Since his arrival last July, Scottish coach Alex Neil has been outstanding leading Preston North End to the highs of Championship with the hope to get the Lilywhites into the top-two finish at the end of the season, which will mean gain promotion to the Premier League for their first time.
That start of this campaign was not that bad for a fanbase astonished when their former manager Simon Grayson abruptly left the club to join Sunderland.
Although he was sacked by Norwich just some months ago, the 36-year-old Scot’s resume includes a promotion to the Scottish Premiership as player-manager of Hamilton in 2014 and a promotion to the Premier League with Norwich in a play-off final.
But are not just Neil’s pedigree or the numbers PNE posted until now that impressed – Lilywhites are fourth in the table, two points away from the top at the moment this article has drawn. No, beyond that is the fact the Championship side have conceded fewer goals than any other team in the league and that they showed an efficient and electrifying game play.
Following his football vision, Neil turned at team that languished in 11th place last two seasons into a contender in a span of three months. And he did it building a new team’s philosophy based on counterattacking and high press. “I wanted to change the style of play from the previous regime,” Neil told The Guardian. “When the opposition have got the ball, we want it as quickly as possible. We don’t sit off the game and let them have it…make them make mistakes. Hurt them in the transitions,” he said.
The following gif show Preston’s hunt for the ball.
It is a fast, passing game with his side working hard to win the ball back when lost. So, the Scotsman implanted his high-tempo offence that showed wonders at Deepdale. The level of play Neil introduced was evident since the start of the season, when PNE secured a 1-0 victory on the opener against Sheffield Wednesday. Then, they earned a valuable point away to Leeds United and another win against Reading while suffering their currently only defeat to Derby County in between these games.
Two draws followed against Middlesbrough and Barnsley before PNE stretched their run with two consecutive wins against Cardiff and away to Birmingham City.
Neil’s style founds on a strong defensive phase centred on centre-backs Paul Huntington and Thomas Spurr but is the offence that stole the show.
To play this kind of attack you need players with pace and speed able to quickly explode when Preston are in possession. Former Cork City Sean Maguire and Tom Barkhuizen, signed last January from Morecambe, are this kind of footballers. So, Neil built his offensive phase out from a 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 formation featuring Jordan Hugill up top with Maguire and Barkhuizen on the flanks.
Centre-forward Hugill too impressed so much since his arrival at Deepdale in 2014 that Preston rejected bid from Wolves in the summer.
Surely, this kind of football gets some downsides: play fast isn’t easy and PNE is not the best team in term of pass accuracy (69.9%). That said, they still produced a decent average ball retention per game (51.2%). On the pros side, Preston averaged 13.9 shots per game (8th in the Championship) with 4.6 on target (still 8th).
Their buildup isn’t complex or particularly articulated: Neil’s game plan is to get depth as soon as possible in order to move to the opposition’s field. With the rise of high pressing, sending the ball forward quickly became increasingly interesting.
Neil’s vision follows this pattern as Preston use direct passes which can be a successful way to advance the ball avoiding the pressure generate by the team out of possession. At Preston, that way is favoured over horizontal circulation.
Sending the ball to Hugill is just the first part of their offensive phase. In fact, Neil’s strategy is focused on avoiding an immediate loss of ball so the centre-forward is quickly surrounded by a supporting structure that can help the team to retain possession in advanced areas.
The below gif shows us this principle: ball is throwed ahead while PNE’s offensive players are able to gain the 2nd ball, retaining possession into the opposite’s own field and generating the scoring opportunity that allows Maguire to score.
The goalkeeper is utilised as part of the first build-up but, not being it particularly elaborated, he often kicks a long ball up front to quickly ruin the opposition’s vertical compactness.
There are some interesting aspects pertinent to this way to build attacks: first and foremost, if the ball is lost, it happens in less dangerous areas for PNE and also there is an immediate opportunity to counterpress and regain possession up top where Neils’ side can recycle possession.
So, possession is not out of question for Preston. It just that ball retention follows a first building up phase in which vertical passes are favoured as they can immediately break the classic two banks of the opposition’s block you face in Championship.
Every team utilises different build-up patterns in order to move into more advanced areas of the pitch. These differing principles vary widely depending on each coach and the players at their disposal. But one such tool that many teams utilise is the use of vertical passing in the first phase of build-up. If completed successfully, this allows for instant progression of the ball into a more advanced area of the pitch and past one, or sometimes two, lines of opposition pressure.
Out of possession their need for speed and aggressiveness results in a discipline problem: PNE are top of the league relative to committed fouls (15.4 per game) and yellow cards received (18 so far). Their defensive phase is built around tackling (18) rather than interceptions (11.5). But that’s the way Neil wants his side to play.
Neil’s side is enjoying a good start of the season and the Scot deserves huge credit for. Should they continue this way, Neil could be able to bring Preston North End, a founding member of the Football League, in the modern-day Premier League.