Dave Seddon’s Preston North End Press View: Dilemma for Alex Neil

Alex Neil has yet to settle on a regular back four for PNE
Alex Neil has yet to settle on a regular back four for PNE

A quirk in the fixture list sees Preston making the camel ride to Ipswich exactly a year on from last season’s visit.

The opening weekend of November is obviously one which the EFL’s computer fixture deems best suited for Portman Road to roll out the welcome mat for PNE.

In some ways, North End will arrive in Suffolk in better shape than they did a year ago, but in other ways they are worse off.

They went with 21 points under their belts in 2017 – this time they have 14.

Yet 12 months ago, the Lilywhites went there on the back of three defeats and were to suffer a fourth loss.

Currently they are five matches unbeaten, October having been a fruitful month and offering optimism for a good November.

So points-wise, Preston are behind the pace compared to last season but arguably in better shape for this clash than they were last year.

Some mitigation for a 3-0 defeat in 2017 was a defence shorn of several players.

By half-time in the previous game against Aston Villa they were eight defenders down.

Paul Huntington came back from suspension to ease the situation at Ipswich but then PNE lost Darnell Fisher to injury in the first half.

Cue the arrival from the bench of Marnick Vermijl who hasn’t been seen in a Preston shirt since.

Four of PNE’s starters at Ipswich last season are no longer at the club – they 
either exited permanently or have been loaned out.

Four of the substitutes that day have gone, only keeper Mat Hudson – now on loan at Bury – will return.

It shows how quickly a squad can change, in this case the trimming of those on the fringes of it in particular has undergone a big changeover.

You would argue that on paper at least, the Preston squad has a deeper look to it now than it did a year ago and that is a sign of progress.

However, that depth has yet to translate itself into league points – seven points the difference between this year and last.

The aim is for that gap to be squeezed to four when the final whistle blows.

Ahead of Ipswich, how do we regard PNE’s five-match unbeaten run?

Has a corner been turned, are they still going round it or is it merely a temporary upturn?

I would argue that it is the second option – Alex Neil’s men are turning the corner but still have work to do and points to get to recover fully from their poor start.

The statistics show that they are getting things right going forward, North End the fourth highest scorers in the Championship.

Top-two pair Sheffield United and Leeds, together with West Bromwich, are the only clubs to out-score them.

But the 29 goals they have shipped is the big concern, with only two clean sheets in the league to their name.

Is that down to not doing the basics at the back, or is it a knock-on effect of being more attacking this season?

A bit of both probably and certainly an issue Neil is still attempting to solve.

Does the Preston boss stay true to the attacking principles developed these last couple of months – the high number of goals has come about despite having failed to score in the first four away games – or does he rein it in somewhat in a bid to get clean sheets?

Neil has yet to settle on a back four, something which many fans regard as a contributory factor.

For the last two games he has paired Paul Huntington with Ben Davies at the heart of the defence, with Andrew Hughes in the left-back role.

It’s been Darnell Fisher and then Tom Clarke on the right, Neil seemingly keen to have the skipper’s height and heading ability in there even if slightly out of position.

Chris Maxwell behind them has nailed-down the No.1 spot, so perhaps slowly we will see a first-choice back line emerge.

Mentioning Maxwell there, one of his goalkeeping colleagues at North End will be back on familiar turf for the Ipswich match.

In the summer Michael Crowe was signed by PNE as third-choice keeper – he was available on a Bosman after leaving Ipswich.

It would be fair to say that Crowe is not on the radar of many fans, as is generally the case for those in his position.

His arrival allowed Mat Hudson – last season’s third choice – to go out on loan for first-team experience.

As it has turned out, he is getting precious little of that sat on the bench at Bury.

The life of a third-choice keeper is a strange one you would think.

They have two keepers to get past if they are going to play, and appearances tend to be thin on the ground.

If the first-choice is rested for a cup tie, in comes the second choice – the third keeper might just get a seat on the bench.

In Crowe’s case, he saw it as being worthwhile to come to Deepdale and be back-up to Maxwell and Declan Rudd.

He got an injury early in pre-season training and it is only quite recently that we have seen him warming up before matches.

I suppose a third-choice keeper is very much one for a rainy day.

In the past if a goalkeeper got injured, the loan market provided a temporary fix – an option no longer available.