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Saturday, 4th August 2018 Kick-off 15:00
We Will Never Have a Better Chance of Making the Play-Offs - Notes for Preston
Friday, 23rd Feb 2018 11:45 by HarryFromBath
HarryFromBath assesses the mood in the opposition camp ahead of Saturday’s game at Deepdale by delving into their forums.
“I love this league, it’s a real competition”, “Before the season started, most of us would have bitten your hand off if we had been offered being three points off the play-off places with 13 games left to play”, “This is a wonderful opportunity for this team, but can we do it? It will be interesting to see.”
Preston have been in impressive form since losing at Portman Road in November, constructing a run which has seen them lose just one of their last 17 league matches. Three 1-1 draws in tough recent games at Brentford, at home to Wolves and at Villa Park typify their reputation as “a tough nut to crack”.
“Why do we do everything the hard way?” Good as these results were, the Lilywhites were pegged back after taking the lead on each occasion, going down to 10 men against the Bees and Wolves and conceding a penalty to Villa on Tuesday night. These incidents have also typified their campaign.
“Unbeaten runs mean little if you’re not winning. It may be one loss in 17 but it would have been better to have lost six and won 11 games.” Seven wins and nine draws have highlighted an inability to put teams away. “The unbeaten run has been terrific, but it’s a winning run you really need.”
“I still think we are a work-in-progress”, “I’m not ruling us out completely. We’re performing well but some of the consistent naivety and our lack of goals aren’t traits of a top-six side”, “We can still make the play-offs but if we do it will by the skin of our teeth. I honestly feel we will narrowly miss out.”
“Alex Neil is quality. His tactics are spot on”, “I like his attitude as he shows no fear and doesn’t let the opposition dictate his decision-making. He lets teams worry about us, which is what we now need because we have some very good players at this club and are now established in the Championship.”
The 36-year-old former Canaries’ boss has moulded the team into his preferred style of high-tempo football since taking over from Simon Grayson in July. North Enders have welcomed the refreshing brand of entertaining football they have been watching with a largely unchanged first-team squad.
“Full marks for me”, “Overall Alex seems to be getting the best out of his players and his tenure so far represents a marked improvement in the quality of our football. Our overall desire and belief have improved compared to the last two seasons”, “An improvement on Simon Grayson for sure.”
“I really like the fact he gives the young lads and chance and for us this has to be the way forward”, “The one thing that stands out for me is his ‘who dares wins’ attitude especially with our budget in comparison to others. It may be the only way we will ever get promoted to the Premier League.”
Team Effort and Commitment
“At our best we adopt a high-energy pressing game, denying teams time on the ball to dictate play, and winning the ball as high up the pitch as possible to create openings for ourselves”, “We combine that with a quick pass-and-move game. The intent to take the game to the opposition is always there.”
“We go for teams and press high, defending from the front with a high work rate”, “We mix a bit of guile with lots of pace and directness”, “We are a team which defends from the front, but it only will work when the whole team play a high-tempo pressing game. They all really have to be up for it.”
“Alex is firmly attached to his 4-2-3-1 formation at least as a starting line-up, although he has shown he will go with two up front if needs be.” Neil used the starting debut of January signing Louis Moult to reshape the side (above) at Villa Park, partnering him alongside fellow striker Callum Robinson.
Fans noted how Robinson dropped deep and found space to link and build attacks, something he has struggled to do as a lone striker. The new attacking balance gave their midfield a focal point while finding the time and space to build a rhythm and construct moves with their quick-passing football.
“We are well organised defensively”, “The back four hardly put a foot wrong between the lot of them.” Paul Huntington strength and aerial ability have balanced the calmness and comfort on the ball of centre-back partner Ben Davies, who has really blossomed as the season has progressed.
Alan Browne has been used in an advanced role in the central midfield three to harry the opposition industriously high up the pitch. Ben Pearson is also seen as a useful midfield terrier but Daniel Johnson divides opinion in terms of his suitability to this playing style and the impact of his creative passing.
“The Villa game was another with nice, short-passing moves through midfield. It was just the final shot that was letting us down”, “We’re not clinical enough to finish in the top six”, “Our play in the final third along with our lack of creativity and goals have badly needed improving on for a while.”
Striker Moult arrived from Motherwell in January and is seen as “a disruptive presence” to replace the now departed Jordan Hugill. May Lilywhites’ play-off hopes rest on how quickly the new striker clicks with Robinson and first-choice wingers Tom Barkhuizen and another new arrival Billy Bodin.
Ill-Discipline and Naivety
“At some points people are going to have to accept that our inability to take chances coupled with committing daft fouls and continuing to have the worst disciplinary record in the division is not entirely down to referees”, “The constant petulant and unnecessary silly yellow cards annoy me.”
