Only eternal optimists were predicting a win at Riverside on Tuesday night, yet the way in which North End fell to a 2-0 defeat to Middlesbrough summed up the calamitous season they have endured.
An own goal, a red card for the captain and then the manager. Defeat at home to Luton Town on Saturday and a decision may have to be made on Alex Neil’s immediate future to avoid being dragged into a relegation battle.
Questions over the team selection again
After the abject display against Wycombe Wanderers on Saturday, you would have expected Anthony Gordon to come into the side to add some flair, yet he had to deal with a place on the bench again.
Scott Sinclair and Tom Barkhuizen were preferred out wide. Ben Whiteman was left out of the starting 11 for the first time since his signing, and Neil went with experience as he brought Paul Gallagher in.
Liam Lindsay returned in place of Paul Huntington, and the overall setup of the side seemed to be working for the first twenty minutes. North End were creating some chances and Sepp van den Berg struck the crossbar with a great effort. After Jordan Storey’s own goal, everything went down hill.
Two reds is a sign of spreading frustration in the squad
Alan Browne is captain of Preston North End. He’s very mature for his age, having been a key player at the club for the best part of 7 years. Sam Morsy did seem to throw his elbow at the Irishman a couple of times, but it was still wrong for Browne to kick out at his opponent.
I doubt very much he would have done that on the back of some good form, and if his side were in the run for the play-offs. However with some shocking performances of late and the season fizzling out, Browne showed his frustration by giving Morsy the reaction he wanted, and receiving his marching orders.
Alex Neil duly followed at half time after his protests to referee Oliver Langford. I must say when I heard who was refereeing the game, I did worry as he’s not one of my favourite officials. He was the referee who wrongly gave West Bromwich Albion a late penalty at Deepdale last season which saw them win 1-0. It ended Preston’s unbeaten home record and Kyle Edwards had clearly dived for the penalty. Langford has also sent off Darnell Fisher for Preston previously.
Neil is clearly under pressure, and having his captain sent off angered him to the point where he went too far with his objections to the officials at half time. All these signs point towards a manager who doesn’t seem to have long left at the club.
Iversen incredible again, but the team letting him down
Daniel Iversen is increasingly becoming the obvious/only choice for Player of the Season at the moment. I touched on this last week, but yet again in a poor performance, he stood out.
He couldn’t do anything with the own goal, but just before the second goal he made a great save at point-blank range. He berated the defence for not following up an effort that hit the crossbar from Boro before Marcus Tavernier headed into the net.
He too, is clearly frustrated. He’s barely put a foot wrong since arriving in January. He wants to establish himself in this country, and it’s a great chance for him at this level. But currently, he’s not getting any clean sheets, and losing regularly, which has been no fault of his own.
There was another moment in the second half which saw him run out of his box to assertively lambast the team. It followed Jayson Molumby dallying on the ball on the edge of Middlesbrough’s area. He should have hit a first time shot, but instead he took his time, was dispossessed and Neil Warnock’s side created a chance on the counter. Iversen looks like one of the only leaders in that team. A team very, very short on confidence at the moment.
Personally, I can’t see Iversen wanting to return to this team next season. Sepp van den Berg looks a talent as well. He has grown with each and every game, and very nearly scored the first goal of his career on Tuesday. He looked despondent at the end of the game, after being on the end of another defeat. Liverpool may think twice before extending his stay with us into next season as well.
Was there a plan after being reduced to 10 men?
Alex Neil made substitutions in response to Browne’s red and tinkered with the formation but never seemed to settle on an approach to try and salvage the game. Initially Molumby came on for Sinclair at half time, but it was another game that passed him by. He then went with two strikers up front as Emil Riis was brought on. That only lasted 13 minutes though as then Ched Evans was replaced by Ben Whiteman.
With the game into it’s dying embers, and still two goals down, it would only be right to make an attacking change right? With Seani Maguire and Anthony Gordon still on the bench the options were there for Neil. Instead, step forward Joe Rafferty. The full back came on for Liam Lindsay. The setup of the team for the rest of the game is anyone’s guess. Gordon particularly must be incredibly disheartened at his lack of game time with us.
Could the Luton game be Neil’s last?
12 points from 15 games in 2021. Not good enough at any level, at any stage of the season. It’s relegation form. Just three wins in that time, and one at home. Preston have scored just 15 goals at Deepdale this season. Alex Neil now has a lower win percentage than Paul Simpson and Alan Irvine. He’s lost 13 more games than Simon Grayson did, having managed 45 fewer games than him. (70 losses in 190 games, compared to 57 losses in 235 games).
Luton Town are currently three places above Preston, and visit Deepdale on Saturday. They comfortably beat Alex Neil’s side at Kenilworth Road 3-0 earlier in the season. If you look at that fixtures beyond this game, then it starts to have the feel of a must win game. After the international break, Preston face Norwich City, Swansea City, Brentford and Stoke City. Four teams fighting for promotion.
It’s not out of the question that based on the current situation North End will pick up no points from those games. They could then find themselves embroiled in a relegation battle. Luton is a game they need to be winning. If they lose, it could give Peter Ridsdale and Trevor Hemmings a decision to make. A two week break after could give them time to find a replacement at least on an interim basis to help galvanise the side, and guide them to safety.
The only saving grace for Preston at this stage, is that the teams in the relegation zone and just above are showing little signs of an escape.