Preston North End along with Nottingham Forrest, Brentford and Fulham all have a very good chance of getting a place in Championship play-offs. With Leeds and West Bromwich being the clear favourites for automatic promotion, it is hard to say who will surely get the last spot in the top-tier division of English football. Despite the recent downturn in results, Preston after three years with Alex Neil have the real chance of playing in the Premier League next season.
Their tactical approach with high intensity and pressing, frequent changes of possession, and fast attackers makes their games pleasant to watch. However, with the worst defensive record out of the top six teams, Alex Neil has to make some changes in his defensive tactics. In this tactical analysis in form of a scout report, I will look at Preston’s main patterns in defence and in attack, and also highlight several key players and their influence on the team.
The movement in attack
Preston are a team that relies a lot on the intensity of their pla, for both offensive and defensive strategies. In attack, they look to create overloads and triangles between players, so there are always many passing options. They try to get two players to be open, as we can see below. Six Preston players are on the right flank and when Johnson gets the ball he will have at least two players to pass to, plus you can see the left-back Hughes higher up in the centre (blue circle) also available for a pass.
Due to Preston players creating an overload, Fulham have to outnumber them, so there are eight players on the right side of the pitch. So, if Preston manage to find space for a cross, there is a 4v2 situation in the penalty area with two Fulham players focusing on the ball, leaving a 2v2 near the six-yard box.
Players know the system they are playing in so they are ready to aggressively press the opponent when losing the ball. Due to a congested area, it is hard for any team to build an attack from there, and usually opponents only get a throw-in or a foul, which gives time for Preston to make their usual defensive shape.
The players who are most of all responsible for ball progression in Preston are centre-backs, central and attacking midfielders (most of the time Daniel Johnson). They tend to carry the ball out of their own half and other players look to find gaps in the opponents’ defensive structure. So, wingers and forwards position themselves between the lines or make runs in behind.
Below you can see an example of that with Davis pushing up high with the ball and other players forming triangles and offering themselves in the horizontal and vertical gaps. While the left-back Hughes is pushing high as well, the attacking midfielder Johnson situationally takes his role to provide cover. This once again shows that coach Neil is doing a great job teaching his players where to position themselves, how to cover teammates, how to find a space and so on.
If there is no one clear way to progress the ball after a successful passing exchange, Preston look to play either from the flanks or through long balls, which I will look at in the next section.
Overall, Preston are really good when it comes to playing in congested areas, offering passing options and circulating the ball between the whole team. Their central axis is very versatile, with centre-backs and central midfielders always able to carry the ball forward themselves, and the rest of the team moving aroud to find space in opposition defence. Next, we will look at another option for Preston when playing out of the back and generally in possession: long balls.
Long balls in the build-up
Using long balls during the build-up stage may seem controversial, especially in a modern era of football. Voluntary handover of the ball may be a sign of a poorly coached team without a proper build-up structure and understanding what the players are doing on the pitch. However, if coached and executed correctly, it can become a powerful, if not one of the main methods of breaking down the opposition defence. Alex Neil’s Preston are a good example of how to use long balls to advance up the pitch. When centre-backs or central midfielders (whether they are in the backline or not) are on the ball, they often send the ball to the forwards, who are playing on the shoulder of the last defender. The likes of Sean Maguire, Tom Barkhuizen, Daniel Johnson and some others are all pacey players and this tactical approach totally pays off.
Even if the players are not tall, using long balls with the right timing and positioning allows the team to establish possession in the final third, or to just force the opposition team to seat deeper. This helps to avoid the heavy pressing and have a good option outside of the common build-up strategy. Moreover, they have an option of playing David Nugent in the striking position, who doesn’t have the pace to run behind the defence but can cling to balls and actually get to the long forward passes. He is an important tactical weapon for Preston, providing them with tactical versatility in that department. As a result, he’s got 931 minutes this season in the Championship.
The two centre-backs and two central midfielders are the players who are responsible for long passes into the fast Preston forwards. The attacking group is very good at finding the space between the defenders and making fast runs inside those gaps. As said before, these passes open up the opportunity of establishing the area of play in the final third, and when the ball gets there, Preston players can create turnovers, resulting in shooting opportunities.
This is one of the main tactics that Preston use in their build-up, the players are well-drilled to this approach, and that has been paying off well this season. Frequent changes of possession are natural to this set of players, as most of them have the speed, stamina and mental qualities to immediately press and react to the particular situations on the pitch.
