Dave Seddon's match verdict: Birmingham City 0 Preston North End 1 - The wait for a Championship away win is over for the Lilywhites
This wasn’t a game for the football hipsters, it won’t live long in the memory but the victory for Preston North End against Birmingham City was a key result at this relatively early stage of the season.
The Lilywhites hit the road for the fourth time in the Championship in 2019/20 and for the first time brought three points home with them.
Two defeats and a draw had been their lot, hence Alex Neil bigging up the need for an away win in the build-up to the visit to the West Midlands.
They have been perfect at Deepdale, four wins out of four, but away had not quite fired on all cylinders.
Perhaps the performances at Swansea and Nottingham Forest had merited more, yet the wins column had still shown a blank.
This first away victory was one achieved with a great deal of graft and resilience.
Like they had done on the last two away days, PNE bossed the first period at St Andrew’s.
During that dominance came Sean Maguire’s goal which was ultimately enough to win the contest.
But mixed in with that was a thoughtful tactical approach from Alex Neil, so too a dogged defensive rearguard which kept the home side at arms’ length all the way through.
The only scare was Alvaro Gimenez finding the net with a late close-range shot, one which was flagged offside.
Birmingham will disagree but had they got anything out of the game, it would have been undeserved.
They hardly laid a glove on North End, little for Declan Rudd to do on his return to a ground where last December he had a nightmare.
On this occasion, he was superbly protected by Patrick Bauer and Ben Davies who over the last few weeks have formed a rock-solid pairing.
It is a fusion of Germany and Barrow, that certainly not a combination you will have come across too often.
Between them they limited the effect of Lukas Jutkiewicz, an awkward customer to say the least with his height.
Birmingham looked for him with crosses from the wing and balls from the back – more often than not Bauer or Davies were in the way.
The pair helped PNE build from the back too, with some help from a tactical ploy which Neil used for the first time.
When Preston launched their attacks, the full-backs were pushed as high up the pitch as I can remember them being under Neil.
We are not talking about them bombing up the pitch to get in a cross, this was their starting position when PNE were first in possession.
They didn’t leave gaps though, the space filled by Ben Pearson and Paul Gallagher.
The midfield duo dropped in to get on the ball early, Pearson on the right and Gallagher the left.
From the deeper and wider positions, the idea was to play some cross-field balls and get PNE attacking that way.
They had other means to attack too, attempting to play through the middle.
That was a congested area, a narrow pitch making the Blues a tough nut to crack in the centre.
Hence Neil looking at the high full-backs and deep midfielders as a legitimate route.
Neil said: “Any square pass they want to press the ball so what we did was bump the full-backs up and dropped the midfield players outside the lines.
“Then Birmingham had to press us through the middle, so we could roll in off the lines.
“That is how we got the free-kick for the goal, Sean rolled in off the line, got on the half turn and drove at them.
“I felt that was the way to puncture them, while at the same time risking the ball with Pearo and Gally who are our best ball players. It worked well and we were able to win the game.”
North End moved up to third place on Saturday on the back of this victory.
It is the highest position they have been in since their return to the Championship in 2015.
Indeed it will be higher than anything they achieved in the last two or three years at this level before relegation in 2011.
It is early days yet but you can’t help thinking Preston have something about them this season.
Neil taking a horses for courses approach to games in terms of both personnel and tactics is paying off.
There was little point in him using the same game plan he did against Brentford last time out, for this trip down the M6.
The depth of the squad at his disposal is also working positively at present.
Look at who didn’t make the matchday squad – Andre Green, David Nugent, Josh Ginnelly, Tom Bayliss and Paul Huntington to name but five.
Billy Bodin missed out through injury, so too Tom Clarke and Louis Moult.
Of the outfield substitutes, Ryan Ledson, Jayden Stockley and Jordan Storey didn’t make it off the bench.
All will have a part to play as the season goes on but for now some are having to play a game of patience.
There were few clear-cut chances at either end over the 99 minutes – eight minutes of additional time was played in the second half.
One of the extra minutes was for an impromptu water break which referee Stephen Martin called in the 75th minute, much to the anger it must be said of Blues’ caretaker head coach Pep Clotet. I can only assume he felt it stalled the momentum he thought his side were building-up.
North End made one of the few chances count in the 23rd minute, that their 14th goal of the season – a tally matched only by QPR.
Maguire was tripped on the edge of the ‘D’ by David Davis, that bringing the award of a free-kick.
Gallagher struck it low and right-footed, the ball striking the base of the post.
A cheer went up from the 1,518 PNE fans at the other end of the ground who thought it had gone in.
It was only a moment of premature celebration, the ball spinning back across the six-yard box for Maguire to score by the other post with a side-foot finish.
This win meant one Pep had been dealt with, now the Lilywhites turn their thoughts attention to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City on Tuesday night.