Game week 21 of the EFL Championship saw Preston North End host Fulham;
Scott Parker’s men were keen to return to winning ways after their recent defeat at home to Bristol City. While Preston were without a goal in any their last four games, tallying an equal number of losses along the way, needed a change of fortune to hold sixth-place in the table. To the relief of Alex Neil, the hosts collected three points with a 2-1 win.
Both teams had a defender dismissed before half time, Fulham were the first to see red midway through the first half excessive challenge in the air by Denis Odoi. In the closing stages of the first half, Joe Rafferty was given a straight red for a dangerous tackle which reduced Preston’s advantage of an extra man going into the second half.
Preston opened the scoring from a set-piece after 23 minutes, Sean Maguire collecting a loose ball, turning and finishing low from outside the six-yard box. The 10 versus 10 game in the second half saw both teams find the target once from open play. David Nugent brought a 41 game goal drought to an end as he slots home a bouncing ball on the goalmouth to give the hosts a two-goal advantage.
Even with their superior possession and inventive build-up play in the final third Fulham could only find the net once. Aleksander Mitrović finished hard and low from outside the box, beating Declan Rudd to his bottom right corner at 81 minutes. Credit to Preston’s defence for keeping their resolve and denying their opponents any more than one goal to see out a long-awaited win.
This tactical analysis tells the story of the game from a tactical standpoint with the support of analysis, key statistics, and data. We examine the tactics deployed by both managers, including how Fulham controlled the game in a ten versus ten, and how Preston failed to adapt after their red.
Preston North End: 4-1-4-1
Preston recalls David Nugent as the lone striker in place of recently featured Jayden Stockley. Two more changes to the side that played Queens Park Rangers last week include Billy Boden in place of Tom Barkhuizen at right-midfield, and Patrick Bauer in place Jordan Storey at centre-back.
Scott Parker reintroduces Cyrus Christie back in an at right-back in place of Joe Bryan and Aboubakar Kamara as striker for the withdrawn Scottish midfielder Tom Cairney. Although Kamara appears on the team sheet as one from the pair of strikers, he was positioned mainly as the focal point in front of the midfield and just behind Mitrović upfront as a playmaker between the lines
Preston’s style of play
Preston’s aimed to get success in attack from a multitude of options in the early stages. In the early stages, we saw good spells of build-up play particularly on Preston’s left flank with the supporting runs and combination play from the left-back Andrew Hughes.
However, as the game progressed, Preston opted for a more direct route to Nugent where oncoming central and wide midfielders would come short to claim knockdown headers and second balls. If they were unsuccessful in claiming the aerial ball Preston players would be in close range to surround and aggressively press the Fulham player in possession. This long-direct outlet would be exercised from goal kicks as well as attacking transitions in open play.
While eleven players were on the field, this seemed to be an effective strategy for the simple reason that there was higher ball retention in the opponents final third. Resulting in more free-kicks and corner kicks being won, as a result, that was precisely how the first goal was scored.
Here we get an indication by quantity and xG rating of where they aimed to get success and the probability of there being a successful outcome. More than half of the Preston attacks were concentrated centrally with a superior xG of 1.39. Some prominent attacks and chances to score were developed in the central area from long direct passes to the forwards.
Notice that all distribution is aiming to the opponents final third and with a considerably high success rate from the ‘blue’ coloured lines. This is a clear and distinct strategy by Preston to develop prominent attacks.
As we see from the above image, the narrowness of the attack for the wide players to come inside to maximise their chances to win possession and capitalise on an unorganised Fulham defence. To the right of the image we see one central-midfielder for Preston remains deep, this is for two reasons. Firstly, to support the attack from behind and secondly to be effective in defending if Preston transition to defend. Even when it did not seem to be the best decision in the moment, Preston would look to play this option quite often, particularly later in the game when they were down to ten men.
When Preston were reduced to ten players, Alex Neil looked to keep superiority in numbers at the back and midfield. As a consequence, by Preston still opting for long direct passes to the lone striker with little support, this resulted in higher turnovers that left Preston more stretched and open.
Observe how possession dramatically changes after the red card in favour of Fulham.
Influenced equally by Fulham’s change of tactics, however, Preston’s decision to play more long passes marries well with their decrease of possession that drops as low as 33%.