“Our disciplinary record this season is shocking.” Preston picked up yellow cards at Villa for dissent and time-wasting, something which has frequently happened this season. “Our dark arts have come on immeasurably under Alex Neil, but we need to be even more cute now to avoid the silly ones.”
Aston Villa 1 – 1 Preston
“Just back from the game. We had enough chances to win two matches let alone this one. We still lack the killer instinct to put matches like this to bed”, “When fans are disappointed we haven’t won at Villa Park, it shows how far we have come”, “Disappointed with a draw given the balance of play.”
Tom Barkhuizen put the visitors ahead with an overhead kick on 37 minutes after Villa failed to deal with a Preston corner. Having dominated the first half, they let the hosts back into the game when Barkhuizen shoved Keinan Davis to concede a soft penalty on 66 which Lewis Grabban converted.
“We haven’t got the quality to finish off chances. It’s no one’s fault but ours”, “We’ve thrown away six points from winning positions in the last 10 days alone. We must have one of the worst records in the division for not holding on to the lead”, “For the third game running we have been pegged back”,
Preston 1 – 1 Wolverhampton
“A smashing game and a great result. I’m buzzing with that point”, “I’m happy with a point and would have taken that before the game, it keeps the unbeaten run going. It’s an absolutely fantastic result all things considered”, “Wolves weren’t all that good because Preston didn’t allow them to be.”
“That was some header.” Alan Browne put Preston in front on 52 minutes heading home a Robinson corner, but the tide turned when John Welsh received a second yellow card on 59 and the visitors almost immediately drew level two further minutes later when Helder Costa slotted the ball home.
With midfielder Ben Pearson and left-back Greg Cunningham suspended, fans were nervous seeing veteran John Welsh in particular in the starting line-up (above) against the league leaders. “Wolves’ passing and movement as well as their one-touch football and awareness were second to none.”
Brentford 1 – 1 Preston
“On the train back, it wasn’t the best of games and I still think our lack of quality in the final third is telling”, “It was a poor quality game with very few highlights to speak of”, “Brentford will be kicking themselves that they didn’t beat us because we were far from our best, although we worked hard.”
Tom Barkhuizen put North End ahead on 54 with a cross which swung into the goal before Florian Jozefzoon equalised for the Bees eight minutes later with a low shot. Brentford were unable to take advantage of the dismissal of Preston’s Greg Cunningham for a second yellow card on 74 minutes.
“A good point considering our record at Griffin Park. We can’t seem to beat Brentford”, “We worked our socks off in the last 10 minutes and didn’t deserve to lose”, “It was a lucky point on balance. As frustrating as it was, this could turn out to be a massive point for us in the grand scheme of things.”
The starting line-up (above) saw the return of defender Tommy Spurr after four months out due to knee surgery. Paul Gallagher stepped in to cover for the suspended Ben Pearson in midfield. “We never really got going and to win a point at that place where we never do is really encouraging.”
Goalkeepers and Defenders
“Declan Rudd is a composed keeper who makes some terrific saves.” The Diss-born 27-year-old arrived on a permanent deal last summer from Norwich having previously played on loan for the Lilywhites in League One in 2013/14. “He has superb positioning, catches and reflex saves.”
“Rudd has kept his place.” He has displaced former Fleetwood man Chris Maxwell, who is seen as more of a sweeper-keeper. “Maxwell is quicker off his line and allows us to play further up the pitch, but when Rudd starts we are defending first. He’s better in the air and a better shot-stopper.”
“Greg Cunningham is one of the first names on the team-sheet.” The 27-year-old former Bristol City left-back “makes such a difference both in attack and defending. He is class going forward, making some superb crosses and he’s very good defensively, but he does have the occasional moment.”
“It’s really exciting having Cunningham’s attacking threat back in the team.” He missed four months of the campaign with a hamstring injury. “Getting two yellow cards at Brentford in the space of 45 seconds, it was such absolute stupidity from a senior professional. What on earth was he thinking?”
“Josh Earl has great ability but he’s also a threat with his athleticism.” The 19-year-old left-back or midfielder and youth product “has had a great start to his career but he’s still a young lad making his way in the game. He is very static when we have possession and offers little threat going forward.”
“I had no idea Earl is 6ft 5in, now that is a unit”, “He has bags of potential and his size is a huge asset while he’s deceptive in that he also has great feet and speed”, “His bulk and size mean that it can be a problem for him turning against tricky wingers, but he looks good and the signs are promising.”
With right-back Darnell Fisher suspended on Saturday, Calum Woods may feature. The 31-year-old ex-Huddersfield man has made a few cameo appearances lately. “Woods is not slow, he has a solid tackle, is decent in the air and is two-footed. It’s a pity that he does seem to be more injury prone.”