Daniel Johnson’s influence
After joining Preston back in 2014, Johnston has consistently been one of the star players of Preston. However, he never had a season as productive as this one: with 11 goals and 5 assists in 26 games this Championship season, he has been having the most season of his career. Despite playing as a central attacking midfielder, he is got many qualities that are unusual for his position. His finishing, defensive contributions and the ability to shield the ball from the opponents are very unique for a player of his profile.
During the game, he drifts wide to both flanks to create overloads with the full-back and winger, or he drops deep to control the game from a more defensive position. This season he primarily played in three positions: attacking midfielder, left central midfielder and left defensive midfielder (like in the example below). In-game he free-roams around the pitch to gain numerical superiority, pick up the ball from defenders and dribble his way forward. His movement is important for Preston’s build-up, as Johnson is the player who connects the team together with his movement and positioning.
His movement is important for Preston during the build-up and when the team defends. Even though it is usually the midfielder’s job to join the backline at the beginning of the attack, Johnson sometimes fills in their shoes(the image below). The same goes for the defending part: Johnson joins the backline when he has to follow his marker, showing his defensive contribution.
In terms of passing, he is making 35 passes per game, just slightly less than the centre-backs and central midfielders. He likes to exchange short passes when drifting wide to one side of the pitch. He is a passing metronome of the team in attack, being the kind of player who establishes possession, and his vision and dribbling ability make him a very useful outlet for Preston to have in attack.
Defensively, he is making great contributions to the team in that regard, with 1,8 tackles won and 3,11 interceptions per game. As we saw in the defending section, Preston’s defensive style causes such a high number of interceptions for most players. However, his number of tackles shows his defensive work-rate. What is more, he is one of the best players in Preston regarding ball recoveries, making 12 of them in the final third in the last five games(you can see the more detailed view below).
Offensively and defensively he is a great player for Preston to have, especially if they can get promoted to the higher division.
Defensive and pressing structure
Despite conceding the most goals in the top six group, Preston’s defensive structure doesn’t have any big problems that need to be solved. They conceded nine goals in their last five league games, and that worsens the record, but at the start of the season, they were having one of the best defensive records in the league. Preston apply high-intensity press and high defensive line, where centre-backs are positioned in the middle third or right at the edge of their own. The likes of Maguire, Harrop, Johnson and Barkhuizen are all very fast and aggressive players and they are the main pressing force of the team.
Preston mostly defends in 4-2-3-1 formation with both wingers (often Maguire and Barkhuizen) sometimes dropping deep to make it 4-4-1-1 with Johnson as an advanced midfielder and striker upfront. This structure allows to either have 2v2 on the flanks with Preston’s full-backs and wingers being against the ones from the opposing teams or even creating numerical superiority with one of the central midfielders looking to overload the area. However, it has some downsides, because if Preston’s pressing fails and opponents are able to play through the middle there would be only one midfielder to cover a huge space.
The way this team is very dependent on the opposition and situational circumstances. When the opponent is attacking with a big number of players on the flanks, one or both wingers are forced to sit back and defend together with full-backs. If the opposition team attacks in the same way through the middle, then Johnson drops deep to join the midfield or even the defensive line like we saw in his section. Then this allows at least one of the wingers to stay up for a possible counter-attack or a long ball.
Generally, the midfielders are defending the spaces and then marking the players as they enter their area. Their main job is closing down the gaps and helping other players to defend by outnumbering the opponents or by creating a cover.
Preston press high up the pitch with wingers being focused on full-backs, and a striker with attacking midfielder marking two centre-backs. In other cases, there are many variations of how Alex Neil can set up his team, for example, wingers marking centre-backs if there is a three-man backline.
In this section of the analysis, I would like to point out the importance of the main pair of centre-backs for Preston this season – Ben Davies and Patrick Bauer. They are responsible for the beginning of the attacks, completing 43,6 and 38,1 passes per game respectively and being the vital part of the team’s build-up. Moreover, as Preston’s tactics are so focused on playing long and having a high defensive line, they play a big part in clearing the ball away with both of them making 4,5 and 4,8 clearances per game. They form a great partnership this season, and Preston’s results would have been a lot worse without those two at the back.
This compelled break during the season might be good for Preston, as they were having a terrible run of form in late February – beginning of March. Despite still being in the top six, they are only one point away from seventh-placed Bristol City and two points away from the eighth position. They need to recreate that form that they had at the beginning of the season to truly compete for promotion places and a chance to play Liverpool and co. next season. If they manage to get promoted, it will be a historic day for the Lilywhites and for the fans as well. They have a good team and a good coach, so there is a fair chance that this team can get first division football for the first time since the 1960-1961 season.