Preston North End hosted QPR for the 37th fixture of the EFL Championship, with both teams having high expectations for the league. Preston North End is sitting in the playoffs, looking for promotion to the EPL. The progress of the match gave us a lot of things from the tactical analysis aspect. Furthermore, from this analysis article, we will see why flexibility and adjustment are particularly important indicators for football.
Preston North End started the match against QPR with a 4-2-3-1 formation and ended the match with a 3-5-2, in a match with a lot of changes as far as the tactics went. Before that, manager Alex Neil tried a 4-4-2 formation but it was ineffective in changing the team’s performance. The starting 11 for Preston North End were Declan Rudd under the goalposts, with Darnell Fisher, Patrick Bauer, Ben Davies, and Andrew Hughes at the defensive line. Alan Browne and Paul Gallagher were the two central defensive midfielders. Daniel Johnson was the attacking midfielder and next to him and wider in the pitch were Josh Harrop and Tom Barkhuizen. At the tip of the formation as a striker was Sean Maguire.
QPR started the match with a 4-2-3-1 and Liam Kelly as the goalkeeper. Angel Rangel and Ryan Manning were the two full-backs, while in the centre of the defence were Grant Hall and Yoann Barbet. Geoff Cameron and Dominic Ball were the two central defensive midfielders. The three attacking midfielders were Eberechi Eze, Bright Osayi-Samuel, and Marc Pugh, while the centre forward of the formation was Jordan Hugill.
Preston North End’s approach to the match
Starting the analysis of Preston North End’s game with them off the ball, it could be seen that the team were trying to make life harder the life for the opposition, by blocking their game from the back. The 4-2-3-1 formation was turning into a 4-1-3-2: Johnson, the attacking midfielder was stepping forward next to the centre forward, and Gallagher, the defensive midfielder, was taking his position higher up the field to fill the free space.
That was a way for Preston North End to block the play from the back, as QPR’s centre-backs had to face the pressure of the Preston North End players and had no options for a short pass in the midfield area.
Stepping a bit deeper in the field, we could see once again a new adjustment in Preston North End’s formation. This time the formation was turning into a 4-4-1-1 and this allowed Preston North End to become more compact and shorten the distances between the lines. The wide attacking midfielders were stepping back, next to the two defensive midfielders, and were closer to the defensive line.
Johnson was the player behind the centre forward and was trying to support both flanks defensively. He was the player that was moving along the pitch, trying to keep the balance in the midfield area. The wide attacking midfielders could support effectively both on the flanks and in the central part of the field. In that way, Preston North End managed to support the flanks, but also retain a balance in the central part of the field.
Preston North End also chose a direct approach while in control of the ball. When they were regaining possession of the ball, they were trying to have a quick offensive transition. That was happening with the wide attacking midfielders, and especially the centre forward.
Preston North End’s setup, with that deep positioning of the wide attacking midfielders, created the right circumstances for counterattacks – they waited for the opponent to come higher and to try and find ways to break the compact lines that they created. And when Preston North End gained possession of the ball, they had enough quick players to take advantage of those free spaces with long and direct balls.
When Preston North End were trying to build up the game from the back, they again chose a direct approach. They were targeting the flanks and mostly the right side, from where the team had 25 attacking opportunities. From the middle of the field, Preston North End had 18 attacks while from the left flank, they had 13.
Their first goal in the field while they were starting their game from the back was to pass to one of the defensive midfielders, who were rotating, and they were coming higher up the field to get that pass. Browne was stepping up from the defensive line, and trying to receive the first pass. When this was happening, the next thing was to transfer the ball a bit further, to Gallagher, who usually was in a diagonal position.
The reason why a long ball was taking place from the second defensive midfielder receiving the ball and not the first one, was that the second one had a higher position on the field and could be more accurate, and so could cause more problems for the opponent. If that scenario was not possible, the long balls were coming from the defensive line and mostly from the two centre-backs. Moreover, Gallagher’s role in the field was to transfer the ball into the final third, and this had an impact on Preston North End’s game, as the team won the penalty that they scored from a long pass that Gallagher made.
QPR without the ball were trying to put pressure on the opponent, but with no success. That was because QPR’s players did not synchronise their movements when the opponents had their ball at their feet. So, when this mistake was happening, Preston North End could break the high pressure with a simple pass.
The main issue for QPR in those kinds of situations was not that the players could not regain the possession of the ball in a high position on the field, but that the opposition with a simple pass could expose the five players (the two that were in front and the three that were supporting from behind) that were pressing high up the pitch, which was something that was causing them trouble in defence. Moreover, the two defensive midfielders of Preston North End were also key players in the development of the possession, as they were able to receive an easy pass without any kind of pressure around them, and with a lot of free space.