“Woods has more footballing ability than Fisher, but he doesn’t have the same physical approach to the game”, “He’s a very solid player who can cover across the back line, but he’s a far better option at the defensive side of the role”, “He’s a very versatile defender with a great professional attitude.”
“Great to see Tommy Spurr back, I hope he stays fit.” The 30-year-old former Blackburn defender “is a model of resilience and professionalism”, “He was ring-rusty at Brentford, the Titanic turned more quickly. He did well, given that he had not played for months even if he was blowing near the end.”
“Tom Clarke has been excellent for us, but his lack of pace is becoming a liability.” The 30-year-old ex-Huddersfield centre-half “relies on his central partner to bail him out and he should never play again at full-back”, “He can be run ragged by speedy wingers and his lack of mobility gets exposed.”
“Clarke is an absolute defensive beast, heading everything away”, “He’s a tough-tacking, determined player and a club legend, but a high number of his challenges are now desperate ones”, “There have been too many occasions where he has been easily beaten at this level against better opposition.”
“If anyone deserves a bit of recognition at our club from the fans, it’s definitely Paul Huntington.” The 30-year-old former Yeovil man “is an old-fashioned centre-back, a model footballer who puts everything on the line”, “He’s a solid defender who scores some very good goals from set-pieces.”
“Huntington is fantastic in the air but not so calm and collected with the ball at his feet”, “He’s the Cumbrian Cannavaro”, “He’s a colossus and a linchpin who is consistent in every game”, “The best way to honour him on a match-day is to just slightly adjust your socks at every dead ball situation.”
“Davies brings a calmness and composure to our defence.” The 22-year-old youth product “is a great passer and is brilliant in the tackle and in the air”, “He’s athletic, always in the correct place and he has great technical ability”, “He’s calm on the ball and all our play out of defence is through him.”
Ben Davies v Diogo Jota (Wolves)
“Clarke’s positional sense is spectacular, he never looks rushed or flustered and never dives in. He is great with the ball at his feet”, “He is always in the right place at the right time, his footballing brain and reading of the game are second to none”, “We have a hell of a terrific defender on our hands.”
“John Welsh is not the player he was.” The 34-year-old ex-Tranmere holding midfielder “is now half a step off the pace”, “He has been a great servant but is a long way off top-six Championship level”, “All he does is dive in and slide around. Technically and physically he out of his depth at this level.”
“Alex Neil wants Daniel Johnson to bring more to his game.” The 25-year-old ex-Aston Villa youth man “should put himself about and do the graft that midfielders need to do”, “He is creative and can score goals and add quality. He has always been most effective in a central attacking midfield role.”
“Johnson isn’t the type of player who puts himself about physically or in an aggressive manner”, “His passes go backwards or sideways. He should open up defences with the balls we know he can play”, “He doesn’t work hard enough for the team and that’s what Alex wants more than anything else.”
“Josh Harrop is a silky skilful runner but he’s defensively naïve.” The 22-year-old former Manchester United youth player “is good enough to play our high-pressing game and he brings creative quality as well”, “A young player learning his trade, he has flashes of potential mixed with basic screw-ups.”
“A few players could look at Alan Browne’s graft and take note.” The 22-year-old former Cork City youth player “is in the team to be a runner, not to create things. He’s not the most gifted player but he never lacks spirit or determination”, “He’s first to every ball, shows composure and dictates play.”
“Neil likes playing Browne in that slightly more forward role, where he prevents teams from being able to build with his closing down and harrying”, “He divides opinion but one thing you get from him is commitment”, “He has always had heart and an engine, but his technical side is improving.”
“Paul Gallagher brings an element of calmness and experience as well as the ability to switch the play.” The 33-year-old ex-Leicester midfielder “is getting on a bit but he’s still a very effective player for us”, “He slows the tempo down which is good at times, although it’s not what we set out to do.”
“Gallagher has been a decent player for us but I’m not sure the style of football we play now will suit him. He will look for a 50-yard Hollywood pass rather than a short forward run. When he starts we find it hard to break teams down although paradoxically he’s good to bring on to unlock a defence.”
“We have a real gem on our hands in Ben Pearson.” The 23-year-old ex-Manchester United youth player featured on loan for Barnsley in 2015/16. “It takes two players to make up for his engine and ball playing. He’s an outstanding midfield general who is everywhere ratting and winning the ball.”
Josh Emmanuel v Ben Pearson
“Pearson runs games. His tackling, passing and intercepting by reading the play can’t be bettered. The amount of ball-winning he does is unreal”, “He needs a minder. The first sign of controversy and one of our more level-headed players needs to drag him away both from the fray and the referee.”
