Match analysis: Dave Seddon's verdict on Preston North End's defeat to Sheffield United
Having hit rock bottom, can things get any worse or is the only way up for Preston North End?
The week just gone is one which PNE will want to forget as quickly as possible – three games, three defeats with nine goals shipped does not make for pleasant reading.
This reverse to Sheffield United dumped them on the bottom of the Championship, underlining just what a poor first seven weeks of the season it has been.
One victory in nine league games is worrying whatever stage of the campaign such a run comes at.
It’s correct that there is a long way to go yet and there is a plea of mitigation to a degree in players being missing.
But soon this fall has to be arrested otherwise it could turn into a tailspin which is damn difficult to halt.
North End’s form, rather a lack of it, can no longer simply be brushed off as a poor start.
There’s only one weekend of September remaining and the division is beginning to take a bit of shape.
When we draw breath for the October international break, a quarter of the season will have been played.
Perish the thought that we reach that juncture with PNE still on this slippery slope.
Defeats come in different shapes and sizes, Saturday’s to the Blades as frustrating as it was having to negotiate a way through the gridlocked streets of Sheffield before the game.
Having fallen 2-0 behind to goals either side of half-time, an unlikely point looked to have rescued by goals from Callum Robinson and Daniel Johnson.
They struck in the 80th and 82nd minute, stunning the home side who had been in cruise control mode.
But a sting in the tail came with 87 minutes played when Chris Wilder’s men regained the lead and this time there was no fight back.
When you are down there struggling, such things have a tendency to happen.
On another day, North End would have taken a draw home and enjoyed the satisfaction of turning the games on its head.
At 2-2, perhaps a lack of game management came into play or an exuberance to push on and try and win it.
When points are in short supply, it can be better to have what you hold rather than push your luck and try for more.
No one of a PNE persuasion would have sniffed at a 2-2 draw, as it was the frustration and anger among the fan base rose a few more notches as a sixth loss of the season was posted.
The owner and regime have been getting it in the neck of late, Alex Neil joining them in copping the flak after this defeat.
At the moment he is under the microscope, that part of the territory for a manager who sees his side propping-up the division.
Last season Neil was lauded for guiding North End to a seventh-place finish, just now a few are questioning whether he is the right man for the job.
How quickly things change, that the nature of the modern-day game I suppose.
There’s no denying that Neil has been dealt a bad hand in terms of injuries and suspensions.
Filling the gaps created by those absences is something Neil is finding difficult.
He went for five changes and a switch to three at the back in South Yorkshire.
Neil had tried that against Reading last week, then reverted to four at the back at Leeds in midweek.
Behind his decision to go with three centre-backs and wing-backs was an attempt to stifle the home side and then seek to open the game up as it went along.
For much of the first half, North End sat behind the play and let United have the ball.
For a spell it developed into an attack versus defence contest, a yellow wall put up by the visitors.
For me they looked a touch deep, with it difficult to bring the ball out when they got hold off it.
Only at 2-0 did we see more adventure and eventually that was to bring its reward with the two goals.
Substitutions played their part in getting Preston going, Johnson and Brandon Barker livening them up.
DJ carried them higher up the pitch more effectively than Paul Gallagher had done.
Barker was direct with his running, having a big hand in the first goal.
What Neil is looking for is such cameo roles to be turned into more consistent form, not only from this duo but from others who are struggling to string together performances.
One player having no such problem with consistency at the moment is Robinson.
He buzzed around with lots of confidence, happy to go in search of the ball.
His goal was a third in four matches and he carries PNE’s main attacking threat.
Robinson was partnered by Tom Barkhuizen up front, Alan Browne the link-up man from midfield behind them.
Gallagher and Ryan Ledson were the sitting two, Darnell Fisher and Andrew Hughes flanking them.
It has rarely been in Neil’s nature to sit deep like Preston did here.
That approach worked to a degree, in that it wasn’t until the 36th minute that United broke them down.
Kieron Freeman’s pass down the right channel saw David McGoldrick and Ben Davies give chase.
McGoldrick was quicker on this occasion, reaching it in the box and squaring for Billy Sharp to sweep a shot into the roof of the net.
Chris Basham met Ollie Norwood’s free-kick to arc a header beyond Chris Maxwell for the Blades second goal in the 52nd minute.
Both North End goals were built-up well.
Browne’s pass fed Barker who ran at the home defence before slipping a pass out wide to Fisher on the right.
He drove a low cross into the middle for Robinson to guide a side-foot finish into the far bottom corner.
For the second, Ledson’s pass took out two defenders to allow Hughes to run on to it down the left side of the box.
Hughes pulled it back for Johnson to shoot first-time, a deflection off Jack O’Connell taking it past the keeper.
The hosts wrestled back their advantage, Enda Stevens getting into the box and rolling the ball low to McGoldrick who finished from six yards.