After the 3-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday, Preston boss Alex Neil faces some tough decisions.
From a selection perspective, substitutes are knocking on the door. Neil brought on Scott Sinclair, Jayden Stockley and Brad Potts against Wednesday, and all three of them scored in a stunning win.
The biggest decision may come in the system itself though. Neil made a bold change on Wednesday night, going with a 3-5-2 in order to match up with Sheffield Wednesday’s system.
So, will Neil keep that setup? Firstly, let’s see how it worked in midweek.
The basic setup
Neil brought Jordan Storey in for his first league start since December, as he joined Patrick Bauer and Ben Davies at the back. Andrew Hughes and Joe Rafferty aren’t considered to be particularly expansive full backs, but were asked to offer width as wing backs.
Ryan Ledson kept his place in midfield with Ben Pearson, and more onus was on Alan Browne to support the front two of Seani Maguire and Tom Barkhuizen.
North End have had issues with Owls striker Atdhe Nuhiu in the past, but this system did a fine job of nullifying him. Bauer was placed in the centre of the back three, and was largely tasked with the job of taking on Nuhiu.
His power and height meant Nuhiu wasn’t able to dominate in the air, whilst he had Davies and Storey – two more mobile centre backs – alongside him sweeping up on either side. On more than one occasion, Storey made last-ditch challenges, with his recovery speed hugely important.
The pressing and ‘split attackers’
North End are always at their best under Neil when there is real intensity to the pressing. This was certainly the case in the first half, with Preston playing high up the pitch with a real intent to their pressing.
This was also where we saw Preston’s ‘split attackers’. Maguire and Barkhuizen split out, taking right centre back Liam Palmer and left centre back Julian Borner respectively. The onus was then on Browne to switch from the deepest midfielder – either Joel Pelupessy or Barry Bannan – to then go and press centre back Dominic Iorfa.
We saw this in possession too. Maguire and Barkhuizen have the pace and movement to take up spaces between the defenders, hence why North End were able to get into promising areas down the sides of the Wednesday backline.
He’s had his critics, but Maguire was very good in that first half. He was willing to drop in and feed Barkhuizen in behind, he pressed well and he won a number of dangerous free-kicks just by picking up the ball and driving at defenders. He looks much sharper than he did before the break, and this role suited him well.
Maguire maybe isn’t ideal as a lone striker, and he certainly wouldn’t have been against three centre backs. In this role though, he was able to work in half-spaces in from the left flank.
With two speedy attackers and a running number 10 in Browne, North End were set up to cause mayhem in transition. Ultimately, that’s when Neil’s Preston are at their best. Barkhuizen had the golden chance to prove that as he broke clear in a rapid break but finished wide of the post.
In truth, Preston looked more dangerous in the first half of this game than in pretty much any other spell of play since football returning. That gradually faded, but Neil’s substitutions were perfect.
Brad Potts was able to provide the same thrust in that running 10 role and got himself on the scoresheet, whilst Jayden Stockley and Scott Sinclair dovetailed well as a front two when North End went more direct.
The importance of Alan Browne
Neil spoke of Preston’s flexibility with different systems after the win, and we would be doing Browne a huge disservice if we didn’t mention his importance to that.
Browne played the full 90 minutes on Wednesday night, and played in three different positions. He started out as that pressing number 10, before moving into a holding midfield role when Ben Pearson was taken off.
Browne finished the game as the right wing back, with his versatility enabling North End to bring on more and more attacking players without sacrificing the system. The Irishman has been criticised by some this season, but he played such a key role in midweek – and that’s exactly why Neil loves him.
Stick or twist
With all that said, what now? Preston take on Nottingham Forest on Saturday, and Neil must now decide whether to stick with the 3-5-2 or pivot back to the 4-2-3-1.
On the one hand, Forest also play a 4-2-3-1, and the reason Neil switched in midweek was to match up to Wednesday. There may be a temptation to switch back to that exact system to match them up.
On the other, that 3-5-2 system is the best North End have looked for some time. There must be part of Neil that wants to see how this system works in the long term, having seen such promising signs in midweek.
Neil has previously switched to new formations and dropped them again. Preston played a diamond against Barnsley in January, but the second half of the QPR defeat in March is the only time that system has been seen since.
Both Forest and Preston prefer not to have the ball. In fact, Forest are in the bottom six when it comes to possession this season. Working the transitions in the same way as in midweek may be difficult as a result, which may prompt Neil to go back to the 4-2-3-1.
Still, Neil has tough decisions to make for all the right reasons – and fans will hope he can pull off another masterstroke tomorrow.