Why Championship clubs should learn from Alex Neil and Prestonby Gabriel Sutton / 04 February 2019, 15:23Tweet
Friday night’s 0-0 draw with Derby was another encouraging night for Preston North End, who controlled much of the second half in a very competitive performance against big-budgeted, serious promotion contenders.
Had the Championship season began in October, Preston would be sixth.
Eight wins and eight draws from 20 games with just four defeats – only Norwich have lost on fewer occasions in that period - have led to an admirable 32-point haul.
The Lancashire outfit have rarely been outplayed when they have gone under, too.
The 1-0 loss at Sheffield Wednesday started in even fashion but was changed by Ben Pearson’s sending off before the half-hour mark.
In 2-1 defeats to Hull and Rotherham, the Lilywhites outshot their opponents by a combined 40-18, 10-7 on target with 15-4 efforts blocked.
Aside from a mad half-hour period that proved their undoing in a 3-0 early December loss at Birmingham, therefore, they have got very little wrong.
What is it, therefore, that Alex Neil is getting right at Deepdale - and that other Championship managers can learn from?
We take a look.
Don’t be afraid to pick younger centre-backs
It has long been a widely accepted cliché that experienced defenders are required in the Championship, but this season offers evidence to the contrary.
The average age of centre-backs who have made over 20 Championship appearances and have a WhoScored rating lower than 7 is 27.2.
Players like Stoke duo Ryan Shawcross and Ashley Williams, 31 and 34 respectively, for example, should in theory prove very strong in the second-tier but that is not how it has panned out in practice.
Equally, the average age of centre-backs who have made over 20 Championship appearances this season and have a WhoScored rating of 7 or over is 26.6 – Adam Webster, Jake Cooper and Joe Rodon have all proved huge successes this term.
At Preston, we have seen talismanic figures from the Simon Grayson era, Paul Huntington and Tommy Clarke, have had to take more of a back-seat this season and watch Ben Davies and Jordan Storey provide shining examples of how young defenders can flourish in the here and now.
My only disappointment this season is how long it has taken to get Storey and Davies in the team. Should have happened after the cup win at Leeds. Manager was too loyal to senior pros #pnefc— Ben Astley (@astley_ben) February 2, 2019
Storey, 20, has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the last 12 months. He was not necessarily a guaranteed started for Exeter this time last year, but one or two injuries elevated him to first choice over Spring, when he attracted Preston’s interest through excellent performances in the play-off semi-finals.
Davies, 23, has stepped up another level in terms of leadership and produced some strong, last-ditch blocks in recent weeks.
Look for tomorrow’s stars, not yesterday’s
The mistake clubs like Bolton and Sheffield Wednesday have made in recent seasons is signing players based on the ability they showed two or three seasons ago.
The problem with that profile of player is that they rarely have the potential to improve.
By contrast, Preston are willing to look in less obvious places for their recruits and find players who are performing exceedingly well, then trust that they can step up a division or two – Brad Potts being the classic example.
After starting out at Carlisle United, Potts made his name at Blackpool as a forward-thinking midfielder who drives forward to create from deep.
Since signing from Barnsley in January, he has adopted a wide right role, from which he has scored two goals in four starts.
Have a focal point
One of the few experienced players in the side, Paul Gallagher provides vital quality from set piece scenarios and that was in evidence once again, with various deliveries last time out that could have resulted in goals.
Crucially, Preston have a striker in Jayden Stockley who can make the most of Gallagher’s dead ball proficiency.
The 6’3” front-man bagged 30 goals across 2018, of which approximately half were headers, proving his aerial prowess and he was unlucky not to get among the goals last time out.
At certain times this season, the Lilywhites have deployed Louis Moult, Lukas Nmecha and Sean Maguire up top yet neither could be described as an out-and-out centre-forward.
In Stockley, they have a front-man who gives them the option to go direct.
Play with tenacity
In Ben Pearson, Preston boast a ball-winner who completes 2.9 tackles per-90 minutes, the fourth most out of 56 Championship midfielders who have made more than 20 league appearances.
The former Manchester United trainee, a target for Gary Rowett at Stoke in the summer, has been described by Alex Neil as the ‘best number six in the Championship’.
Ben Pearson was at his tenacious best on Friday. Of course, there were one or two challenges for which he was fortunate not be sent off but, if one were to remove the aggression from his game, he would not be the same player.
Pearson missed much of September and the festive period through suspension but, with him in the side, the Lancashire outfit have conceded 26 goals in 21, compared with 19 in nine without him; that’s a 41% improvement on their defensive record.
BEN PEARSON APPRECIATION TWEET#pnefc— Shaun Thompson (@shaunpne) February 3, 2019
Another key cog is Alan Browne, who is only 23 but feels like he has been around for longer due to his early breakthrough into the regular eleven.
Not only is the long-serving Irishman capable of moments of real technical quality, like his goal in September’s 2-2 home draw with Bolton, his best asset is his energy levels.
The Irish stalwart has completed 1.5 tackles per-90 minutes – the third-most out of all the attacking midfielders in the Championship.
Because Preston do not yet have the wherewithal to dictate play for long spells, Browne’s relentless hassling is key to either stealing the ball from the opposition or forcing them into mistakes which, by extension, leads to chance creation.
Brown, Pearson, Neil and co. might have left themselves too much to do to challenge for the play-offs, after what was a very poor Autumn period with which they began their campaign.
Whatever happens this season, however, there is much about the work being done at Deepdale for other clubs to learn from.