Dave Seddon's PNE pressview: 3-5-2 formation comes up trumps for Preston
The 3-5-2 system Preston North End used in their midweek victory at Sheffield Wednesday was quite a rarity from Alex Neil’s point of view.
A handful of times he has used it in his three years with but in the main Neil has opted for a back four.
Whether a spot of tactical genius on Neil’s part or he was simply matching-up Wednesday up, the switch got its rewards.
North End won their first game since February 22 and kept them involved in the race for the play-offs.
Three goals hit the back of the opposition net since the January 21 trip to Barnsley, there clearly something about the night air in South Yorkshire which PNE like.
What was key about using three at the back was that it allowed Neil to field two strikers at Hillsborough.
His usual 4-2-3-1 system or variants of that, sees one striker as the focal point with support from two wide players.
Neil and his preferred system have attracted criticism since football returned from lockdown and North End struggled.
So the news that a 3-5-2 was going to be operational on Wednesday night you thought might have been greeted with more enthusiasm.
Instead it was dismissed in some quarters as being no more than matching-up the Owls up.
The tune did change somewhat during the first half as PNE bossed the play and created five or six decent chances.
Tom Barkhuizen and Sean Maguire were the strikers and frequently found room down the sides of the Wednesday’s defence.
Barkhuizen should have given North End the lead when put through on goal but he rolled his shot wide of the far post with Alan Browne well placed for a pass in the middle as an alternative.
Pitchforks were out on social media when North End fell behind just before the hour but they were put away as Scott Sinclair, Jayden Stockley and Brad Potts arrived from the bench to flip the games on its head.
The attack was changed in the 76th minute when Sinclair and Stockley replaced Maguire and Andrew Hughes.
Barkhuizen shifted to the right wing-back slot, Joe Rafferty shifted across to Hughes’ role on the left, with Sinclair and Stockley the new strike force.
Stockley was to prove the perfect foil for Sinclair in the creation of the equaliser within two minutes of them arriving on the pitch.
The Stockley produced a quality finish to give PNE the lead, his shot just as good if not better than his effort at QPR last season.
Potts, on as part of a double midfield change before the switch of strikers, netted an excellent third.
The burning question ahead of Nottingham Forest’s visit to Deepdale is whether Neil should go again with the 3-5-2 or flip back to his default setting of 4-2-3-1?
If indeed he goes with three at the back and two up front, should those who came on as subs and made an impact get the nod or should the side who started well on Wednesday get another chance?
Did Sinclair, Stockley and Potts make the impact they did because of their later arrival rather than playing from the start?
They are big questions for Neil to answer correctly with the season now in ‘must-win’ territory.
Four games remain for North End, the next two against sides in the top six.
The use of two strikers in a 3-5-2 could be regarded as them ‘going for it’ in an attacking sense.
The width has to come from the wing-backs which puts a big reliance of them getting up and down the pitch.
As Neil has tried to get North End on a winning path, what we have seen is him dipping into the squad.
The selection at Luton for the restart game was pretty standard – bar Alan Browne playing at right-back.
Maybe that was the case too for Cardiff but players since have eemerged from the squad to press a claim.
We saw Paul Huntington selected against Derby only for a retrospective red card to stop him in his tracks since that 1-0 defeat.
Potts, Rafferty, Ryan Ledson and Jordan Storey have come into the reckoning.
Rafferty was excellent on Wednesday night, with him decent at Huddersfield too.
Ledson has done himself no harm in midfield, so too Potts – he’s got a section of the fanbase to win over.
It was heartening to see Storey back in the team as part of that switch to a three-man defence.
Last season’s young player of the year has hardly had a sniff this campaign.
That in the main has been down to Patrick Bauer striking up a partnership with Ben Davies.
Storey played in three league matches at a difficult time in late November and early December when Bauer and Davies were injured.
To come back in this week potentially was no walk in the park either, with PNE without a win for so long.
However, Storey did very well and put in a mature performance alongside Bauer and Davies.
When the young defender was put up for interview on Thursday, he admitted to not having found it easy being out of the team for so long.
To go from playing more than 30 games one season to just a handful the next, was frustrating.
He had even asked about the possibility of going on loan in January to get some games under his belt.
Understandably, North End blocked that particular path and credit to Storey for working his way back.
Whether anyone comes out of the pack so to speak in terms of a place in the team, remains to be seen.
We’ve yet to see Tom Bayliss in action, with the young midfielder having been an unused sub against Derby and Huddersfield.
Billy Bodin has only had two late substitute appearances.
Josh Harrop started last week only for a tight hamstring to prevent him travelling to Sheffield Wednesday.