Dave Seddon's verdict: PNE midfield lacked bite

Let us be thankful for small mercies in that Preston took a point from a game in which they were very much second best to Birmingham.

Sunday, 21st January 2018, 1:00 pm
Updated Sunday, 21st January 2018, 2:05 pm
Ben Davies finds the net for his first goal in Preston colours

Alex Neil described it as the poorest offering of his tenure and I doubt any North Ender at Deepdale on Saturday would disagree with that statement.

However, there seemed to be plenty disagreeing with the PNE manager with regards to his team selection for the visit of the Blues.

Deprived of the services of Ben Pearson due to injury, the midfield chosen by Neil was rather lightweight.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

PNE scorer Ben Davies

Paul Gallagher and Daniel Johnson were the central pair in a 4-2-3-1, with Josh Harrop further up behind the striker.

None of them brought to the table what Pearson does, there being a rather large hole in the middle of the pitch in terms of tackling and ratting.

Gallagher looked good on the ball in trying to get North End going forward, DJ rather anonymous against a Blues side he took apart in the 
reverse fixture in the West Midlands last September.

The result was the visitors dominating midfield for long spells and in the main they were the side on the front foot all afternoon.

Louis Moult turns away from Maikel Kiefenbeld

I got a sense of frustration from Neil post-match that he had not started Alan Browne. While he prefers to use Browne’s running and energy higher up the pitch, Neil was to point out that the Irishman does ‘the fundamentals’ well.

In that he means putting in a tackle and winning battles, things which on this occasion were missing.

So how do Preston solve the problem of being without Pearson?

Results this season show that they have managed well when the midfielder has been on the sidelines.

PNE scorer Ben Davies

Of the nine league games Pearson has missed, PNE have lost just one – away to Derby in August.

He was absent throughout September, a month in which they were unbeaten.

A 1-1 draw was secured at Norwich when Pearson was suspended, then somehow they got something from this clash with Birmingham.

But arguably Preston are a better team with Pearson snapping away in midfield and this weekend he was sorely missed.

Louis Moult turns away from Maikel Kiefenbeld

While his injury is not long-term, he is a yellow card away from a two-match suspension.

So perhaps this absence has forewarned of what is needed to fill the void.

Whether that is a bit more bite from Browne or John Welsh, while transfer target Ryan Ledson is clearly seen as someone who can step in for Pearson.

Let us not lay all of the Lilywhites’ shortcomings in this game at the feet of the midfield or who wasn’t playing.

Few came out with much credit, the front line producing little and it was a defensive howler which gave the Blues their equaliser on a plate.

They might have deserved parity but the manner in which the goal arrived was cause for much frustration.

Chris Maxwell and Paul Huntington got themselves in a real tangle and Sam Gallagher took full advantage just as the game had gone into its last half-hour.

North End had led from the 17th minute, Ben Davies netting his first goal for the club.

Unfortunately, his race was run by half-time due to a tight hamstring.

In the second half, Davies was missed just as much as Pearson.

The back four was given a reshuffle, Greg Cunningham coming over from left-back to play at right-back.

That allowed Tom Clarke to move into the middle next to Huntington, with Josh Earl coming off the bench to play left-back.

The fact that the right-footed Huntington had to be the left-side of the middle pair, in some ways led to the equaliser being shipped.

While PNE were fortunate to draw, in the bigger picture this result has to be seen as an opportunity missed.

Birmingham arrived and left in 23rd place, albeit they have found some form of late.

If Preston are to be genuine play-off contenders, they need to be more ruthless in games against teams lower down.

Home points have been dropped against four of the bottom six.

On the road, Neil’s men are fine – they have taken an equal number of points home and away – but a stronger record is needed at Deepdale.

While earlier in the season Barnsley and Millwall dug in to take a point here, Birmingham took the game to Preston.

They started the brighter to the point that PNE’s opener in the 17th minute was against the run of play.

A couple of early scares had seen a shot from Gallagher clip Maxwell on the ankle and go behind for a corner, then the same player put a header wide.

Both teams were to give their opponents a helping hand with the goals.

PNE’s came when they won a free-kick 30 yards out, one which Gallagher – the Preston version – worked short with Cunningham.

Taking the return pass, Gallagher launched it into the box where Marc Roberts rose with Jordan Hugill.

Roberts headed it across the face of goal, DAVIES on hand at the far post to knock a close-range shot into the net.

It was the Barrow boy’s first goal for PNE in 34 appearances and only his second in senior football – he found the net for Fleetwood when on loan last season.

Birmingham’s equaliser came in the 63rd minute, soon after Hugill’s departure from the action following a bang on the head.

Gallagher had possession for Preston on the right wing and rolled the ball back to Maxwell.

The keeper kicked it out to Huntington, who was closed down straight away by Jacques Maghoma who won the ball.

As he slipped it sideways to Sam Gallagher, Maxwell flew out of his box to challenge but ended up dumping Huntington on the floor.

GALLAGHER was left with an unguarded net to fire into, Clarke’s effort to slide back and intervene in vain.

A bad day at the office then and had Tom Barkhuizen not kicked a Ndoye header out of the six-yard box in the 85th minute, things would have been worse.