Two home games in a row, Alex Neil has sprung a surprise on Preston fans. Two home games in a row, North End have been convincing winners.
Against Wigan Athletic, it was the surprise inclusion of Daniel Johnson and Louis Moult. North End won 3-0, turning in a superb performance in the process.
On Wednesday night, Neil was it again. With Moult out for the season, he had a striking dilemma. Jayden Stockley is out of favour a little, Seani Maguire was out with concussion, and David Nugent is on the sidelines.
When the team was released, Neil had started Josh Harrop, Billy Bodin and Tom Barkhuizen. Their most natural positions are, respectively, number 10, right winger and right winger. Figuring out what Neil was going for was difficult.
On initial viewing, it looked like Neil was maybe matching up Stoke City’s 4-4-2 diamond. That would have featured Harrop was the 10, behind Barkhuizen and Bodin as mobile, makeshift strikers.
That’s not how it went though. Instead, Neil used Harrop on the left, Bodin on the right and Barkhuizen as a central striker. It’s a setup we’ve never seen Neil go with, and left fans wondering what he was thinking.
Barkhuizen briefly had a stint working up top with Jordan Hugill in 2017, picking the ball up from deep or running off him. That worked because Hugill was the focal point and Barkhuizen could exploit the space, but Barkhuizen as a lone striker was completely untested.
Again though, Neil made the best of his situation. He knew that Stoke would play defenders who don’t necessarily want the ball in behind them. Danny Batth and Liam Lindsay are big, strong, and can deal with most things in front of them.
In behind them though, and they can struggle a little. Given the diamond system Stoke were playing, full backs are relied on heavily go forward. That left space behind Tom Edwards and James McClean, with Barkhuizen pulling off into channels.
That’s how the first goal came about. Paul Gallagher lifted a ball down the right channel, with Barkhuizen getting in behind. He knocked the ball back into the middle, Daniel Johnson won the second ball and scored. It was simple, maybe not pretty, but certainly effective.
The second goal saw Declan Rudd launch a long ball forward. Stoke defenders allowed the ball to bounce as Barkhuizen again got in behind them, Jack Butland couldn’t full sort out the chaos, and Billy Bodin profited. Yes, Butland’s terrible handling was a huge factor, but Barkhuizen’s threat in behind was the key again.
Anything in the air or even to feet didn’t really work, but Nathan Jones saw the threat. At half time, he brought on an additional centre back at 2-0 down. That at least gave Stoke more cover, but the damage was done.
Barkhuizen getting behind regularly helped the players behind him thrive. Johnson, Bodin and Harrop were all on the scoresheet. They were able to move and interchange with space, as Barkhuizen opening up the Stoke defence with that threat in behind.
It may not be a long-term solution, and there were even times where Barkhuizen had peeled away and was waiting for a through ball, but North End midfielders didn’t pick him out.
However, Neil’s massive tactical gamble paid off on Wednesday, and whilst it prompted raised eyebrows when announced, it deserves huge praise now.