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Tactics Preview: Flexible Preston Full Of Confidence For Bowen’s Bow

Jamie takes a look at how Reading’s opponents will set up at the Mad Stad

Preston North End v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images

Preston North End have had a fantastic start to the season, sitting third in the table, one point off the top two. Having only lost two games this season, both of these coming in the opening weeks of the season, North End have won all but one of their home games and are the division’s top scorers, with 23 goals (averaging over two a game). However, some key results have come away from home, a 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest as well as a victory and clean sheet at Birmingham, proving their credentials as one of the top teams in the league.

Impressive three goal hauls against Wigan, Stoke and Bristol City at home (added to their 5-1 demolition of Barnsley just before the international break) are perhaps not the only reason that they have transitioned from an average Championship side to one sitting in the play-off positions however. A total of 12 goals conceded in 11 games (three clean sheets) has given them a solid basis to build on, rarely conceding more than one goal in a game and so going hand in hand with their impressive attacking qualities. Last season, the Lilywhites scored and conceded 67 goals apiece (leaking one more goal than Reading!), so a newfound tightness at the back has only helped their cause this campaign as they look to finally reach those hallowed play off positions.

Versatility Is King

Preston usually line up in a 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 formation, with multiple players who can play in the attacking roles: Sean Maguire, Billy Bodin, David Nugent, Paul Gallagher, Tom Barkhuizen and Louis Moult to name a few. The likes of Maguire, Barkhuizen and Josh Harrop can stretch the play and make use of the wide areas, with Preston not afraid to push bodies forwards in search of goals. Constant team rotation is only proving to be a strength, Alex Neil able to rotate the midfield and forward line from game to game while still getting results.

Ben Pearson is the only real fixture in the Preston midfield with two of Paul Gallagher, Daniel Johnson and Alan Browne also occupying the central spaces (one of these two usually pushed further forwards). Harrop, Barkhuizen, Potts, Maguire, Bodin, Stockley and Moult all seem to rotate between playing up front and out wide with their 4-2-3-1 versatile enough to switch into a 4-1-4-1 (with Paul Gallagher moving higher up the field) or into a 4-3-3.

Preston have found consistency at the back however, Declan Rudd a constant presence in goal, with Patrick Bauer and Ben Davies at centre back. Darnell Fisher and Tom Clarke have both featured at right back (with Alan Browne slotting in there during their last game vs Barnsley), with Rafferty and Hughes both vying for the left back spot, so there has been plenty of competition for places at the back too.

Thanks to Preston’s goalscoring prowess and the number of attackers they are able to push forwards, there is minimal pressure on the full backs to also push forwards in attack, but at the same time offer another option going forwards while allowing the central midfielders to drop back and offer protection.

Perhaps surprisingly, Preston have averaged just over 50 per cent possession this season and like to control the game in the opposition’s half. Most of their games this season have been relatively even, but Preston’s efficiency in front of goal has meant that they have been able to secure victories where not always expected, sometimes scoring from all of their shots on target.

With twelve different goalscorers already this season (six having notched two or more), Reading will be up against a team who can score from all areas of the pitch and pose threats from all over. Top scorer Daniel Johnson in particular has been in fantastic form with seven goals and four assists to his name already this season, the playmaker’s cultured left foot has proven to be efficient from both open play and the penalty spot.

It is yet to be seen how Mark Bowen will line his Royals side up to face North End, and as a team who do not change their formation based on the opposition and are happy to rotate from game to game with each man seamlessly slotting in to the side, the new gaffer could not have asked for a trickier test. However, Preston’s 4-2-3-1 may provide a safe bet for Bowen as matching up to the visitors could solve any potential conundrums in whether to play four or three at the back.