Monday, 24 September 2018

Game by Game - 13

Game 13 – Preston North End (H), Championship – 3-2

So we missed a couple of games in Game by Game - whilst our correspondents were at both Bristol City on Saturday and the Lane on Tuesday, time and other priorities have limited their writing opportunities. 

And so on the back of two results that can be described as disappointing for different reasons, the Blades went into a game that, based on the season to date form of both sides, looked imminently winnable. History tells us that is never the case when we face Preston, either home or away. This was a team that showed more hunger and fight when the two teams met at the end of last season in a must win game and their matchday squad was largely unchanged with 14 players named who were included back in April. Perhaps the biggest losses were the injured Maguire and Bodin, limiting their attacking options.

Chris Wilder made five changes midweek, perhaps too many and the disruption caused maybe contributed to so many of the team having a stinker on the same night. He then made four more changes on Saturday, but few would argue with re-instating the two wing backs and restoring Sharp and McGoldrick to frontline duties. The starting XI picks itself at present, assuming all are fit and able.

In front of a relatively sparse looking crowd, the ground slowly filling up as the traffic chaos around the city impacted so many journeys to the Lane, United started on the front foot. Plenty of possession but initially lacking that impetus in the final third, with O'Connell crossing over everyone's heads and Stevens and Freeman both wasting great crossing opportunities bursting to the sidelines. McGoldrick had a goal-bound header, cleared away by a Preston forehead, but for those who had witnessed the Birmingham game there were similar features. Preston were sat deep and rarely threatened.

We needed to find a way through and needed that bit of inventiveness that had been lacking for a couple of games. Each attack seemed to end with a groan from the crowd and sat on the Kop there was a sense of agitation rather than anticipation building. This cannot help the players. When on top like this the crowd needs to get behind the team and be the 12th man forcing the ball home, not sat waiting and then grumbling when it doesn't happen.

The goal, when it came arose from end to end football and one perfectly delivered pass. After a spell of prolonged United possession Basham tried turning in a tight spot on the right edge of the opposition penalty area. Robbing the ball from Basham, Preston broke at pace and United were on the back foot. But a superbly timed challenge, I think from Egan, saw the ball fall into the path of Freeman who advanced and hit a deliciously weighted through ball into the path of McGoldrick down the right channel. McGoldrick's cross shot could only be parried by Maxwell and, after what felt like an age, Sharp reached the ball to tap into the empty net. No more than United deserved.  

Shortly after McGoldrick stretched for a Stevens cross, but could only head wide. Just before the half time whistle, Preston had a rare break stretching the Blades back line and O’Connell and Egan made excellent blocks at crucial moments. Rarely had we been under pressure, but when we had been we felt a little panicky.

Bizarrely Preston didn't start the second half with any greater ambition and it felt like one way traffic with all the play coming towards the Kop. United won a free kick on the right-hand side and Norwood drove a hard, curling ball that only needed a diversion from the head of Basham to send it into the top corner. I thought no one could top the accuracy and quality of my childhood performance at Paperboy on the Spectrum, but Norwood's delivery is the best I have seen for a long time.

United were coasting and had a great chance to kill the game off, McGoldrick dragging it wide from the right side of goal with only the keeper to beat. This seemed to trigger Preston into action and the introduction of the tricky Daniel Johnson, just after the hour mark, and Barker ten minutes later really added some thrust to their attack, but for a lot of effort and possession the final ball was lacking. United were solid enough but without ever looking wholly comfortable, mainly due to not retaining possession for any decent period. Wilder changed formation, Marvin Johnson for Sharp and we switched to a 4-1-4-1 that also allowed us to go to 4-3-3 when attacking with Johnson and Duffy either side of McGoldrick, but nothing was sticking when the Blades were in possession. It felt like wave after wave of Preston pressure and when the goal came, you could sense the ground as one seemed to mutter, "Well that's been coming".

It was a completely preventable goal; as Barker advanced O'Connell stayed on his heels, Stevens went to close him down leaving Barker to slip in Fisher overlapping on the right. He laid the perfect ball across to Robinson who had dropped a couple of yards off Egan, who ended up slipping to a heap on the floor as the ball was knocked home. Preston now had belief and their second came down the opposite side. Freeman sucked inside leaving Hughes alone on the left and his cross was met by the lunging Johnson, whose shot was probably heading wide until it cannoned off O'Connell and wrong-footed Henderson. With 8 minutes to go, there was a sense a draw might be a good result right now as United had offered little for 20 minutes and Preston's dander was up.

Then out of nothing United had a third. Johnson, who up to that point had struggled to get into the game, linked up wonderfully with Stevens. The full back surging to the by-line, leaving a couple of defenders flat footed, before a perfect pull back that McGoldrick was never going to spurn. From dejection to joy in minutes and a goal celebration that further secures Dean Henderson’s place in the hearts of Blades fans. It reminded me of Simon Tracey’s celebrations against Wednesday.

There followed a ridiculous 6 minutes of stoppage time that became even longer with Stearman coming on to shore things up at the back. Given Maxwell had wasted time from minute one, it was odd that Scott Duncan loaded the stoppage time to the second half, but thankfully the Blades saw it out.

Three final thoughts:

PNEgative - There was an interesting tweet from Blades' fan and AUV contributor Phil Ridley post match.

It was a bizarre tactic from Alex Neill. For large parts of the first half they were under the cosh and had eleven men behind the ball, but having said that they rarely broke with any real threat or numbers, despite the impressive Callum Robinson working hard.

McGoldrick's missed one on one chance to make it 3-0 seemed to spur them into life and the period that followed was largely one way traffic. We seemed to panic under pressure, there was no outlet and as quick as the ball was cleared, Preston were back on the front foot. We were rocking. When the first goal came you felt that they could get another and even the most hopeful Blade must have feared a PNE winner after the equaliser, we were reeling. Daniel Johnson, a player who impressed in his Oldham days when we played them in League One, added some real impetus to their play and although Wilder's subs made sense to try and stabilise defensively and offer an alternative outlet wide in the pace of Marvin Johnson, we seemed to retreat further.

Would Preston have stood a better chance starting like this? That is hard to say, as the shift in gear when we were on top seemed to catch us out. Doing it from the off and maintaining it is a different issue. We may well have exploited the space created instead of playing the football equivalent of Arkanoid against a yellow wall for an hour. Clearly Neill has concerns about them defensively and their zero away goals before Saturday suggest that the tactics aren’t allowing their attacking talent to flourish, but neither is it working defensively. Give me The Wilder Way anytime.

A soft underbelly? - The one concern coming out of Saturday is that we are still susceptible to sloppy play defensively and when we don't get the goals to kill teams off we have a tendency to panic and concede possession too easily. The goals conceded were not great goals from an attacking perspective, more the result of continually knocking on the door until a hinge comes loose. In this case in both full back positions, although you could argue O'Connell being decisive and going to meet Barker, would have left Enda less exposed. We were nearly undone by Birmingham in similar fashion midweek and I am sure it is something the management team will look to address.

First choice striker - Probably lacking the goals his performances deserve David McGoldrick has to be topping the strikers’ pecking order right now. Tireless work rate, good link play and eventually got the goal on Saturday. A little more consistency in his finishing and staying injury free could see him up the top end of the Championship Top Scorers list.

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