As far as tacticians go, Alex Neil is possibly one of the best that Preston have had in recent memory.
Maybe not everything comes off, but Neil has such a great tactical mind, and the way he explains his decisions in-depth has been a great addition to post-match interviews.
After seeing North End dominate Wigan Athletic, the temptation to try and recreate Neil’s work on Football Manager was strong; Preston are an interesting side tactically, and seeing just how close Neil’s tactics can be replicated seemed like a great experiment.
Admittedly, we’re still using Football Manager 2019 here, partly because we’re cheap and partly because we’re enjoying other saves on this game. So let’s see how we get on…
Firstly, there haven’t been many changes to the squad; Demetri Mitchell has come in on loan from Manchester United on loan, whilst Graham Burke and Kevin O’Connor have been offloaded. The squad is virtually as is right now, though Billy Bodin’s season-long injury from last term is still in place, annoyingly.
Here’s the tactic we created, with the system used at Wigan as the inspiration.
With Ben Davies as the ball-playing defender and Patrick Bauer as a standard central defender, more emphasis is placed on Davies to carry the ball and start attacks from the back. Play Out Of Defence, Take Short Kicks, Distribute to Centre-Backs and Distribute To Full-Backs are all turned on, with North End building from the back as Neil ideally plays.
Scott Sinclair’s Inside Forward role means there is room for Andrew Hughes to overlap down the left, whilst Darnell Fisher supports Tom Barkhuizen with the option to either cross from deep or hold his width.
Ben Pearson is the heartbeat of the side as the deep-lying playmaker, but we’ve made sure to turn ‘Tackle Harder’ on just to try and truly recreate Pearson’s role. Alan Browne gets up and down the pitch, whilst there is creative impetus placed on Daniel Johnson as the most advanced of the midfield three.
The central striker is a Pressing Forward, used as the first man to engage the press and prevent short distribution. At our best, Preston are a great pressing team, and the centre forward is key to that being started – which is why Jordan Hugill was so effective under Neil.
Other key notes here are that we play at a fairly low tempo, waste time as much as humanly possible, and push higher up the pitch. So far, the results have been even better than we could have imagined.
A strong pre-season saw us see off CSKA Moscow and Sparta Prague amongst others, before a blistering start to the league season. Wigan were beaten away from home 2-1 – just as they were in the game that inspired this experiment – before QPR were hammered 6-2. Scott Sinclair bagged four goals in that game, and maybe our clinical edge here if something slightly un-Preston.
A Carabao Cup defeat to Nottingham Forest on penalties was a tough one to take, but three straight wins over Reading, Bristol City and Derby County have seen the goals flow with David Nugent and Alan Browne both in great form.
We’ve added a couple more tactics to the setup; one with the exact same approach as the base, but with Pearson pushed forward and Johnson as a number 10. This has been used under Neil before, though the balance of the 4-3-3 may be better than the 4-2-3-1, at least in the game itself.
We’re also keen to develop a more defensive tactic, which Neil of course uses regularly. That’s still very much a work in progress for this experiment, as it involves going a little longer with our passing, with the midfield emphasising energy and pressing over pure technical ability.
We’ll get back to watching other games to try and nail down this tactic, but here’s where we’re at now; it needs some work, so we will be back with a part two of this experiment in the near future – especially as our next game is against Blackburn Rovers away from home, so feel free to shout some potential ideas for this tactic at us and we can put them into practice…