Wide Midfielders and Wingers
“Daryl Horgan is as honest as the day is long but lacking a critical slice of quality.” The 25-year-old ex-Dundalk wide man “is all pace but little end product”, “He’s a decent winger who wants the ball and likes to get at defenders”, “He does shoot, something which is lacking from our back-up players.”
“Horgan is a hard-working winger who will track back and help out when we’re defending”, “I would have expected him to be an Alex Neil type of player, direct, confident and with a high work-rate, but he’s now an impact player”, “A committed worker but his game is definitely lacking a bit of polish.”
“Billy Bodin is not afraid to take people on and is skilful with both feet on the ball.” The 25-year-old January buy from Bristol Rovers “looks very good technically and adds a touch of quality. I’m sure there’s more to come from him”, “He is tidy on the ball but just needs to release it sooner at times.”
“Bodin fits our style of play. He looks to be getting up to the pace of life at this level”, “He has great feet and reads the game well with some very inventive runs, but he plays right on the last man and too far from his full-back. He needs to work on his tracking back as he leaves his defender exposed.”
“Tom Barkhuizen can get at defenders with raw pace.” The 24-year-old ex-Morecambe man “isn’t the finished article but he’s getting used to life in this division. Some of his decisions and runs are very dangerous. He just needs to believe in himself on the ball and he will score an absolute belter.”
Tom Barkhuizen v Neil Etheridge and Joe Ralls (Cardiff City)
“Barkhuizen is much more dangerous driving towards goal”, “He’s more comfortable on a central role where his pace could be interesting against slower ageing defenders”, “He needs to play with self-belief. If he wants to play up top he cannot hide and he needs to be more willing to shoot.”
“Callum Robinson is a good finisher who is willing to find space and make himself available.” The 23-year-old ex-Villa striker “needs to play in tandem with another striker up front. I like his pace, closing down and his unpredictability”, “He works his backside off and gives defenders no time on the ball.”
“I’m not convinced Robinson is a central striker who can lead the line. He’s ultimately better starting in a wider or more withdrawn position where he has space to exploit”, “He’s quick, skilful and gets in everywhere putting in challenges to disrupt play. He works really hard to make something happen.”
“Moult looks more physical than Robinson.” The 25-year-old January acquisition from Motherwell “is the type of character who will put the work in and he looks a decent finisher”, “He is skilful, can hold the ball up and get past his marker”, “Football is about goals and he knows where the net is.”
Simon Moore (Sheffield United) v Louis Moult
“Moult looks like a flair player who is good in the air. He will give us more of a presence in attack”, “He works as hard as ever at Villa. He has a good first touch but he was never getting on the end of balls like I thought he would, but he was doing all the dirty work”, “He will start scoring very soon.”
Lilywhites’ Views on ITFC and the Game
“Stick a few past Ipswich and we might put a nice little run together”, “Thump Ipswich on Saturday and the gloom merchants will suddenly be more cheerful.” North Enders are confident of victory, with a huge 88 per cent predicting a home win and only three per cent forecasting a Town triumph.
“The trouble is it's likely we will also draw against Ipswich too and that's why we are frustrating.” A tiny minority are worried that their inability to convert dominance into wins might haunt them once again. The overwhelming topic of conversation has been the return to Deepdale of Joe Garner.
“What sort of reception will Joe get when he returns to Deepdale next week, I won't be booing him”, “Why would anyone boo him? I’m sure he will get a great reception”, “He's a Lilywhite through and through. He'll get an ovation from me for everything he did for this club. He’s a legend.”
Joe Garner for former club Preston
“Joe is ‘one of ours’. He is like that irritating little brother that you hate, but at the same time you love”, “In 50 years supporting North End, he provided me with a memory of one of the greatest goals I have seen in the play-offs v Rotherham. Thanks Joey, never to be forgotten!”
“He should get a great reception before the game. His goals were crucial in getting us out of League One. He never put in transfer requests when Championship teams wanted him or held the club to ransom over new contracts. He never let the Rangers interest affect him enough to miss a game.”
“Joe is good enough for the Championship, I just think he was misused by Grayson”, “It was in the Championship when Garner was used as basically a battering ram and he struggled in a team that offered little creativity. He would have done a lot better last season with McGeady's creativity.”
“Garner has made about three dives in the Norwich v Ipswich game already”, “During the game he should get some playful banter, especially when he gets up to his shenanigans”, “I’m just a bit worried he will go down in the area and get a penalty, with our luck it will probably happen.”
The busiest North End message board is the friendly and well-informed PNE Discussions.
Photo: Action Images
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