The Boxing Day EFL Championship clash between Preston North End and Leeds featured two teams in contrasting veins of form. Preston had seven points from their last three matches and was on an upward trend, whilst Leeds United had followed up a dominant start to the season with a late capitulation to Cardiff and a limp defeat to Fulham. Both, however, were handed huge boosts in the earlier kickoffs in the form of dropped points by West Brom and Sheffield Wednesday. With Leeds going for automatic promotion and Preston vying for a playoff place, the chance for either to solidify their position as promotion contenders were up for grabs.
In this tactical analysis, I will look at how despite Leeds being heavy favourites, Preston dominated the early passages of this game. This analysis will also examine how Leeds tactics got them back into the match and yet didn’t produce enough to get the win, with the match finishing at a 1-1 stalemate.
The big news in the lineups was that Pablo Hernandez was not fit enough to feature, leading to a slight change in personnel for Leeds. Stuart Dallas moved into midfield from left-back, and pacey winger-cum-left-back Alioski filled in on the left of defence. This led to a lack of control in midfield that I will discuss later, with a Hernandez shaped hole in this match begging to be filled. Preston, however, played a relatively compact 4-2-3-1. Most notable for me was striker Sean Maguire playing off the right, Preston utilising his pace to really effectively press the channel between the Centre Backs and the left, with Barkhuizen doing the same on the other side. All in all, it was a totally typical Bielsa 11, and due to this Preston was able to play with a system and personnel specifically built to shut down Bielsa-ball.
In the first 20 minutes, Leeds found it incredibly difficult to bypass the highly effective Preston press. Preston managed to divide Leeds so there was a pronounced difference between their back five and their front five, and without Hernandez Leeds did not have any midfielders good enough to link the two whilst under such heavy pressure.
Leeds will often in possession play a 3-1-3-3 which features one of the full-backs forming a back three with the centre-backs and Kalvin Phillips sitting just in front of them looking to transition play from either Phillips on the half-turn or an accurate pass from one of the back three. Preston’s front four however man marked each of these players in the back three, as well as Kalvin Phillips.
As you can see here, Nugent stays with the central defender, Maguire shifts out to the left-sided defender (in this case Alioski) and Potts follows Phillips, not allowing him to turn and transition the ball up the bitch. This intense press would often lead to one of two outcomes. Either, as in this case, Preston would win the ball high up in the pitch, or Leeds would be forced to go long. Although Leeds’ striker Bamford is decent in the air, the rushed balls were rarely of a quality whereby he could do anything with them. As you can see from the Average formation lines leading up to the Preston opener, Preston was playing predominantly in the Leeds half, whilst Leeds were pinned back by the effective press.
Preston’s game plan worked perfectly in the first 25 minutes due to their maintained pressure and Leeds inability to react to this. The passes allowed per defensive action was up to a high of 38 for Leeds and sat at an intense 6.1 for Preston. This means that for every defensive action, Preston was being afforded 38 passes on average in the top 60% of the pitch, whilst Leeds were managing only 6.1 before a Preston player made a challenge or interception. For the traditionally high energy high-pressure Leeds side, this was them being totally outclassed at their own game. Even when Leeds transitioned the ball past Preston’s front four, Ben Pearson and Alan Browne were effectively screening the back four.
Problems started however for Preston after the goal. Through a combination of Leeds getting wise to their tactics and Preston being unable to sustain such an energetic press Leeds eventually gained a foothold in the game and began to dominate. You need to only look at the drop-offs in the PPDA after the goal to tell, Preston let Leeds back into the game.
Preston still had chances, but an eventual change to a compact 4-4-2 in the 70th minute signalled that Preston was sitting back and trying to withstand the Leeds oncoming onslaught. Whilst Leeds eventually got a winner, they truly lacked the ability to link play from back to front. After a driving run from the wing late on, Luke Ayling requires someone to play the ball to after being hit with a Preston press.
Both, however, make surging runs forward rather than provide the option Ayling is looking for. Neither peel off and show and so with Preston’s compact structure it is incredibly predictable and easy to deal with. Many changes in the second half were spurned this way due to the lack of a true link man.
In the opening to the match, Preston was by far the better of the two sides. They pressed high and prevented Leeds from gaining any momentum. This was unable to sustain though, and this led to Leeds’ eventual 89th-minute equaliser. In a match however they would’ve expected to win, Leeds missed Hernandez and had no true replacement for him, and so missed a huge chance to gain on West Brom in the race for the title.
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