Dave Seddon's verdict: Preston North End 0 Luton Town 1 - Form slide showing no sign of slowing
If this game does prove to be Alex Neil’s last stand as Preston North End manager, it would be a rotten way to finish.
A lacklustre home defeat against Luton in which it took them 70 minutes to have a shot on target was not reflective of the majority of the Scot’s time in charge at Deepdale.
At some point of Neil’s previous three seasons at the helm, he had PNE in touch with the play-offs.
However, 2020/21 has been different and right now North End’s glances over their shoulder at the other end of the Championship table are growing ever more anxious.
Being in 16th place and nine points better off than 22nd place, on paper does not look too alarming. Take into account though, third-bottom Rotherham have four games in hand.
Bear in mind also that PNE’s three games after the international break come against the leaders, then third place and then fourth place.
The biggest worry of all is that Neil’s side are badly out of form and 2021 has been a shocker.
They ended 2020 in 11th place with 32 points. Nearly 12 weeks on, their tally of points is 44 and they’re down to 16th.
There are other clubs who the bottom three have more chance of catching but there is the potential for North End to get dragged into that cluster.
Hence the pressure piled further on Neil as Luton became the 10th side to leave Deepdale with three points this campaign.
Six of those have done it by a 1-0 scoreline, on Saturday it being a Daniel Iversen own goal which settled things.
How unfortunate that the Lilywhites’ best player of the afternoon, indeed the last couple of months, should have his name put against it.
Iversen was the last player to touch James Collins’ shot as he tried to cut it out.
It did divert the ball over the line but had he not done, one of Collins’ team-mates was waiting to tap in.
Frankly the contest was an awful watch, one which the visitors had the edge when it came to pushing forward.
Of the two goalkeepers, Iversen was the busier.
Only in the latter stages did North End force Simon Sluga into action at the other end.
At no point over the 90 minutes did they play with any conviction, they looked devoid of confidence.
A side issue perhaps, but Sepp van den Berg managed three foul throws.
You are lucky to see one in a game these days, but three from the same player?
Neil has lost confidence in himself to a point, cutting a forlorn figure stood in the technical area.
Post-match he was to admit that he no longer had a ‘Scooby-Doo’ what his best XI was.
He puts that down to a chaotic January transfer window, too big a churn of the squad to his liking.
Before it opened Neil had spoken about a need to freshen the squad.
Eight in and eight out was to excite those who love the drama of the window but so much change has left Neil flummoxed when it comes to getting a winning side on the pitch.
Luton were the fifth side to do the league double over Preston, having won 3-0 at Kenilworth Road back in December.
Collins got a hat-trick that day, this time he came off the bench to either forced the own goal or find the net himself depending on who you talked to.
Visiting manager Nathan Jones credited his striker with the goal and the player himself was claiming it.
The stats people will have it down as an own goal with Iversen inadvertently diverting the path of the ball.
It came in the 83rd minute just as it looked like PNE might grind out a 0-0 draw after the defeats at Middlesbrough and Wycombe. There lies the problem this season, delicately poised games tipping the way of the opposition, especially at home.
Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu put over a searching cross from the right which picked out Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall six yards out in front of goal.
He stuck out a leg to prod the ball goalwards, Iversen producing a wonderful save to push it away.
Collins got to the rebound to the left of goal and got a shot away, the ball hitting Iversen who was on his knees and going in at the near post.
Once before and once after that had PNE tested Sluga at the Town End.
Ched Evans saw a shot smothered by the keeper and scrambled out for a corner when it was 0-0.
Then as they chased parity, Liam Lindsay’s back header from a Tom Barkhuizen long throw was tipped away by Sluga – sub Sean Maguire put the rebound over the top.
Much of PNE’s attacking play was aimless, balls clipped forward for Evans to battle against Luton’s backline.
Wingers Scott Sinclair and Anthony Gordon were subdued, Sinclair’s dribble into the box which ended with Kal Naismith blocking his shot, being the exception to the rule.
They were too deep to have an impact further forward, hence Evans being an isolated figure – that’s not the first time it’s happened recently.
There was the bonus of Ryan Ledson’s return to the midfield after five weeks out but only two days training meant he wasn’t fully sharp.
PNE’s best outfield player on the day was Joe Rafferty in the left-back slot, injuries to both Andrew Hughes and Greg Cunningham creating that vacancy.
For me, Iversen edged the man of the match award, not withstanding the own goal.
He saved well from Elijah Adebayo, Bree and Adebayo a second time as Luton pushed forward in the first half and early stages of the second.
Then there was the save from Dewsbury-Hall before the goal. Iversen is a seriously good keeper but playing behind a side short on confidence.
Neil used all five of his subs, four of them – Maguire, Barkhuizen, Billy Bodin and Brad Potts – before Luton scored and then Paul Gallagher as they looked for a way back.
The international break is now on us, how PNE will look when they resume against leaders Norwich City on Good Friday will be interesting.
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