EFL Championship 2019/20: Preston North End vs Huddersfield Town – Tactical Analysis
At the Deepdale stadium, Preston North End welcomed in-form Huddersfield Town with the aim of extending their three-match unbeaten run and two-match winning streak. Their steady start to the season helped Alex Neil’s side rise up in the Championship league table and now occupy the second spot, just behind leader West Bromwich Albion two points.
Meanwhile, Huddersfield Town have seen a major U-turn in their form after the arrival of Danny Cowley and his brother Nicky Cowley. This earned the former Lincoln manager the October’s Manager of the Month award and they hoped to build on from this to improve their position on the league table. Unfortunately, facing Preston seemed like too big an obstacle for them as they found themselves being outplayed and eventually ended up with a 3-1 loss.
This tactical analysis will provide an analysis of Preston’s dominant 3-1 win over Huddersfield. Meanwhile, using statistics, we will point out what went wrong for Cowley’s tactics against Neil’s tactics.
Preston entered this match lining up in their familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. One of their major absences from the squad was Ben Pearson due to suspension after he received the maximum of yellow cards. Along with that, another former Manchester United graduate in Josh Harrop also missed out from the match as he continued his recovery from injury.
At the same time, another central midfielder who also turned out to be Neil’s key player this season, Daniel Johnson, remained doubtful and was not registered among the substitutes. In contrast, though, veteran striker David Nugent and midfielder Brad Potts did travel along with the rest and they both enjoyed a short spell of the match.
At the other end of the pitch, Cowley lined his Huddersfield side in a 4-1-2-3 formation. Still, there were a few key absences among the squad that travelled to Deepdale and one of them was Jonathan Hogg as he missed out from the trip through a suspension. Two names who also didn’t appear on the squad list were Collin Quaner and Jaden Brown, who were still recovering from their respective injuries.
However, Terence Kongolo did manage to return on time to start in the left-back position while Darren Simpson occupied the opposite spot. Stevie Mounié also shook off his problem with injury to be included on the bench and also had a few minutes on the field when he replaced Adama Diakhaby.
Preston’s style of play
As expected, Preston started off the match with a positive attitude by attempting to gain control more of the ball possession and progress the ball into the opposition’s half. When they were in possession, they usually put an emphasis on playing out from the back. Two centre-backs would remain in their half but also positioned themselves high up the pitch to connect with the midfielders.
They received support from one of the defensive midfielders who stayed in his position and created a passing triangle with Patrick Bauer and Ben Davies. Meanwhile, both full-backs had the option of making overlapping runs up the pitch and positioned themselves inside both flanks. They could also stay back and act as two possible passing options, which would form a passing block near the halfway line. This would stretch Preston’s attacking shape wider and force the opposition to do the same, which created gaps centrally for their teammates to move in.
But circulating the ball inside their own half and waiting for gaps to be opened was not what Preston intended to do. Instead, they opted to move the ball in a quick fashion towards the opposition half and capitalised on pockets of space that were left behind to progress the ball into.
Especially inside the final third, it is easy to notice that the home side had the tendency of making through passes through the gap in between the opposition’s defenders. Using the pace of players such as Tom Barkhuizen or Séan Maguire, it was possible for them to turn up at the end of those passes and then burst towards the 16-yard box.
In this match, though, with the fact that Jayden Stockley was the man to lead the line, Preston also saw a few tactical changes to fit his style of play. One of the former Exeter player’s traits was to sit on the shoulder of defenders and connect with passes and through balls. This allowed the wide players, such as Barkhuizen in this situation, to find him by a whipped cross and open up a great chance for him. Unfortunately, his timing was not so great for him to receive the pass but Alan Browne turned up at the right place and at the right time to put the ball into the back of the net.
During the match, Bauer and Davies were also encouraged to make long passes to attack the space behind Huddersfield’s defensive line. Again, this helped Stockley to showcase his favourite trait and connect with the pass to create a dangerous chance towards Kamil Grabara’s goal. Although it didn’t happen too regularly, Preston still found a way to approach the 16-yard box which helped the team to reduce the build-up time and countered against the opposition’s high press.
Defensively, Preston committed many players into the opposition’s half and attempted to recover possession high up the pitch. With the advantage of numerical superiority, they were able to create overloads throughout the half and forced Huddersfield to counter against it by pushing their players back.
They also deployed a man-oriented marking where each player was responsible for one of the opposition’s players. Whenever the ball carrier had the ball, one Preston player would approach and apply pressure on him which could cause him to make a misplaced pass or a heavy touch. Meanwhile, his teammates would follow the potential receivers surrounding that area and make sure they would not get in front of them or out of their sight.
Pressing high up the pitch also meant that their defensive shape must also be pushed higher when Huddersfield managed to bypass the press. It reduced the transitioning time that the players involved in the press had to think about when they regrouped along with their teammates. One of the noticeable points, when Preston players formed their 4-2-3-1 defensive shape, was how they kept it quite narrow but still able to cover both the half-spaces and the central area.
In situations where they shifted the shape laterally across the pitch, keeping things narrow allowed the players to keep creating overloads while not dropping out of position. They would swarm the side where the ball was heading to, therefore preventing the opposition from distributing into that area. Two defensive lines took on two different responsibilities, with the attacking midfielders aiming to continue the team’s press and the defenders tracking the run of the opposition’s attackers. But as important as those two lines were, if it weren’t for the support of two central midfielders, the gap between the lines would become extremely vulnerable.