QPR faced several issues, especially in the first half when Preston North End scored their goal. QPR could not play the ball out of the back because of the high pressure from their opponent. Preston North End managed to isolate the key players of QPR that were crucial in the development of their game, as they were the players that were linking the defensive with the attacking line.
Because of the high pressure being applied, the centre-backs were not able to pass to one of the defensive midfielders. For that reason, Eze had to come deeper into the field, and try to fill that gap in the build-up and transfer the ball higher up the pitch, but he was quickly surrounded by several opponents and couldn’t get QPR out of these situations.
Furthermore, QPR in the first half did not take advantage of their full-backs. This was because of the direct style of play of Preston North End, and it meant QPR’s full-backs did not want to risk a high positioning on the field, as they wanted to prioritise supporting the defensive line in a transition game.
That led to QPR trying to approach the opposition’s box with five players and without support from the flanks from the wide attacking midfielders. If we also add in the fact that Preston North End’s wide attacking midfielders were moving deeper, as we mentioned previously, we can see that the chances for QPR to create something remarkable in the final third of the field were slim.
When QPR did manage to put the ball into the box, they saw the ball blocked with around eight players ready to defend against it. Two of those were closely defending the attacker in possession of the ball, whilst the rest of them were holding their deep positions to protect their goal and retain their compact shape.
QPR, after conceding the goal to Preston North End, changed their tactics and tried to adjust themselves in the game, because the players and manager realised that if they kept going as they had been, they would probably not get anything from the game.
Firstly, the full-backs started to get a higher and more inward position in the field. That meant QPR achieved the opposite of what was happening beforehand, and restricted the counterattacks of Preston North End, as it was easier to put instant pressure in the ball and regain it higher up the field, without letting the opponent play the direct style that they had been using up until then.
The next thing that QPR changed was their second-half formation. QPR changed from a 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-1-2. Luke Amos, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur, came into Dominic Ball’s position as a central midfielder. Eze came deeper and became the third central midfielder. Osayi-Samuel took his position next to the centre forward Hugill, and Ilias Chair took Pugh’s position, as an attacking midfielder.
These changes in the faces and the formation gave QPR more flexibility in the game, as the team had an extra player in the midfield area. It also meant QPR could be more compact and have more players around the ball to start the offensive transition, every time that they managed to gain possession of the ball. In this way, QPR ensured they had a normal transition game to allow them to get into the opponent’s half, and did not face the issues they had in the first half.
Because of the change of formation, QPR brought more players into the central part of the field. It meant Preston North End had to bring more players into the same area, because there was a chance they would be outnumbered otherwise. Moreover, this tactical move from Preston North End gave QPR an extra solution in approaching the final third and the box of the opponent.
We already mentioned that the full-backs were moving higher up the pitch after the Preston goal, but in the second half, because of the overcrowded central area, the full-backs found a lot of free space on the flanks and took advantage of it. QPR was overloading the central part of the field and after that, the players were transferring the ball to the flanks where the full-backs had a lot of space to execute their next action.
Furthermore, QPR tried to take advantage of the physical and technical characteristics of Osayi-Samuel. This kind of player playing in the edge of the formation could be very threatening, especially if there are free spaces behind a defensive line that takes a high position in the field. The QPR midfielders tried to target Osayi-Samuel with direct long balls and take advantage of his abilities.
Once more, Osayi-Samuel showed the impact that he has on the team, as he was able to carry the ball and drag a lot of players on him. That meant, as a result, his teammates would be free and if they could receive the ball, they could create some dangerous situations for the opponents. One of these situations was the second goal for QPR, with the left full-back taking advantage of the Osayi-Samuel’s abilities, who created free space for him and gave him time to take a quality shot directly into the goal.
The 4-1-3-2 formation gave QPR great flexibility as they did not face any issues, despite the many different scenarios that the team had to face. Firstly, Preston North End’s manager changed the formation of his team to a 4-4-2 formation, in an attempt to make his team more offensive, but QPR had the solutions for this problem, as the players could support the defence very effectively.
Moreover, QPR had to play with 10 players because Cameron was sent off with a red card. To support his midfield area, QPR’s manager moved Chair deeper into the field, and the formation turned into a 4-3-2, focusing again on the compactness in the central part of the field.
The last hope for Preston North End’s manager was the 3-5-2 formation in the last 10 minutes of the match. But again, the 4-3-2 could answer every question that the opposition was asking. That was because this formation is focused on the midfielders, and not on the attacking line. So if the three midfielders can cover distances and support each other and the defensive line, it is very difficult to penetrate it.
This was a match that proves why football never ends before the final whistle of the referee. QPR adjusted to each situation and managed to make the comeback, while Preston North End never could also find an effective solution to deal with the problems that the opponent was setting up, especially in the second half. QPR also showed how important flexibility is within a formation, and why coaches should work more on this.