As this is the first post in this mini-series, it’s worth starting with some context.
I (Jake) asked some of the lads who write for the site for their thoughts on the season restart, specifically on the following: players we could potentially see more of, anyone that they think might be given more game time than perhaps if the season had ended under normal circumstances, home advantage or lack of, results and of course, whether or not they think we will make the top 6.
First up, we’ve got someone you will all know, Dan Wheeler. You can find Dan on Twitter here – @dtw_95_.
With nine games to go, hopefully, 11 if things go to plan and potentially even a 12th (although let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves), the “squad game” aspect of football is going to be more relevant than ever for North End in our run-in, as it will for every other club in the Championship.
Rotation is going to have to be closely regarded by Alex Neil and, given the nature of our squad, I believe that is going to be the most difficult thing about our end to the season.
Real strength-in-depth has been one of our most prominent downfalls in the last couple of seasons, finding ourselves significantly short of cover when injuries have begun to stack up, and with fitness issues more likely to become a concern with a condensed and congested fixture list, the manager will have to utilise his squad as best he can.
I am in no way calling our squad weak, I must stress that. I believe we have 14 or 15 very good and generally reliable players. It is when you go below them in the pecking order that cracks begin to show, however.
There are also players in or around that 15 like Sean Maguire and Brad Potts who have proven themselves next to unplayable on their day but will be looking to kick on after the restart and contribute more than they have so far in what has been, as I’m sure the pair would admit themselves, a pretty underwhelming campaign from both, thus far.
There are players we will definitely be looking for more from once play recommences. The likes of Scott Sinclair, who never quite reached full speed after joining in January before the enforced break and of course David Nugent, whose long-awaited return to Deepdale has (though perhaps not taken the gloss off his name in the eyes of the faithful) certainly not shown a great deal of the “returning hero” magic that we had hoped for. I suppose with Nuge, that’s maybe to be expected to a certain extent
One player that might see his chance come in the run-in is Tom Bayliss. The, according to some places club-record signing from Coventry, has found chances hard to come by in his first season at Deepdale.
This has, understandably to an extent, lead some fans to question his signing and the alleged price-tag. I maintain, as somebody with a soft spot for Coventry after living there for a few years and also having followed Bayliss’ career closely as a result, that he is a fantastic prospect and more than capable of having an impact in our team.
He is simply unlucky in a way that our central midfield is somewhat overstuffed with some of the best midfield talents in the division with the likes of Daniel Johnson, Alan Browne, Paul Gallagher, Josh Harrop and of course Ben Pearson competing fiercely for spots in the middle of the park.
The engine room of the side is certainly an area that will probably need a good deal of rotation in the upcoming weeks, especially with the industry that Alex Neil’s men normally exert in that area of the pitch, and Bayliss may well find his opportunity coming in these most unusual of circumstances.
A brief overview of our remaining games sees us face Luton Town (a), Cardiff City (h), Derby County (h), Huddersfield Town (a), Sheffield Wednesday (a), Nottingham Forest (h), Brentford (a), Birmingham City (h) and Bristol City (a).
The first thing that jumps out at me there is that the away games are difficult. Very difficult.
The upcoming restart at Kenilworth Road against Luton should be winnable, in theory. The reverse fixture at Deepdale, however, proved that the Hatters could be a banana skin if we don’t have our wits about us. Plus, both sides will still be shaking off the cobwebs, so if there is to be a winner, I think it will come down to which side has prepared the best.
Huddersfield, Sheffield Wednesday, Brentford and Bristol City are all tough places to go in their own rights and, with the famous (among fans) exception of Bristol City’s Ashton Gate, the rest of these away grounds; Kirkless Stadium, Hillsborough and Griffin Park are places that North End have traditionally struggled, and in football trends like these often come into play.
The run-in, particularly games against Forest, Brentford and Bristol City, will be a good test of our play-off credentials.
The benefit of this is, should we pass that test and finish in the top 6, we will have a right to go into the play-offs with considerable confidence having passed such a stern test in such exceptional circumstances.
It’s hard to make any predictions given the circumstances, and be sure that the football itself will go as it would have done had the season not been suspended. The removal of fans from stadiums will no doubt impact games to at least some extent.
One of the other writers here at From The Finney, Oli, is covering the impact of COVID-19 and much more as well, in greater detail in a separate piece, but part of his findings is that home advantage has taken a huge hit since the restart in the Bundesliga. Home wins have decreased from 45% of games to just 20%, and away wins have conversely increased from just over 30% to a staggering 50%.
There will, of course, be other factors at play, with English football being very different from the German game on and off the pitch, but it’s fair to say that home teams are certainly feeling the effect of playing at home, but without the support of their “12th man”.
This could play into our hands of course. As I’ve mentioned, those away games look difficult but, with home advantage being potentially as good as nullified, we might stand a more than fair chance of picking up some good results on the road. With 5 away and 4 home matches remaining, an optimist would say that those numbers point the odds ever so slightly in our favour.
As I mentioned, predictions are as good as a coin toss at the moment, but if you were to press me for a number I think we can realistically look to pick up 15 points from our final 9 games. I’m expecting a mix of results, but the change in circumstances makes it difficult to choose from where those results will come.
Time will tell if my prediction is anywhere near correct, and indeed whether 15 points from 9 games will be enough to see us finish in the mix.
Finally, you can listen to the latest episode of the From the Finney podcast with Mark Lawrenson below.