Just how the past 10 games are viewed will be judged by where we finish at the end of the season. If we stay up, it will be the run where we tightened up at the back and learned how to pick up points in this division. If we go down, it will be the run where we failed to win enough of the ‘winnable’ games that were put in front of us.
Scoring more goals and converting draws into wins is the agenda for the next month as we look to put more distance between ourselves and the bottom three. A trip to a Preston North End side who have tended to be in the play-off picture over the past few seasons looks to be one of the tougher fixtures we have faced in recent weeks, even if they have struggled to pick up wins at home this campaign.
Although the festive period is typically the most congested period of fixtures of the season, this year, it is no more congested than much of the past two months. Any questions over whether players need to rested are no different to much of the rest of the season. There’s absolutely no reason for Mark Robins not to name as strong a line-up as possible.
Just what shape that strongest XI would line-up in isn’t quite clear at the moment. With injuries limiting his options, Mark Robins has gone towards a 3-5-1-1 system, with Callum O’Hare lining up behind the fit-again Matt Godden but it doesn’t appear to be a system that is going to be effective over a longer period given how much it limits our ability to get bodies into the opposition penalty area.
From the starting line-up against Stoke City, Ben Sheaf is probably at the biggest risk of losing his place in favour of an additional attacking player. Maxime Biamou is, by far, the most likely forward to come into the side, with his ability to hold the ball-up not only important in bringing Godden and O’Hare into the game but as an outlet to help relieve pressure on the defence.
Elsewhere, Callum O’Hare is probably due a rest – having been the only player to appear in every league game thus far – but with Jordan Shipley and Ryan Giles not exactly natural replacements, it would require a change in shape in order to facilitate taking O’Hare out of the firing line.
Last Time We Met
With Preston on the march towards promotion from League One and the Sky Blues in the final weeks of Steven Pressley’s time at the club, it was a rather routine victory for the Lilywhites at Deepdale.
In what was a pretty uneventful affair, it felt typical of Coventry City at the time to allow Kevin Davies – who hadn’t scored all season – to register his first goal of the campaign for Preston.
The Manager – Alex Neil
Having enjoyed a meteoric rise early in his managerial career with spells at Hamilton Academical and Norwich City, Alex Neil has settled down at Preston North End, proving that he can consistently get his teams performing around, if not above, their level of expectation. The Scot has come in for criticism at times for being a little too conservative with his tactics and team selections but it is hard to argue that he is not doing a good job at Deepdale.
It’s been an inconsistent campaign thus far for Neil and Preston, but they are not too far away from being in the play-off race and will be targeting the win here to launch themselves up the table. Having been solid at the back in recent years, Preston have found themselves with the second-worst defensive record in the division, which is responsible for their current mid-table position.
Who To Look Out For
It is an ominous sign of Preston’s strength in central midfield that a player like Tom Bayliss – who could dominate games during his time at Coventry City while barely breaking a sweat – can’t get into this team. An injury at a bad time last season hasn’t helped but it is typical of Alex Neil’s conservatism with team selections that Bayliss is yet to be handed a league start in his 18 months at the club.
Even with the tigerish Ben Pearson injured for much of the campaign, Neil hasn’t felt he has needed to use a midfielder of Bayliss’ qualities. With former Oxford United man, Ryan Ledson, stepping up as the defensive shield, Neil can either utilise the passing range of Paul Gallagher or the pure energy levels of Alan Browne at the base of his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Further forward, the dynamic Daniel Johnson has made the number 10 position his own, while the physicality of Brad Potts can also be an effective weapon for Preston.
Out wide, the likely absence of Scott Sinclair is a boost for us given that he has scored goals at a rate that Preston’s centre-forwards have struggled to. The threat of the pacey and tall wide-man, Tom Barkhuizen, means that Preston will still carry a threat on the flanks which could potentially pin back at least one of our wing-backs.
In attack, the Dane, Emil Riis Jakobsen has impressed with his movement and physical presence since joining in the summer but has struggled for goals. Similarly, Jayden Stockley can play a useful role as a target-man but has frustrated at Deepdale with his finishing. The smaller, more agile, Sean Maguire has threatened to be the goalscorer that North End lack, but hasn’t nailed down a starting place due to Alex Neil’s tactical preferences and some injury issues over recent years.
Where This Game Will Be Won Or Lost
Preston’s struggles for form at home at late, along with their issues in defence, should make this a game for us to approach with a more proactive mentality than we’ve shown in recent weeks. However, Mark Robins is likely to be more concerned with containing Preston North End’s talented midfield, which may well see the 3-5-1-1 system continue and thus stymie our attacking threat.
Along with the midfield battle, our ability to get our wing-backs further up the pitch is likely to be a key area of this game. Unless we are comfortable in getting pinned back in our own half, we may have to occassionally risk that Tom Barkhuizen will drive at our wide centre-backs if we want to provide support for Matt Godden in attack.