Dave Seddon's verdict on Preston's win over Sheffield United
Much can happen in a month in the Championship '“ just look at the contrasting records of Preston and Sheffield United.
Both had Friday night games on November 17, PNE grinding out a goalless draw with Bolton while the Blades went to Burton and won 3-1.
Victory took Chris Wilder’s men top of the division while Alex Neil’s men edged up to 13th place.
Fourteen points separated the sides back then – today the gap is down to two.
The Lilywhites’ narrow but deserved win at Deepdale on Saturday was a third victory in a row, their fourth in five games and it is six unbeaten for them.
In contrast, this was a third successive loss for United and a fourth defeat in five.
The Championship can be an unforgiving place, capable of punishing sides who are off their game and missing key players.
On the flip side of the coin, get your approach right and the table can be climbed.
Momentum is with PNE at the moment, they are playing well and finding ways to win matches.
Tactical substitutions had been behind the previous two victories, this weekend was more about a tactical tweak and upping the pressure.
Having ridden a decent start from the visitors, North End got on top of the game more as the first half went on.
After the break they found a higher gear for a spell, one in which the winner arrived.
A deliciously-flighted ball dropped over the Blades backline by Callum Robinson was netted by Jordan Hugill on the volley.
The assist was a reward for Robinson who had been PNE’s best attacking player.
On another day he would have walked off with the man of the match award. However, it was the two Bens – Pearson and Davies – who had more of a claim on it.
Pearson was the sponsors’ choice for a typical energetic display, both in the sense of shielding the back four and driving the hosts forward.
The sleeves of his under-armour rolled up and his hair flying around, Pearson was everywhere.
One tackle in the first half, made with precision and without any hint of malice, let the Blades know he was there.
Davies could not have been far behind when the match sponsors chose who to hand their prize to.
Strong in the air, assured on the floor, this was perhaps his best performance yet in Preston colours. It was ironic that it came against the Blades, a team he had a particularly tough time against in August 2014, having started that season as PNE’s left-back.
After being given the runaround in that game, Davies disappeared from view in terms of playing in the first team.
Four loan spells later, he has made another breakthrough as a centre-half and looks to be here to stay this time.
While they were not streets ahead of their visitors, North End were the better side and no one could have begrudged them the three points.
Blades boss Wilder conceded that PNE had carried out the basics better than his side.
They had the better chances over the course of the piece.
Defensively, Neil’s men limited United to one effort on target, quite an achievement when you bear in mind the Yorkshire side had netted 34 goals this season. Leon Clarke had scored 10 goals in six games from early November to last week.
In this one he hardly got a sniff, nor did his strike partner Billy Sharp.
Even late on when the Blades threw caution to the wind and were pushing men forward, you never got the sense that North End would crack.
In the build-up to the game, Neil had clearly studied United in depth. During the midweek press conference he had identified their trio of centre-backs as a key part of their set-up, key in the sense that they like to push high up the pitch to join the midfield and build play.
With that in mind, Neil started with a 4-4-2 but not in the conventional sense.
Strikers Hugill and Tom Barkhuizen were split wide apart, playing against the two outer central defenders.
Behind them, the midfield was arranged as a diamond.
Robinson played at the tip of it, providing a presence in the middle in between Hugill and Barkhuizen.
Paul Gallagher and Daniel Johnson worked as a pair, with Pearson at the diamond’s base.
Neil switched to more of a 4-2-3-1 after 20 minutes, the emphasis being on keeping numbers in the middle of the pitch to stifle the visitors.
The diamond was to return later in the game as North End looked to keep a grip on their single goal advantage.
Such a system meant there was no game time for Daryl Horgan, the hero of last week’s win at Burton.
Josh Harrop, who had been so influential having come on against QPR and Burton, was only needed for the last 13 minutes.
It emphasised the different approach to different games from Neil – one size does not fit all as they say.
The tactical planning very nearly went to pot inside the first minute when a miscue from Chris Maxwell as he went to kick clear, let in United. Clarke was fed a pass down the right-hand side of the box, Davies and Darnell Fisher able to get across and combine to clear for a corner.
Robinson forced a good save from Simon Moore, who tipped his shot over the bar.
Before half-time, Gallagher hit the top of the bar after he and DJ had worked a free-kick routine 20 yards from goal.
To coin a Neil phrase, PNE began to look to burst the game open after the interval.
A swift counter-attack saw Barkhuizen break forward, a heavy touch seeing the ball roll to Robinson, who struck his shot across goal and wide.
The winning goal came in the 58th minute, sub Kevin O’Connor’s throw-in finding Robinson in space.
He moved in-field on to his right foot, Hugill pointed to where the ball needed to go and Robinson delivered a fine ball. It dropped to HUGILL on the edge of the six-yard box, who volleyed home.