Paul Gallagher and Ryan Ledson took on the responsibility of closing down the gap between the two defensive lines. They also had to be aware of any possible intention of cutting into the half-spaces from Huddersfield’s wingers and preventing them from capitalising that area. With the team’s captain being more of an attacking midfielder, he usually positioned himself higher alongside Alan Browne to create a 4-1-4-1 formation. Ledson, meanwhile, was tasked to screen the space in front of the defenders and he intercepted the passes that headed towards the striker up front.
Their recoveries map also indicates how high they pushed their defensive shape as 46% of their recoveries took place inside the middle third. Strangely though, the tendency of those situations happened fewer times in the central circle but instead more focused on the edge of the thirds. Not only does this demonstrate the mentioned tactical points, but it also shows how urgent they were in winning the ball high up the pitch.
Similar to other matches of the season, Preston made the most out of their strongest attributes in creating rapid attacks, capitalising space and converting chances to secure three important goals. But having a great attacking line without receiving the support from the defenders at the other end wouldn’t end up well. Fortunately, though, the defenders had a good day in terms of limiting Huddersfield’s attacking threat. Their aggressive attitude in recovering possession might be the biggest setback from this match, while in other duties like keeping things compact or pressed high up the pitch, Preston players had fulfilled it all.
Similar to other matches of the season, Preston made the most out of their strongest attributes in creating rapid attacks, capitalising space and converting chances to secure three important goals. But having a great attacking line without receiving the support from the defenders at the other end wouldn’t end up well. Fortunately, though, the defenders had a good day in terms of limiting Huddersfield’s attacking threat. Their aggressive attitude in recovering possession might be the biggest setback from this match, the other rest like keeping things compact or pressed high up the pitch, Preston players had fulfilled it all.
Huddersfield’s style of play
Having entered this match with great form, Huddersfield also implemented a positive approach in which the players focused on playing out from the back. Similar to Preston’s principle, they also had two centre-backs who were comfortable on the ball in Christopher Schindler and Tommy Elphick, who was later replaced by Jon Gorenc Stanković. They took on the responsibility of bringing the ball out of defence through passes and, at times, even through dribbles.
Supporting them by screening the space in front of them was Trevoh Chalobah. The Chelsea loanee had more active duties compared to Schindler and Stanković since he was a defensive midfielder, but his main duty was still linking the midfielders with the passing block. Out wide, Simpson and Kongolo also had the two options that Darnell Fisher and Joe Rafferty had during their build-up process.
But on more occasions, Huddersfield’s full-backs were found staying with their colleagues and waited for the ball to dribble it up the field. Since the visitors were a wing-oriented team, their presences were even more crucial as they stuck out wide to stretch the opposition’s defensive shape. At the same time, they became the two players who positioned themselves inside overloaded areas and created combinations with their teammates in case it was not viable to get the ball out.
But due to the fact that Preston formed a tight defensive shape inside the middle third, it hindered Huddersfield’s ball progressing process on a few occasions. They found themselves struggling to find a way to circulate the ball into the 16-yard box and could only register one shot towards Declan Rudd’s goal.
Inside the second half, though, their number of chances saw a significant change, especially from the 70th minute. Already being trailed by three goals, Huddersfield had no choice but to push their shape higher and they attempted to use direct passes to find the attackers.
Rather than circulating the ball among the passing block, the centre-backs now were encouraged to send long-range passes to target man Mounié, who came on in the 60th minute. In the role of a target man, the former Montpellier striker would drop deep from his position to pick up those long-range passes and create space behind his back for his partner, Karlan Grant, to move into.
Another way which Huddersfield managed to convert shots into their consolation of the game was by using flexible movements and created space. Similar to the situation above, Mounié moved deeper from his position while dragging along one of Preston’s defenders. Although Grant was being closed down by Fisher, he managed to receive the ball and dribble it towards the final third.
In Huddersfield’s consolation goal, the player who took up the role of dragging a Preston player out of their position was Alex Pritchard, another substitute. He came deep to receive the ball from Juninho Bacuna and later found the space behind his back unoccupied to allow Bacuna to complete a one-two and enter that space. His spectacular individual effort ended up with him driving the ball towards the bottom right corner which Rudd hardly stood a chance to stop.
Meanwhile, when out of possession, Huddersfield players formed a 4-1-4-1 formation with two distinctive defensive lines. They also focused on keeping things quite compact and the midfielders were the first one to react when Preston circulated the ball into their half. Still, by leaving too much space in between the lines, the likes of Browne, Maguire and Barkhuizen enjoyed many occasions to exploit it.
At the other end of the pitch, they also pressed high but their strategy of remaining conservative didn’t seem to work. The players stayed until Preston reached the halfway line and then started to create the press towards the ball carrier and his possible passing options.
This gave Preston too much time spent with the ball and therefore allowed the home side to be more precise in their attack. It also hindered a bit of their defensive strategy as they lacked players who could be involved in the defensive situation on several occasions.
Some fans clearly didn’t expect the match to end that way, especially neutral fans who hoped to see good football from both managers. On the field, though, both Preston and Huddersfield had provided a good game but problems were shown which can give Neil and Cowley a clear perspective on what they should sit down and analyse.
In the end, the result of the match leant towards Preston as the home side outplayed Huddersfield which was also shown in their stats for the match. They have proved their ability through their attractive style of play, and a place inside the top two is truly deserved. Huddersfield don’t need a rethink as there are thoughts that Cowley will have more to bring to their tactics. The only thing they need now is more time to allow the former Lincoln manager to have everything ready for another push to the Premier League in the foreseeable future.
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