As the transfer window slammed shut in August, it was met by a fair bit of unhappiness from North End fans about the club’s perceived lack of activity, particularly in the forward areas, especially with us selling last season’s top goal scorer, Callum Robinson.
Many people felt that any promises made to Alex Neil when he committed to the club with his new 3-year contract had been broken and many also felt that our lack of activity compared to other clubs would see them overtake us, and there were even a few murmurs of a “long season” ahead.
I wasn’t overly concerned, in fact, I felt quite positive going into the season. I actually went through all of the reasons why I felt so positive in my piece about how this season was the chance of a lifetime for Alex Neil and the lads. However, having lost Callum Robinson, Lukas Nmecha and Brandon Barker over summer, I felt that we needed to bring in a few quality attacking additions to once again move us forward as a team and as a club.
Losing Robinson in particular, our talisman last season with 12 goals and 3 assists in 24 starts, I had concerns that we would be a functional side, but that we would continue to struggle to break teams down at Deepdale, which held us back last season. The loss of Nmecha was also a concern, admittedly to me more than many others, as his physical profile would be hard to replace, and despite a lack of goals last season, he was an important member of the squad.
His power, ability to stretch games as well as receiving the ball to feet and running at the opposition are all rare qualities at this level, and similarly to losing Jordan Hugill, I felt we might struggle to bring in an adequate replacement.
So, when the window closed in August with only an injured David Nugent and loanee Andre Green as the incoming attacking players, I was underwhelmed. No powerful no. 9, seemingly no out and out replacement for Robinson, and bringing in an injured 35-year-old, I certainly thought the club could’ve done more.
It was pretty evident that Alex Neil felt the same in his press conferences immediately after the window shut. However, as I write this, North End astonishingly (certainly to the rest of the Championship) sit atop the Sky Bet Championship and we have scored 28 goals, more than any other side at the time of writing.
So, how has Alex Neil achieved this, and were we all wrong to pine for more attacking players in the summer, or have we been fortunate to get to where are at this stage?
The first thing to note is the fact that Daniel Johnson has been moved 10 yards further forward to the no.10 position, where it’s fair to say he’s flourished. For all his endeavour and the odd worldie last season, I felt that Alan Browne’s lack of technical ability to unlock doors and provide genuine creativity held us back at times, especially at Deepdale.
For me, this has been the key tactical tweak compared to last season and DJ has the stats to back it up thus far.
He started the first home game of the season against Wigan in the more advanced role, and when he peeled into the wide left channel and whipped in a perfect cross for Louis Moult to head home, it was a sign of things to come. DJ has scored 8 (5 of which were penalties) and assisted 4, in just 14 league games this season.
That’s an astonishing return, and he is thriving in a role where he is allowed to thread passes forward, attack the box, and pick up second balls behind the opposition’s midfield in the final third.
His technique and running power allow him to run beyond the striker, and he is well capable of peeling into wider areas to create overloads and build sustained attacks. DJ is completing 0.8 dribbles per game and is providing 1.5 key passes per game, both are the highest values in our squad.
As well as this, he is taking 1.6 shots per game, bettered only by Sean Maguire and Billy Bodin. So, clearly the decision to move DJ further forward into the no. 10 position is paying dividends for Alex Neil as DJ is having by far his best season to date, and looks to be enjoying his football – hopefully, the knock picked up against Charlton is nothing too serious.
Penalties & Set Pieces
The second thing to consider is the fact that out of the 28 goals we’ve scored, 12 (43%) have been from penalties or set pieces, which equates to more or less 1 goal from a penalty or set-piece per game.
Over the course of the season this will probably prove to be unsustainable, but the fact that we are entering the box so regularly with tricky players such as Sean Maguire and Billy Bodin, suggests that we will continue to be a threat for opposition defenders throughout the season, just maybe to a lesser extent as the season progresses.
The penalty won by Jayden Stockley at Charlton is another example of us committing bodies in the box and being a handful for opposition defences. In terms of set pieces, the addition of Bauer has added an obvious aerial threat, and whilst Gallagher is on the pitch, we will always be dangerous from dead-ball situations.
So whilst 16 goals from open play is still a very healthy return, it has been fleshed out by a probably unsustainable number of converted penalties, which will probably even out over the season.
No Pot Shots
Despite being top scorers with 28 goals, North End have only averaged 10.9 shots per game, which ranks as the 4th lowest in the league. Alongside this, we see that North End have averaged 4 shots on target per game, which actually ranks 9th highest in the league.
So, we aren’t shooting much, but when we do, we generally hit the target, and clearly we are the best chance converters in the league.
This could indicate one of two things. We’re either largely overperforming on the xG count, or we are simply creating very high-quality chances, which in theory should be easier to put away – think of Tom Barkhuizen’s goal against Brentford.
In my opinion, we are probably somewhere between each of those scenarios. I would suggest that we are indeed creating a small number of very high-quality chances per game because we are building sustained attacks and we are regularly committing numbers into the box.
A further indicator of building sustained attacks, and perhaps being more patient in the final third, is the fact that we are only averaging around 3 shots per game from outside the box, 3rd lowest in the league, suggesting that we prefer to build from side to side patiently rather than just hitting pot shots from long range – this has led to us creating more chances with a high xG per shot.
Whilst our conversion rate will probably prove to be unsustainable over 46 games (we are currently converting around 20% of shots), it’s promising that we are building patiently and creating high-quality chances by committing numbers into the box.
