Tony Mowbray didn’t make any changes from the team which drew with Watford before the international break, as the Lads again lined up in a very fluid 4-4-2 come 4-3-3 in which both Elliot Embleton & Alex Pritchard led the line both playing in a False 9 / Second Striker role, with neither particularly fulfilling half of either role.
Lack of Penetration into High xG Areas
Playing with a False 9 in an emergency system often requires two prerequisites to success: firstly the attacking team pulls the defenders out of position, and secondly the defensive side make individual mistakes.
In lieu of either of these being missing, most sides who do not intricately understand the system or do not possess the technical ability of recent Pep Guardiola teams generally struggle to break stubborn low-block defences down.
While 14 of the 16 chances created were from open play, 84% of all attacks took place down the flanks. This is naturally out most effective route to goal with no strikers on the pitch and an abundance of attacking talent in wide areas. However, time after time crosses flew into the box and penetrating runs around the back of Preston’s defence were left unmet in the penalty area itself.
Many penalty-box strikers & poachers are told to stay within the two posts and within the 18-yard box. While we actually had quite a few touches in the box all of them came out wide, with Preston happy to pack the middle & surrender possession and territory. Yet not a single touch came in the 6-yard box and not a single shot inside 25 yards originated between the width of the two goal posts.
This is where we really missed having a striker on the pitch, able to occupy Preston’s physical defenders who all possess good concentration levels, rarely make mistakes and were not being drawn out too much by our shape and runs deep from the final defensive line. In addition, this game really required a potential opening through a set-piece goal and unfortunately our xG from set pieces is the second-lowest in the league at 1.70, with zero goals scored from 35 shots directly resulting from a set piece. This is natural with Stewart, Simms & Ballard all missing, but exacerbated by quite standard systems in and tactics from set pieces in place.
Interestingly, Tony Mowbray knew that a route to success would be to draw Preston’s low-block out from their defensive line and turn their central defenders - who are all keen for a physical battle but have shown a slight weakness defending the transition. This weakness is still only slight, Preston have one of the best defences in the entire league as well documented. Their defence is so formidable yet attack so ineffectual, they actually broke the Experimental 3-6-1 early season scatter graphs:
In order to try & draw their defence out, Mowbray saw a potential route in utilising Patrick Roberts as high and wide as possible. He would hug the right touchline during almost the entirety of the game which would push back both Fernandez & Cunningham, but then Lynden Gooch would stay deep to create space for Roberts to receive the ball, while the rest of the site would then withdraw deep while Jack Clarke looked to play on the shoulder too. This was designed to try and stretch the Preston defence but were well marshalled by Liam Lindsay. Jordan Storey alongside him was outstanding on the day too, while Clarke still managed to create opportunities and break the lines, Storey marshalled him well throughout completing 6 interceptions, 5 clearances, 3 tackles and 8 duels, winning 75% of them.
For a few games now we have progressed from very deep positions with the ball, as our CBs are given it in our own 6-yard box. The Reading defence had no idea how to deal with this, Watford tired late on after their constant pressing right up the pitch - yet Preston just let us have it and barely pressed. They would sit in a low block and every now and again Ched Evans harassed the ball carrier, while Riis & Brady would cut passing lanes as Ryan Lowe packed their defence.
It was refreshing to see Mowbray & the coaching staff try something quite innovative, but Preston were incredibly well disciplined on the day & deserved the point from a defensive standpoint.
Evans the Lynchpin
One decision I believe that Mowbray likely regretted, however, was withdrawing Corry Evans. I think Abdoullah Ba had an excellent game in his replacement considering that he is only 19, has played just 10 minutes at this level and can barely speak a word of English - but Corry Evans is our most important player. He must feature as much as possible, and when he is not on the pitch due to fatigue, selection or injury then Jay Matete needs to deputise.
Evans in particular is the water carrier for the rest of the side. He constantly recycles play to others quickly, breaks down the opposition, organises the defensive unit and protects the back four with aplomb.
Lynden Gooch made one excellent late interception in the game, in an opportunity he saw very early and made a great run across the box from his position at right back and won the ball. This was some really effective and aware defending, but had Evans been on the pitch that attack would’ve likely been nipped in the bud far earlier. On the ball, both Neil and Ba want to progress the ball and both want to look on the front foot - ultimately this is why Mowbray made the change and credit to him for going for the win, but Evans needs to be there to aid Batth & O’Nien progress the ball up the pitch to the half way line at all times.
He is arguably one of two totally irreplaceable players in the side - without being unduly harsh on others as this season all are performing and pulling their weight. The other one is Ross Stewart and if he wasn’t currently out injured we’d have probably won that game on Saturday.