Preston may not be a team to grab headlines in the Championship, but one area has been deserving of praise.
Under Alex Neil, North End have possessed a hugely impressive midfield. That has enabled North End to control games well under Neil, and we went into the season looking well-balanced.
Ben Pearson is arguably the finest holding midfielder in the division outside of Kalvin Phillips, and Ryan Ledson had shown glimpses of his ability as Pearson’s cover last season.
Paul Gallagher was able to create and dictate, Daniel Johnson could score goals, Alan Browne had his best season yet last term and could fill various roles, Brad Potts made a huge impact after arriving from Barnsley in January, and youngster Tom Bayliss was touted as one of the most promising talents in League One.
With all those options, it seemed that North End would continue to shine in midfield. However, this area of the pitch is now becoming something of a problem based on the season so far, and particularly in recent weeks.
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Pearson remains the heartbeat of the side, but there’s an issue next to him. Gallagher, as much as he is a club hero, has seen his form tail off recently. At 35, Gallagher is bound to have these peaks and troughs, but we’re lacking control without him, and even with him in this form.
Ledson has taken a battering from fans this season and isn’t the same sort of controlled midfielder as Gallagher, Bayliss isn’t deemed ready for the Championship despite being signed as Gallagher’s heir, Johnson is out injured and both Browne and Potts offer legs, drive and athleticism, but not necessarily composure and pinpoint passing from deep.
Without that control of midfield, North End have lost an edge. Cardiff would be the game where you could say Preston controlled the game, but against Reading, Middlesbrough and even in the home win over Luton Town, there was something missing in midfield.
That midfield control needs to return in order to Preston to get back to top form, but how do we get there? Signing another midfielder would only bloat that area of the pitch even more, and Neil may need to focus on what he already has.
Throwing Bayliss in now seems unlikely, but he’s the only one with the skillset to fill in for Gallagher right now. Neil loved using Pearson in a holding role last season with Browne and Potts ahead of him, but neither of them are in the best form.
For now, the hope may be that Gallagher recaptures that form, but it may be time to start bedding Bayliss into the side a little more. Without that true, in-form passer next to Pearson, North End lose out in build-up play and in stemming the tide, especially away from home.
Our attacking play is suffering too, unable to unpick defences who are coming to Deepdale and initially getting through our midfield to score the opening goal, then sitting back. What was once a key area of strength for North End has been a problem of late, as was seen at Blackburn Rovers, and finding the right balance in Neil’s engine room may be the key to getting back on track.