Verdict - Sunderland showed Preston North End what they're missing as play-off places were decided at Deepdale

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Preston North End finished off their 2022/23 campaign in the worst possible way on Monday as they were beaten 3-0 by Sunderland.

It was not just the fact that they were convincingly beaten, and had to watch the Black Cats secure an unlikely play-off place on their own patch, that was the disappointment, it was the manner in which they went down.

The first half was a good watch, both sides were going for it, both sides were creating chances and both sides should have scored. Liam Delap went through one on one and not for the first time in his loan spell at PNE just couldn’t produce the finish. Fellow loanee Joe Gelhardt was played into the North End box for Sunderland and his shot was saved by Freddie Woodman.

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It had the makings of a really good encounter, full-blooded tackles, quality on the ball and both sides keen to keep it on the deck.

Preston North End's Alvaro Fernandez battles with Sunderland's Patrick RobertsPreston North End's Alvaro Fernandez battles with Sunderland's Patrick Roberts
Preston North End's Alvaro Fernandez battles with Sunderland's Patrick Roberts

Then, Sunderland scored, and PNE fell apart.

Credit to Tony Mowbray, at half time he changed things up and it had the desired effect for him. They switched to a three at the back system, despite not actually having any central defenders fit for the game, and brought on Alex Pritchard. With PNE’s wing backs generally quite deep anyway, the Black Cats’, in the form of Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke, did not have to do a great deal of defending.

It meant that they could get forward and in the end, Mowbray’s side have five forwards attacking PNE. They simply overpowered the home side. They had the trickery, vision and desire to beat a man that Ryan Lowe’s men just don’t. Any of Sunderland’s forward line would be adding something different to the mix at Deepdale and they proved their worth, Amad Diallo’s goal was a beauty, Pritchard’s was clever and Jack Clarke’s was typical of a modern winger, running at pace, dropping a shoulder and finding the far corner.

That simply does not happen in PR1, well, at least for the home team. Sunderland have not had it easy either. They’ve been without their main striker for most of the season, they’re suffering a defender crisis at the moment and yet, they’re in the top six. It’s another reason why PNE could have made it into the top six.

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Lowe was again left questioning his players’ mentality as they completely folded after conceding the first goal, meanwhile Sunderland went from strength to strength. Preston capitulated and surrendered the three goals, and three points, in the space of 10 minutes. Sunderland were prodding and probing, controlling the ball and the pace of the game and in the end, it seemed like they were just scoring when they wanted to.

Especially in the second half, there was a gulf between the two sides – one is in the play-offs, one is not. And we’ve seen that all too often this season. PNE took 13 from a possible 36 points against the sides that finished in the top six this season. Generally speaking, when they’ve played the sides up near the top this campaign, they’ve been taught a lesson on the level.

They have not been good enough, whether technically or mentally, to make that extra step this campaign. They’ve come up short too many times.

Is it a surprise? Not really, they’re underfunded and they have to fight against those that dwarf their spending power, which at this level is important. But is it diappointing? Absolutely. They have been a midtable side all season, with the occasional flirt with the places above and the odd dip to the places below, but they’ve found their home again in the middle of the pack.

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It gives a good platform to build from for next season – like we haven’t all heard it before – but it also shows the size of the task for next season. They won’t be the only ones strengthening but they might be one of few barely spending.