Preston’s playoff hopes look to be dwindling after a 3-1 home defeat to Cardiff City.
North End went into the game having drawn 1-1 away at Luton Town last weekend, squandering a 1-0 lead at Kenilworth Road in a hugely disappointing result.
With Cardiff beating Leeds United 2-0 last weekend, this looked like a hugely difficult and massively important game. The Bluebirds had moved level on points with North End, and knew that a rare win at Deepdale would sent them into the top six.
After a fairly dour first half, Cardiff did take the lead. Joe Ralls beat Darnell Fisher at the back post to head past Declan Rudd, only for Daniel Johnson to strike North End level from close range.
Sadly, North End couldn’t kick on. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing raced clear to make it 2-1, and Robert Glatzel sealed all three points for the visitors. Preston did create golden opportunities late on, but David Nugent and Josh Harrop squandered them.
Preston now drop out of the top six, and have won just one of the last seven games. It’s now very hard to see North End fighting back to claim a playoff spot after taking one point in the last five games.
It’s sometimes difficult to balance being a fan with being a journalist. I’ve been going to watch North End since I was six, so whilst I try and be as well-reasoned as possible, many things come straight from the heart too.
Any praise or criticism is just my true feelings; never to smear the club with criticism or try and gain favour with the club by praising them. Some may not always agree, but it’s the only way to make a truly authentic website to me.
With that in mind, today’s defeat is hugely concerning. There are so many, many reasons for that feeling, but let’s just start with the game and the performance.
Once again, a lack of cutting edge hampered North End. On too many occasions, there was a sheer lack of composure in the final third; too many players running down blind alleys, too many players shooting around the box when either completely swamped with defenders or at no real angle to be trying a shot.
There were moments of bright play, but too often spoiled in the final third. With Jayden Stockley in the side, Preston’s long game just didn’t work as Sean Morrison in particular gobbled up anything knocked aerially.
The bigger impact of that is the ball failing to stick up top. Patrick Bauer and Ben Davies weren’t at their best today, but North End weren’t keeping the ball in the Cardiff half well enough to protect them. They’re very good Championship defenders, but they can be exposed when the ball keeps coming back at them.
Scott Sinclair again had moments, but nothing too prolonged. It also wasn’t Tom Barkhuizen’s finest day, all combining to give Preston little threat going forward – how many times have we said that this season?
A little hope came from the bench; Seani Maguire turned in a bright performance, setting up Johnson’s goal. Brad Potts was industrious and looked a little closer to the player we saw in 2019, using the ball well in the final third. Josh Harrop and David Nugent both got themselves in position score, but fluffed their lines.
The question on this front is why were those changes so late? With the game at 0-0, Cardiff City boss Neil Harris seized the initiative and made two changes, bringing in Mendez-Laing and Glatzel; both ended up scoring.
Just four minutes after the changes, Cardiff went in front. Their substitutes were up to speed with the game in the final 20 minutes, and were able to make a big impact. Conversely, Alex Neil didn’t change anything to change the flow of the game until Cardiff scored. In fact, three of his five substitutes came inside the last 10 minutes.
They still managed to carve out chances, but weren’t able to take them. Could they have been thrown on earlier, giving them a little more time to adjust to the game? North End weren’t exactly on top when Cardiff made their changes, and only making a change after going behind seems so reactionary.
I’ve made no secret of my love for Alex Neil. He’s a superb young manager who doesn’t always get the appreciation he deserves for his work with this Preston side, and often loses key players only for them to be replaced by much cheaper alternatives. He has still had Preston challenging for promotion all season, and losing faith in him now would be foolish.
However, this reactionary approach to substitutes has been going on for a while now. I remember being so impressed with his proactive change in his first league game as Preston boss, throwing on Jordan Hugill for Alan Browne to try and turn a 0-0 into a win – and it worked as Hugill won a penalty to seal a 1-0 victory.
Where has that approach gone? Whether Neil doesn’t trust this group of players to turn a game or something else, fans have noticed his reactionary approach this season, and whilst Cardiff seized the initiative, Preston had to play catchup.
We couldn’t really blame Neil for not having much faith in his attacking players. The last time a Preston centre forward scored in the league – and we’re not counting winger Barkhuizen here – was on December 14th when Stockley scored against Luton Town. That simply isn’t good enough for a club chasing promotion.
We are truly seeing the effects of selling our top goalscorer – Callum Robinson – for £7million and thinking a 35-year-old Nugent, with two goals to his name last season, could replace him. Andre Green’s ineffectual spell at the club barely even warrants a mention.
If Preston don’t recover from here, it’s undoubtedly because of a lack of a striker. Yes, they’re hard to find. Yes, they’re expensive. But when you bring in almost £15million from selling Hugill and Robinson, and you still haven’t replaced their input, questions have to be asked of the recruitment at the club.
There is time for North End to bounce back, but after yet another toothless display, few fans will have much belief of that actually happening – and missing out on the top six would raise real questions about the futures of many key figures at Deepdale, from Neil to Davies, Browne, Johnson and the outstanding Ben Pearson.
Having failed to replace Hugill or Robinson appropriately, there will be little trust in the club to replace a handful of players in one transfer window. The recruitment has been poor for some time now, ditching the approach of signing young Premier League talents in favour of League One and League Two players in their mid-20’s who have neither immediate quality nor resale value in the future.
It’s one game, but the issues run much deeper than that. Fans are losing belief in the team and in the project, and this moment has been months in the making.