OUT-OF-FORM Preston meet in-form Derby on Wednesday night and EFL connoisseur Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) previews the key tussle in the race for the play-offs.
Preston vs Derby | Wednesday 1st July 2020, 17:00 | Sky Sports
Preston were 12 points and places above Derby on Christmas Day, but things have since changed drastically for both teams.
From Boxing Day onwards, Derby have collected 31 points from 16 games, making them the Championship’s most in-form side over that period, while North End have collected only 19, scoring just over half the number of goals of their forthcoming visitors – 17 to 33.
Consequently, the Lancastrians and Midlanders are now level on points in seventh and eighth respectively, making this a vital clash in the play-off scramble.
North End on the slide
Alex Neil’s side have taken a paltry point, which came at bottom side Luton, from their last five games. Their 3-1 home defeat to play-off rivals Cardiff, who leapfrogged them into sixth with that victory, means the Lilywhites are without a clean sheet in 16 home games.
Individually, centre-backs Patrick Bauer and Ben Davies have come in for a lot of praise this season yet collectively, they have conceded some sloppy goals. Part of the problem could be that the burden is too great on tenacious ball-winner Ben Pearson to protect the rearguard.
One of the upshots of creative maestro Daniel Johnson flourishing as a number 10 is that stalwart Alan Browne has dropped deeper – sometimes to right-back but he has most recently been used as a six, which does not suit him.
On top of that, Paul Gallagher has the technique to partner Pearson but lacks the mobility and Neil has issues trusting other midfielders that have been brought in over the last two seasons like Tom Bayliss and Ryan Ledson.
We must temper all the above with the fact that North End still have a reasonable chance of reaching the play-offs, which is fantastic considering they rank bottom six in terms of budgets, but balance issues within the squad have come to the fore.
Derby’s 2-1 victory over Reading was the Rams’ fourth victory in succession.
Earlier this season, they had looked static with Krystian Bielik and Graeme Shinnie acting as a double-pivot, making them easy to predict in the early stages of their build-up play. In the second half of the season, the midfield has looked more fluent with Wayne Rooney partnered by Max Bird.
We all know about Rooney’s ability in possession and Bird can recycle play quickly and smoothly, whilst also having the awareness to drop back when required and cover Andre Wisdom or Matt Clarke, who both like to get forward from centre-back.
The Rams have also witnessed the meteoric rise of Louis Sibley, who is incredibly skilful and loves to get to the edge of the 18-yard area, where he can either lay off a teammate or have a shot – he scored a hat-trick in their last road trip, a 3-2 victory at Millwall.
The tactics board
We saw against Reading that Derby can leave gaps behind the full-backs: Jayden Bogle is attack-minded and Craig Forsyth lacks recovery pace. North End’s game plan, we can expect, will therefore be all about transitional play, so we could see Brad Potts and Sean Maguire come into their XI for the languid Scott Sinclair and the lanky Jayden Stockley to provide more energy and better movement.
Although PNE could cause some problems with a narrow front-three and no orthodox centre-forward, Derby are likely to pose the greater threat.
We mentioned above the hosts’ arguable overreliance on Pearson for protection and that could be a problem against the Rams, who do not operate with one categorical number 10, but rather have numerous players who could veer into the number 10 area in different phases of play.
Aside from Sibley, Tom Lawrence will drift in from the left to unleash his usual right-footed shots toward the far corner, striker Chris Martin will sometimes drop in to link play when Martyn Waghorn darts into the box from the right, Bird will support from behind at times and even Wisdom and Clarke can make bold runs deep into the opposing half.
Even if Pearson produces the individual performance of his life, therefore, North End could still be vulnerable if other players lose their concentration and tactical discipline.
The betting angle
North End have accrued a paltry 16 points from 22 games against top 14 opposition and they have not given us enough reasons to back them against the Championship’s form team. We do recognise, though, that they are in play-off contention for a reason, which is why we’re not quite going for the outright Derby win at 2/1.
We’re backing the Rams via the Draw No Bet option at 11/10, which will pay out with an away win and refund our stake should the game finish all-square.
Preston vs Derby – Derby Draw No Bet (11/10 SportNation)