Preston North End’s 2-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers on Friday night was notable for the way in which Alex Neil’s side approached and executed their gameplan.
North End arrived at Ewood Park off the back of one win in six, and left having recorded one of their finest displays of the season to date.
The first 40 minutes, in truth, could not have gone much better. PNE pressed high, probed in the right areas and caused the Blackburn backline plenty of problems.
On several occasions, Rovers goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski was forced to hurriedly clear the ball as a result of heavy North End pressure. One of his kicks fell straight to the feet of Ched Evans, who would have been presented with an open goal had he been able to get his shot off in time. Adam Armstrong was having little joy both up front and down the left flank.
By the point at which the half-time whistle was blown, however, North End could consider themselves fortunate to go in ahead. That they did was solely down to the heroics of Daniel Iversen, who pulled off arguably the save of the season to claw away Armstrong’s first-time effort at the near post.
From then on, PNE looked relatively assured throughout the second half. Blackburn made two changes at half-time, bringing on Stewart Downing and Tyrhys Dolan, and although Downing brought an element of control to the hosts’ play, the work of Alan Browne at right-back meant Dolan was unable to pose a major threat.
North End could have made it more comfortable for themselves. Brad Potts fired a couple of chances wide late on and could have slid in Ched Evans who was arguably better placed for one of the chances, and had Emil Riis gone down in the box under challenge from Jarrad Branthwaite rather than stay on his feet, PNE would have had the opportunity to extend their lead from the penalty spot. That’s no criticism of the Dane by any means – whether the player goes down or not shouldn’t impact the final penalty decision.
It often gets said that a club’s season can swing based on these sort of results. Although your overall standard is rarely not reflected by the league table after 46 games, those results present an opportunity to push on.
What we haven’t yet seen is how good North End can be over a prolonged period of time. It’s an issue that has been prevalent all season, especially after a win such as the one recorded on Friday night.
The 1-0 victory over Derby on Boxing Day, where Browne scored with the last kick of the game, felt like a watershed moment. The 3-2 success over Bournemouth in November would have been similar, had it not been for Patrick Bauer’s season-ending Achilles injury. The 3-0 win at Reading the month previous showed exactly what North End were capable of on the road.
One major factor to take note of is that this is arguably one of the most competitive fields the Championship has ever seen. It may not be of the highest standard – although Brentford, Watford and arguably Norwich, having had the experience last season, would likely be able to compete in the Premier League – but it is a season where, more than ever, every team is more than capable of pulling off unexpected results.
You could probably count on one hand the amount of people that predicted Derby to be genuine relegation candidates, even withstanding their takeover issues. Nottingham Forest had a horrendous end to last season, but were expected to bounce back. Birmingham City are perhaps a less surprising name to be seen near the bottom, although they brought in plenty of well-renowned names in the summer. All three are struggling to keep their heads above water.
Inconsistency, it appears, is a common theme across the division. From Cardiff in seventh place down to Birmingham in 23rd, the gap is just 12 points. Sixth-placed Bournemouth have picked up only nine points from their last 10 games, and at the time of writing are without a manager.
It may be an obvious point, but the table this season proves more than ever the importance of putting together a good run at the right time.
Oli wrote a piece last season on the ‘chance of a lifetime‘ in terms of a promotion push. Of course, there aren’t many parallels between North End’s situation last season – when they were in the play-off places for most of the campaign – and their current league position.
The one similarity, however, is the lack of certainty over the final play-off positions. Cardiff have secured three wins on the bounce, but there is plenty of inconsistency below them. Middlesbrough and Stoke, positioned seventh and ninth respectively, have not won in their last five games. Bristol City, level on points with PNE in 12th place, have lost their last four.
For comparison, sixth-placed Swansea recorded 70 points last season, which is slightly below the rough figure of around 73/74 points you would normally require to get into the play-offs. For North End to match that, they would need 31 points from 17 games.
This campaign is, of course, completely unique in terms of variables. The lack of fans has played a part. The quick turnaround of matches can either be viewed as positive or negative, depending on your form. From a PNE perspective, the club had the contract issues surrounding the ‘big four’ to resolve. Eight signings were made in January, with four of those under the age of 24.
What is important to note is that with such a high turnover of players, it is naturally going to take time for the new faces to settle and for the team to gel fully, as Jake wrote about in his recent piece for LancsLive. There will no doubt be a transitional period in store as the club looks ahead to summer recruitment.
The absences of Ben Davies and Ben Pearson will be sorely felt, although the likes of Ben Whiteman, Jayson Molumby and Daniel Iversen all appear to have settled into the side already. Iversen has been a revelation in goal, whilst Whiteman and Molumby have both enjoyed good starts to life at Deepdale – there should be even more to come from both.
PNE’s points tallies against different sides makes for interesting reading. They have scored 17 points (from 36 available) against teams that are currently in the top half, whereas the other 22 points (from 51 available) have been recorded against teams in the bottom half.
It’s a statistic that proves that this side has the quality to put together strong performances against the best teams that the division has to offer. Delve deeper, and out of the 12 games we have played against top half sides, eight of those have been away from home, where the side undoubtedly poses more of a threat.
The key issue so far has been the ability to retain momentum – on numerous occasions this season, North End have taken two steps forward only to fall back a step after defeat. Their longest unbeaten streak this season stands at three games.
What North End need to show is evidence that they have learned the lessons from earlier on in the season and can cash in when they hit a good run of form. The Blackburn victory was a landmark given that it was the first clear indication that the current North End side has the ability to match the types of performances that saw us top the Championship in November 2019.
It will also give the side the unique boost in confidence that winning a derby can bring. As I’ve alluded to, though, the challenge is to deliver that sort of display consistently.
Neil’s decision to play a back three on Friday evening was a surprise, although the system delivered some success last season. It has been reverted to on occasion this term, but generally mid-match barring one or two occasions.
After the January window, it can be argued that we now have the personnel to utilise that formation more often going forward, should Neil choose to. Greg Cunningham excelled as a wing-back under Simon Grayson, whilst Alan Browne performed the role well on Friday night.
Jordan Storey’s best games recently have been when he has played on the right of a three-man defence, and Liam Lindsay not only looks confident and assured, but looks to be able to step out and blunt attacks when required after an impressive display in the middle of our back three on Friday night.
Under both Grayson and Neil, however, there has been a difficulty in translating away results into home results using the system. It doesn’t suit a scenario where a team sits back at Deepdale and are happy to let North End possess more of the ball in midfield areas.
The next four games offer an opportunity to build on Friday night’s excellent display. Watford at home is the most challenging on paper, but Xisco Munoz’s side have picked up just three victories on the road this season.
North End then travel to Wales to face Cardiff, whose results have improved considerably under Mick McCarthy. Huddersfield and QPR are next, with both suffering from similar consistency problems as North End.
The Blackburn win certainly lifted the mood of some fans, but it is the outcome of the next games that will really determine what we can reasonably expect PNE to achieve come May.
Make sure to check out our match preview ahead of the game against Watford here. If you haven’t yet, give the post-match podcast from Friday night’s derby day win a listen below.
If you want a trip down memory lane then our latest episode of From the Finney Meets… is available to listen to now with super Jonny Macken!