Swindon vs Preston Play-Off Final: Tactics Preview

Alex Cooke takes a quick look at both sides’ systems and shape for Sunday’s big game…

Preston’s formation

According to data from Transfermrkt.co.uk, Preston frequently change their formation. They most frequently use a flat back four, but have also swapped to a back three, such as against Town at Deepdale and Bristol City. They have also changed against teams who don’t use a 3-5-2 so it isn’t just to mirror their opposition. Likewise, the attack can switch from a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 to a basic 4-4-2 and most points between. This does make them harder to predict but a 4-3-3 seems most likely.

What doesn’t change is that Preston under Simon Grayson play a low possession, low-risk brand of football. The defence is there to defend and clear the ball. Everybody else is largely looking to get the ball into the box quickly, so their forwards can fight for the first and second ball. They rely more on being compact and difficult to score against rather than dominating the ball. For example, in the two games against Chesterfield they had 35% and 38% possession (Source: BBC.co.uk). In the first leg, they also had almost half the number of shots that their rivals did (11 to 20). Although over the season, Preston’s Total Shot Ratio is 0.6, proving in most games they have far more shots than any opposition (Footstats.co.uk).

Preston rely on the ability of their front two (or three) to create and to finish, however, but despite their reputation they aren’t that remarkable at scoring converting 31% of their shots on target, only slightly higher than Swindon’s 29%. In fact, before the last day of the season, they had scored in every league match since the start of November. However, the amount of shots they took during the season was only one lower than Swindon’s own total (254 v 255, via Footstats.co.uk).

Joe Garner is as obviously key to Preston as it is possible for one player to be. His 26 league goals represents 32.9% of Preston’s total for the season, and without him their win percentage for the season drops by 10%. And not only does he lead the line, he also leads Preston’s pressing. So it is Garner we should expect to spend the game chasing Jack Stephens across the penalty area from goal-kicks. His muscular strike partner, Jermaine Beckford has contributed 15 goals (18.9% of their total). He’s quicker than Garner but both like to pin their defender with their strength and then drop off the defender’s shoulder to get a shot off. Midfielder Daniel Johnson is their third top-scorer with eight in the league.

Along with goals, Garner’s other big job is to win free-kicks for his team by tangling with defenders. It is something that he is good at, and unsurprisingly playing next to Kevin Davies, he has also mastered the nastier side of the game. His team rely on these free-kicks too, particularly with the right-food Paul Gallagher taking them. Gallagher has seven goals, but he also has 17 assists. He is also Preston’s only injury doubt for the match.

Preston have committed a lot more fouls than Swindon do other the season (543 to 422) but collect less yellow cards. This could be due to the more defensive way they play but also could indicate that they sometimes use tactical fouling to break up opposition play – something that we have certainly seen done to Town during the season.

Town’s set up

Against Sheffield United at home, Swindon problem was less about their 3-5-2 formation and more about the numbers. The defence were overwhelmed by the sheer number of Blades’ attackers. Their central midfielders would take turns to join the forwards, trying to overload Town’s central three and dragging Yaser Kasim into join the backline. This left a gap on the edge of the area giving time for United’s full-backs to put good crosses into the area. More energetic and combative defending right across the midfield will be required on Sunday.

This, combined with Ben Gladwin’s second-half inability to cope with being run at from wing-back, meant Blades’ often outnumbered Town in the box. The solution would be better pressing at the top of the field and in the midfield. It something that Michael Smith does well at but Jermaine Hylton seems to still add to his game, even though he does try.

The likely return of Harry Toffolo on the left flank could be significant for Town as his battle with Preston’s Chris Humphrey was one of the key battles of the home league game. When playing as wide forward Humphrey offers plenty of pace behind the wing-back position and an outlet in support of Garner. Obviously Jermaine Beckford is no slouch in the wider position either and Yaser Kasim will need plenty of assistance if he is expected to chase either of the quicker men into the channels.

Some will see it as vital to tie Nathan Byrne back to the defence primarily to cover Beckford dropping into his favour left channel but this would be a waste. Byrne is in excellent form and currently offers Town’s greatest threat both as a creator and an outlet. If Gladwin can focus more on supporting the other midfielders and protecting the back three, Town should be able to stifle Preston without stifling themselves.

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