.

As well as their wide dominance and their clever usage of the back 3, Millwall’s midfield shape with and without the ball caused North End issues. The ability of Woods to orchestrate from deep and the ability of Wallace and Bennett to rotate into central spaces allowed Millwall to progress vertically at relative ease.

In doing this, Millwall controlled the pattern of the game and didn’t allow North End to get into any attacking rhythm.

A player of Woods’ ability is able to accurate passes short or long. Here he has 3 or 4 options on the ball and Wallace and Bennett have dropped into the space in PNE’s midfield by using clever positioning. Wallace in particular was very effective at finding space at the side of PNE’s midfield.

Bennett drops into space behind North End’s midfield and Woods finds him.

Millwall stagger their midfield really well creating depth and angles. Woods has played into Leonard here and Wallace moves into the space that Browne has vacated when he presses Leonard. Wallace is on the blindside of Ledson.

Wallace is found with an incisive pass behind North End’s midfield. 2 vertical passes and Millwall are attacking PNE’s defensive line.

As a result of all of the things mentioned so far, North End were very deep throughout the game. As our players lack the ability to play incisive vertical line-breaking passes, we ended up bringing more and more players into our first line, as no player wanted to take responsibility (bravery). This suited Millwall.

5 players in the first line.


4 players in the first line.

5. So deep.

And again. This is so simple to defend against.

Alex Neil saw this and in fairness tried to rectify by withdrawing Ledson and moving DJ deeper to act as a single pivot. He has the most quality in our squad and it showed in the brief time he was deep. He played multiple line-breaking passes and moved the ball with urgency.

2 vertical passes that broke the Millwall line with intensity and quality.

DJ turns.

Excellent vision and execution to unlock Millwall’s defence. DJ in 15 minutes showed the value of a player who can pass forward – like Ryan Woods did all night.

Millwall were a level above North End tactically and physically. Another side who beat us in the wide areas and who compacted central space. North End need more quality and bravery (as DJ showed) and more directness in wide areas (Fisher, Barkhuizen) etc.

Credit to Millwall here though, they were brilliant on the night.

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