Preston boss Alex Neil eyes improvement defending set pieces

Alex Neil says Preston have to buck the recent trend of going behind in matches and improve their defending at the second phase of set pieces.

The opposition have taken the lead in the last five games, with North End fighting back to win the last two.

All but one of the goals let in during that run have come as a result of a set play or in the aftermath.

Neil points out that rarely this campaign have his side conceded a ‘first contact’ goal from a corner or a free-kick delivered into the box.

Preston North End's manager Alex Neil

But either a flick-on or the ball coming back after being initially cleared, has become a point of concern.

“The disappointing thing is that nearly all the goals we have conceded of late have been at set plays and second phases of them,” said Preston manager Neil.

“This year we went to a zonal system which is the first time I have used it.

“We have conceded from one first contact set piece, last season it was six.

Preston North End's manager Alex Neil

“In terms of defending the first ball we have improved considerably, it is the second ball which we really need to do better on.

“At QPR last Saturday, we brought everyone back for corners to flood the area.

“Unfortunately, the big lad Matt Smith pushed Darnell Fisher deeper than everyone else.

“When Darnell tried to push out, Smith stole in at the back post.

“It is something we need to improve on in the next three games.

“If we can do that, from open play there are not many teams who have managed to break us down – we’ve been pretty good at that.”

Neil favouring the zonal marking approach can be traced back to the opening stages of the season.

In general, he is pleased with how it has worked.

Said Neil: “It has worked well for us because we aren’t the biggest of teams.

“We gave a penalty away at Derby in August, I think it was Paul Huntington.

“The fourth official that night was the ref for our next game and I was concerned he would be looking out for us tugging in the box.

“So we went for zonal and it has worked well.

“We have spoken at length with the players about it and they prefer doing it that way.

“Aston Villa at home is the one time we have conceded from the first contact, that was a header from a corner.

“We had a lot of defenders missing that night, we ended up with Alan Browne playing at centre-back.

“If you think of the one at Reading, there was a flick-on from the free-kick before the lad scored with the header.

“We’ve re-visited the goals which have been conceded and we need to learn.”