Preston may never have a better shot at reaching the Championship playoffs – but as things stand, they’re in real danger of throwing it all away.
It’s taken a while to really process Saturday’s defeat to Queens Park Rangers. A rudderless and directionless second half mean North End squandered a 1-0 lead, losing 3-1 to Mark Warburton’s side. QPR fans clearly weren’t expecting this; they brought a flag which read ‘We are QPR – we never win away’.
Sometimes, you can accept losing games. Yet this one felt more gut-wrenching than most this season, as Preston had a man advantage at 1-1 and still managed to lose as Ryan Manning and Eberechi Eze scored superb goals.
This was a real Jekyll and Hyde performance. In the first half, North End actually looked quite bright. Seani Maguire led the press superbly, Tom Barkhuizen was getting in behind the QPR defence, and the R’s weren’t really threatening Declan Rudd all that much.
However, Warburton made changes at the break, hooking Dominic Ball and Marc Pugh for Luke Amos and Ilias Chair. Importantly, Warburton switched to a diamond in midfield – and Alex Neil decided to follow suit, going with Alan Browne in a holding role, supported by Daniel Johnson and Josh Harrop, and Paul Gallagher behind Maguire and Barkhuizen up top.
We’ve seen this system work; Preston played arguably their best football of 2020 in a 3-0 win at Barnsley, using a diamond system. Neil will have – for good reason – felt that his side could switch to that system and just match QPR up to try and limit any impetus from their formation change.
Neil’s decision was understandable. If he’d sat back and waited as QPR improved in a new shape, fans would have been on his case for that. Instead, Neil was pro-active and tried to match them up; this time, it didn’t work out.
Preston looked almost at odds with the change, failing to keep hold of possession, turning the ball over too many times, overloading sides of the pitch seemingly at random, failing to get down the sides of a now-narrow QPR side that had struggled to contain Barkhuizen in the first half.
It was all a recipe for disaster. North End conceded the equaliser, and kept with this style whilst QPR ran riot. Manning’s long-range strike was just reward for a team who showed no fear when down to 10 men, and a nonchalant finish from Eze on the break killed off the game.
We’ve made no secret of our love for Alex Neil, but there are some days where you just have to say he got it wrong – and this was one of them. He probably accepts himself that this one is on his tactical decisions in a truly pitiful second half display.
As we’ve noted, the decision to go to the diamond was understandable. Having played it so brilliantly at Barnsley, Neil probably felt comfortable making the switch, but it clearly wasn’t working, and he may just stuck with it for too long rather than getting back to testing QPR down the sides.
When Jayden Stockley came on, North End played right into QPR’s hands. The balls were flung up into the box from far too deep, Stockley wasn’t able to win them in the air as QPR defenders beat him to header after header, and that created turnovers in the middle of the park that Preston couldn’t recover from, opening up the threat on the break.
Bringing on Scott Sinclair to play almost as a left wing back didn’t exactly work either, and it just felt that whatever Neil tried in the second half, it simply wasn’t going to work.
Remarkably, Preston still sit sixth in the Championship table. Despite four defeats in five, North End are somehow clinging on to the last playoff spot, with Bristol City, Cardiff City, Blackburn Rovers and Swansea City stumbling in recent weeks.
There’s a train of thought which makes you believe that this is still a good position; North End, as things stand, are still set for the playoffs. Yet how can anyone really convince themselves of such a finish after seeing such a woeful capitulation at Deepdale?
We’re back to struggling to score, as we’ve found the net just three times in the last five games, and two of them were penalties. Failing to add a striker in January looks like it will be the difference, because Jayden Stockley, Seani Maguire and David Nugent simply aren’t scoring enough goals.
Three points from a possible 15 isn’t good enough. Clinging on to sixth place whilst relying on other results to go our way isn’t good enough. It’s more than fair to be delighted with being the playoff mix, whilst also feeling that North End are squandering such a big chance.
Nobody seems to want that last playoff spot, and it has been in Preston’s hands for weeks. Instead of grasping it and taking themselves away from the chasing pack, North End haven’t really moved any closer to nailing down that spot.
Millwall and QPR came to Deepdale and deserved their wins. With this squad, lacking in attacking firepower, Neil hasn’t managed to find an answer. When the midfield lost control on Saturday, there was no Ben Pearson to get Preston back into the ascendancy, and his injury has come at the worst possible time.
North End still have a chance to reach the playoffs in the final nine games, but with Neil seemingly unsure of his best team and approach, and goals drying up, there’s suddenly a cloud of pessimism hanging over Deepdale – and Saturday’s defeat will leave many wondering just how Preston are throwing it away.