As we return to Championship footy after a pause for some questionable performances from Gareth Southgate’s “Lions”, Tony Mowbray and the lads find themselves preparing for a home game against Preston North End.
Coincidentally, I worked in Preston for about 18 months not too long ago, and I used to go past their ground on the way to and from the train station/the office that I worked in. They have some very passionate fans, and they still operate out of Deepdale, the same location they have used since their formation in the late 19th century.
They originated from a cricket club, and formed as a footy side a year or so after our lot. Sticking with their original home for this long is I believe is some sort of record. With that in mind, their club, just like ours, is very much part of their local culture, heritage, and the fabric of the town itself.
Anyway… this match is at our place, and I was chatting to my family members about the game earlier this week, and to be honest, I find myself in a real quandary about how this game will actually go.
As has been pointed out in numerous pieces on our page, Preston North End really have struggled to get out of the blocks to date this season. They have 12 points from ten games, a minus one goal difference, and seem to be on paper one of the least threatening sides to take on right now across our league.
The one trend that is obvious, and the main reason for that early negative goal difference, is their lack of end product in the attacking third.
Apart from an EFL cup tie in early August and pre-season matches, Preston have not scored more than one goal since May of this year, when they put four past Boro as last season closed out/as SAFC prepared for the playoffs.
Granted, the Teessiders had a man sent off around halfway into that game, and two of the Preston goals were against the resulting ten men, but the lack of firepower going that far back suggests 2 things:
- They struggle to convert chances they do create, and;
- They have not really made strides with that struggle either side of the summer, with transfer business not yet showing much improvement.
The main reason their goal difference stat isn’t way worse, however, is down to their defensive robustness. They have only conceded more than one goal on two occasions; against Wolves in the EFL cup 2nd round, and against Sheffield Utd around two weeks ago.
They have conceded a grand total of four league goals this season, which works out to be one goal conceded every two and a half games. One goal every five halves of football.
In comparison to Sunderland who have conceded 11 but scored 16, that is a very tight rear guard.
So what does this mean for this first game post the international pause? I am really not sure.
The pessimist in me says that given this is a team visiting the Stadium of Light with such defensive strength, we may really struggle to break them down. A lot of sides come to our place and play for a draw by sitting back, parking the proverbial bus, and maybe hoping for a goal on the break.
Preston are showing no signs of that latter part being viable, so this could be shaping up to be a 90 minute long defence versus attack session, with three league points up for grabs if the attacking-focused side (assumed to be Sunderland) can find a way through.
The optimist in me reminds me of games like Rotherham, where they were unbeaten in the league until we played them, and we totally played them off the park. Those were the days when we had two fit strikers though, and that was against a team who were willing to “have a go”, at least at times. Ross Stewart was immense that day, getting a brace. Jack Clarke rounded it off with our third. Can we perform like that again, or like Reading? Hmm.
The Preston match is a very different challenge being presented to us, and it will be interesting seeing how Tony and the coaching team go about taking these on and finishing the visitors off, doing all we can to take all the spoils.
Ignoring the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, I will say the two trump cards we have to consider in my view are quite clear; our team spirit, and our bench.
While our squad may still have no strikers, neither to drop in and cause havoc from the off or to put on later in the tie, the subs bench has for the past couple of games delivered fresh legs at a very timely point.
Those legs have also carried a hell of a lot of talent, craft, guile and creativity, and with small tactical tweaks advised by Tony and the coaches, we have left a few sides who may have underestimated what the likes of Bennette, Diallo, Ba and even Dajaku can do likely regretting the underestimation of their potential contribution after the outcomes they have helped shape in recent matches.
So, will this be a bore draw with our lads having a fully paid 90-minute training session against a staunch defensive side?
Or will we pick them apart and do like we did with Rotherham?
Will we show the rest of the league once more that statistics mean nothing, and that form is only continuous if performance and tactics enable it to be so?
Truth is I can’t wait to find out and to watch the magic of Pritchard, Neil, Clarke, Roberts and others dissect and penetrate the lines that have previously been so hard to breach.
Let’s work them hard and get them tired, then throw on the likes of Bennette, Dajaku, Diallo and maybe even Michut.
Welcome back SAFC, you have been missed. Now let’s get this show back on the road and have another ten games like the last ten, or better.
The push from now to Christmas is often the period that can go a long way to confirm our safety. If we continue to do as we have, this next 10-15 game period may also mature our optimism about considering a push for the playoffs in the new year.
Let’s take it to these Lilywhites and show what we can do.