EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) shares his views on Preston’s turnaround in form – and why they could be a team to look out for in the betting markets.
One To Watch | Why PNE can continue their upwards surge
Chris Maxwell’s injury-time penalty save from Glenn Whelan at Villa Park on 2nd October could be remembered as a defining moment in the Championship season.
Firstly, it meant a 3-3 draw for Aston Villa; a result which ultimately cost Steve Bruce his job. The stop might also have had major implications for the visitors, Preston.
A defeat against 10-man opposition would have left them with a paltry five points from their first 11 matches, a return which might have forced the board into making a premature decision regarding manager Alex Neil.
Instead, they have shown faith in the man who led them to an impressive play-off push last season and that faith has proved well-placed.
Had the Championship season began in October, Preston would be fourth – but what has been the key to this turnaround?
Neil continually changed formation early in the campaign which disrupted the fluidity of performances; more recently, however, he has stuck to the 4-2-3-1 set-up which worked so well last season.
He has named the exact same back four of Tommy Clarke, Paul Huntington, Ben Davies and Josh Earl for the previous three games, in which North End have conceded only two goals.
That continuity has helped Preston get back to what they were so good at last season, which is attacking quickly after turning possession over, enabling them to blow teams away over short periods.
In four of their last eight games, the Lilywhites have scored more than one goal within a 15-minute chunk.
Bite in midfield
In Ben Pearson, Preston boast a ball-winner who completes 2.8 tackles per-90 minutes, the fifth most out of 56 Championship midfielders who have made more than 10 league appearances.
The former Manchester United trainee, a target for Gary Rowett at Stoke in the summer, was described by Alex Neil as the ‘best number six in the Championship’.
Pearson missed much of September through suspension but with him in the side, the Lancashire outfit have conceded 21 goals in 14, compared with 10 in four without him.
In front of Pearson and either the energetic Ryan Ledson or the experienced Paul Gallagher, is Alan Browne. The Irish stalwart has completed 1.1 interceptions per-90 minutes – more than anyone that plays in an attacking midfield role in this division.
Because Preston do not yet have the wherewithal to dictate play for long spells, Browne’s ability to hassle and sometimes steal the ball in the opposing half is key to chance creation.
The traditional mantra for a defensive unit is that if you can contain the opposing front-man and stop him posing a goal threat, the rest of the performance should be straight-forward.
Preston however, have shown the flexibility to keep rear-guards guessing. On paper, Lukas Nmecha is the closest thing they have to a centre-forward, but he gets through a lot of work in wide areas.
The Manchester City loanee hassles centre-backs, runs in behind and drags defenders out of position, acting effectively as what you’d call a dummy striker.
Saturday’s 4-1 win over Blackburn showed that because defenders are consumed with handling Nmecha, we are seeing more space for Tom Barkhuizen and Callum Robinson to break into goalscoring positions.
While the 19-year-old managed just four touches in the box in the hour he was on the pitch, Robinson, a ‘left-winger’ on paper, took 12 penalty area touches in an appearance that was just nine minutes longer.
And, while the lack of depth has been problematic for Preston at times, the last match proved that the likes of creative forward Louis Moult and wide speedster Brandon Barker can make an impact from the bench.
The betting angle
We predicted in September’s Championship quarterly review that Preston could put a run together, but re-evaluated our summer assessment of them as automatic promotion contenders.
For those in daring mood, Betfair offer a 16/1 dabble on the Lilywhites to make the top-six which might appeal.
There is at least one major question mark about every team in the upper echelons of the table and we can expect the form of two or three teams to decline after Christmas.
Plus, the 1.16 points per-game Preston are averaging is 0.16 more than Millwall were at this stage last season (the Lions got into the top-six in April) and only 0.21 fewer than Fulham, who went up via the play-offs.
Neil’s troops have the division’s fourth-best attack on paper and rank sixth for most goals in open play; now that the defence is beginning to settle, they could strike the perfect balance at the perfect time.
For those less keen on speculative punts, there is the option of Preston to make the top half at 6/4 with Betfair; they are only three points behind 12th placed Birmingham with 28 games to play.
The Deepdale club tend to be underrated by the bookies due to their relatively small stature and low budget, so there could be value in getting behind them.