In defence, Preston aimed to press high and win possession back higher up the pitch.
Preston would have known before the game that Fulham would look to play out from the back by creating overloads and progressing in wide areas. As we see in the image above when Preston opted for man to man marking across the midfield. With centre-forward Nugent blocking passes back to the goalkeeper this forced the Fulham centre-back to play a long aerial pass to a striker without support. Fulham were persistent and done their best to play out from the back through pressure.
Defending with the intention to win the second ball, Preston players anticipate and position themselves centrally and compact to win the second ball when defending long aerial passes or clearances from Fulham. Notice how the Preston centre-back Huntington plays a defensive header downwards to his teammates, in contrast to the popular high wide and away defensive headers. This allows Preston to be more effective in winning possession and transitioning to defend. Preston right-midfielder Bodin comes inside to maintain numerical superiority.
Fulham’s style of play
In attack with a full team of eleven players on the field, Fulham exercised a lot of patient build-up play. Using their overloads well in their own half to then progress into 2v1 situations in wide areas with attacking runs from both full-backs. Even with Preston pressing them high up the field Fulham persisted with their intention to create overloads in the opponents final third and create goal-scoring opportunities from wide areas, however few and far between.
Considering Fulham were reduced to ten men so early in the game, unfortunately, we could not see their game plan potentially come to fruition. However, Parker seemed to do considerably well adjusting his tactics to dominate possession and control the game in the second half. Changing to a 3-4-2 in the second half meant that in attack Fulham’s attack was virtually an eleven-player team as no players were withdrawn from the front or midfield.
Kamara and Kebano later became the danger men in the Fulham attack, starting attacks and carrying the ball into the final third to change the point of attack quite well. As Preston would remain quite compact centrally, play naturally drifted to the wide areas. Fulham had left-footed Knockaert on the right and right-footed Kebano on the left to cut inside and offer in-swinging crosses from deep. Mostly due to a lack of quality in the delivery on these occasions the target players Kamara and Mitrović were unable to receive and convert in the dangerous positions.
Defensively, Fulham were helped a lot somewhat by Preston still targeting their unsupported lone striker from deep, which did not seem to cause the back three many problems. It was in the defensive transition where Fulham needed to be at their best, isolating the opponent in possession, and denying any good supply to their striker.
Here we see Fulham’s attack by flanks, notice the low xG across all three data sets.
For all the superior possession they enjoyed in the game at upwards of 66% at one point, it was due to ineffectively delivery to goal scoring positions from wide areas that inhibit their threat on goal.
The image above shows the right-back Christie making advances beyond his teammate in possession to bypass the left-back in a 2v1. Just in front, striker Mitrović stays central as he positions himself to meet a potential cross. Fulham aimed to beat the Preston high press and target the lone full-back in a 2v1 heading into the final third.
Here we see Fulham’s attacks per minute continues to climb after their red card until the final quarter of the game. Considering Fulham had possession of up to 66% but only 0.69 xG, upon reflection and subjectively assessing the performance we can conclude that Fulham lacked the quality from their crossing opportunities.
Starting the second half a goal behind Fulham could not relinquish their attack, especially considering as Preston play with a lone striker. Fulham changed to a ‘three’ at the back, where both left and right side operated as alternating attacking wing-backs.
Fulham developed many similar opportunities to the image we see above where numbers in the box seem favourable to the chance. However, with a lack of perfection in the crosses at times and the quality of Preston’s defending, Fulham were unable to claim any reward from their attacks in wide areas.
Preston will be happy to have found the net after a four-game goal drought and more importantly taking three points along with it. Fulham have not had two losses back to back in the league this season before today. Scott Parker will be aiming to rectify recent form with a win away to Brentford on Saturday. This game was a test for both managers in how they would adapt to a 10 v 10. For the quality of football, possession, and attacking dominance, the plaudits go to Fulham. However, examine the xG chart below and you will find the probability of good fortune goes to the hosts.
For all their attacking prowess Fulham were not sufficient enough when it came to breaking the last line of defence and creating chances to score. Preston, perhaps more keen to defend their lead offered more by-way-of defence than to their attack. December will be an interesting month for Preston as Alex Neil will hope to return to winning ways, starting with his first win in December at home to Fulham.
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