A good example of this was the phase of play leading to Stockley winning the penalty against Charlton – rather than losing patience and shooting from 30 yards, we circulated the ball which eventually led to Rafferty whipping in the dangerous cross that led to the foul.
Full Backs & Fluidity
Another tactical tweak potentially linked to the increase in our chance quality has been the increased attacking presence of the full-backs, particularly Darnell Fisher. Neil commented on this earlier in the season, saying they had been more “aggressive” and this comment has certainly passed the eye test.
Fisher, in particular, has been very high in his attacking positioning, and whilst he sometimes lacks quality in delivery, his presence in the wide-areas allows the right-winger, usually Tom Barkhuizen, to enter the box, increasing our number of bodies in the box and thus making it harder to defend against.
Usually this season, we have had 3/4 bodies in the box and we are crossing more than most teams. This has been a simple tweak, yet it risks us being exposed in defensive transition. However, to date we have been fairly solid in open play as we have generally been pinning teams into their own half, reducing their threat on the counter-attack.
This generally ties in with our “wide” players having freer roles this season, as we regularly see interchanging and fluidity, which makes our attackers harder to pick up and allows us more overloads. So, whilst it’s only a small tactical tweak, the depth of the full-backs has allowed us to flood the box, as they have been providing the attacking width.
See Barkhuizen’s goal against Brentford as an example of this – Rafferty to Fisher to Barkhuizen – and the penalty situation vs Charlton
An impressive feature of the team’s ability to score this season has been both the variation of our goals, and the number of different goal scorers. Thus far, an orthodox no. 9 has been largely absent, with Neil preferring an emphasis on rotation and fluidity, as mentioned above.
The absence of a mobile no. 9 was a concern to me going into the season, and may still need to be considered come January, however, our ability to share the goals around cannot go unnoticed. In 15 league games so far, we’ve had 10 different goal scorers – which is more than any other side in the league. Of those 10 goalscorers, 6 have scored 2+ goals, which is again more than any other team in the league.
So our lack of reliance on an individual is working in our favour, as all of the attackers are contributing and are bang in form. Even Jayden Stockley, who has yet to score this season, offered a good alternative against Rovers and we now look to have more strings to our bow going forward this season.
Despite so many players contributing, we have undoubtedly relied on 3 key players in the attacking areas so far – DJ, Barkhuizen and Maguire. All 3 are bang in form and Neil has found niche roles for each of them, with Barkhuizen and Maguire flourishing with freer “wide” roles than last season.
Between them, they have scored 16 and assisted 7, so have directly contributed to 23 of our 28 goals (82%). So whilst the whole team is chipping in, those 3 have been the key, with players like Harrop, Browne and Bodin contributing well off the bench or when Neil decides to change it up.
It certainly bodes well that our attackers are flourishing in a more fluid attacking set up, and we have options aplenty to tweak things tactically or to bring on fresh legs from the bench to change a game.
It is important to note that despite scoring 28 goals, we have only actually scored 6 goals away from home. Our home form is astonishing, with 22 goals in 8 games it equates to almost 1 goal every 30 minutes in front of the home faithful. However, we have struggled to find the right balance away from home.
One thing that I would say is that whilst we’ve got a way that works with a fluid approach at home, I think we have missed a more mobile no. 9 as an option on the road. At times, when we have been under the cosh away from home, there has been no Hugill/Nmecha type that Neil clearly trusts to stretch a game and get us further up the pitch.
Jayden Stockley performed well at Charlton however, and if he can build some form, he may be able to provide the missing link in the away games.
As well as the lack of a mobile number 9, I’d argue that 2 of our key away players last season, Potts and Browne, have struggled to find their rhythm this season for whatever reason and this may have contributed to our relative struggles away from home.
As I mentioned, we’ve found a good attacking balance at home but I think Neil has probably struggled to find a formula with a blend of ‘technicians’ and ‘runners’ for away games, which is why we’ve struggled to pick up points and score as many goals.
For example, the Browne or DJ at no. 10 debate is clearly in DJ’s favour at Deepdale, but we have certainly missed Browne’s energy and running power away from home.
This is definitely something for Neil to consider and may lead to us signing that more mobile/physical no.9 in January if we are to become a more complete side on the road. Saying that we have played well in spells away from Deepdale, so maybe the goals aren’t far away, I guess time will tell with that one.
So, to summarise, as we sit here just under 1/3 of the way through the season with 28 goals scored, we are on course for around 85 goals, which would be some feat for a team with a budget like ours. However, as I alluded to above, we are probably overperforming slightly in the goalscoring column, so it remains unlikely that there will be a point when we hit a dry spell.
Saying that we are creating great chances due to small tactical tweaks and due to DJs presence in the attacking third. Many players are contributing to the attacking side of the game and our ability to chop and change personnel and systems gives us a real edge over many teams.
So whilst the data tells us that we will slow down in terms of goals, unless things change dramatically, I have no doubt that we will continue to be a great attacking threat and I’d be confident of us reaching 75+ goals this season.
The only downside is the lack of away goals thus far, but hopefully, that can be corrected soon – if it is, we will be serious contenders for automatic promotion come the end of the season.
If you haven’t already, why not give the latest episode of the From the Finney Podcast a listen? Just hit play below and you’re good. Also, if you aren’t already, give us a follow on Twitter or Instagram or give us a like on our Facebook page.