On Friday morning, Daniel Johnson was awarded the Championship Player of the Month award for August. DJ beat Brentford’s Ollie Watkins (a player who North End will likely come up against this weekend), Swansea defender Mike van der Hoorn and Charlton forward Lyle Taylor to the award. The achievement shows just how far Johnson has progressed over the opening month of the season.
There were rumours that clubs had bid for the playmaker during the summer transfer window. Alex Neil did describe a bid that is believed to have come in from Wigan for the playmaker as ‘silly’.
At Millwall on the opening day, the Jamaican didn’t even make the matchday squad, with Alan Browne preferred in an attacking midfield role. Browne was one of North End’s star players last season, reaching double figures in goals for the first time in his relatively short career.
But after the Millwall defeat, Alex Neil made the decision to relegate Browne to the bench and elevate DJ into the starting XI in his place for the home game against Wigan. And Johnson paid back his manager’s faith immediately, registering two assists as North End ran out 3-0 winners.
He then scored goals in three consecutive games, starting with a penalty in an eventual 3-2 defeat at current league leaders Swansea City. DJ appears to have become the team’s first-choice penalty taker now, with Paul Gallagher second choice even when both are in the team. And his three penalties scored already this term suggests there is nothing wrong with that decision.
One of the key factors behind DJ’s form is how Neil has deployed him this season. Last season he mainly featured in a more central midfield role, having to cover the hard yards in defence as well as creating attacks. When Ben Pearson and Ryan Ledson were both unavailable, he played a deeper role.
Johnson performed admirably and regularly topped the charts for distance covered in a match, but it meant that his attacking numbers were not as great as they are this season. As mentioned above, the 26-year-old now plays in a more attacking role, meaning he can still utilise his solid defensive skills whilst being able to focus more on the goals and assists.
The stat that stands out the most is his key passes, with DJ performing 1.4 a game on average this season compared to 1 last season. His pass success is also improved this season, 85% over the five games he has played compared to just under 77% over the whole of last season.
That statistic could be influenced by the fewer number of long passes he has played, the 1.8 per game he performed last season far eclipsing the 0.7 per game from this term.
Surprisingly, given the more advanced role he is playing, his tackles per game statistic has improved from 1.1 to 1.7, although he is committing more fouls. His work rate, combined with the pressing style of play that Neil employs, has helped Johnson enjoy an excellent start to the season in an advanced role.
The Alan Browne Conundrum
With Johnson performing so well in the opening month of the season, it has left Alan Browne on the periphery of the starting XI. He has filled in at right-back in the last two games due to Darnell Fisher’s injury, but Fisher is expected to be fit enough to regain his place on Saturday against Brentford.
The Irishman, who scored his first international goal earlier this week, has also featured in central midfield alongside Ben Pearson, although Paul Gallagher is the first choice in that role. With Gallagher now 35, there is the possibility that the two could be rotated across the season if the Scotsman needs a rest.
There is the possibility that both Browne and Johnson can play at the same time, with Browne a useful player all around the pitch. With the form of Billy Bodin and Josh Harrop in wide areas, however, Browne does face a fight now to find a regular position in the side.
It would be very difficult to leave Browne out, given his success last season and that when he has played this season, he has performed excellently. He has also gotten off the mark for his country now too. He scored the opener for Ireland in their recent game against Bulgaria.
But Johnson now occupies the number 10 role, and it leaves a big dilemma for Alex Neil over how to get Browne into the team. With two players in such great form, it is a good dilemma for any manager to have when picking his team.
Here’s to more stand-out performances, not just from DJ, but the whole team through the season.