Preston North End return to Deepdale this afternoon when they take on Gareth Ainsworth’s Wycombe Wanderers.
The home form this season has been poor, of course, but this feels like a big chance to keep the momentum going from Tuesday’s excellent win over Bournemouth. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the criticism that has been given out over recent weeks – that’s something that the lads have discussed on the podcast – it was clear that some sort of response was needed after the 3-0 derby defeat to Blackburn Rovers.
North End started brightly against Watford and could easily have gone in level at half-time, but in the end were bettered by a team that, in truth, will be disappointed if they don’t top the division come May.
Bournemouth will surely be in that same position, which made a controlling 3-2 victory (for the most part) for PNE all the sweeter on Tuesday night. Jason Tindall’s side showed signs of Premier League quality in the final 20 minutes, when they threatened a comeback from 3-0 down, but were second best prior to that.
Saturday’s clash against Wycombe, therefore, represents an opportunity for Neil’s men to record back-to-back victories for the first time since late October, when they took maximum points out of trips to QPR and Huddersfield.
Gareth Ainsworth’s side were tipped to struggle this year, but have defied expectations so far to pick up wins over Birmingham and Sheffield Wednesday, and draws against Watford, Derby and Brentford. In fact, they have lost just twice in their last seven games, meaning North End face potentially a challenging afternoon in order to secure the three points.
That task could be made slightly harder with the absence of Patrick Bauer, who is set to miss the rest of the season with an Achilles tendon injury picked up in the closing stages of Tuesday’s win over Bournemouth.
In terms of Wycombe’s squad, former North End Daryl Horgan could make a return to Deepdale for the first time since joining the Buckinghamshire outfit from Hibernian back in the summer.
One of the main threats for Wycombe will be winger Fred Onyedinma, who represented somewhat of a coup when Gareth Ainsworth signed him for the club from Millwall last year, having previously completed two loan spells with the Chairboys.
The 24-year-old has plenty of pace but it is his eye for goal which has also caught the eye over the last few seasons. Onyedinma netted six goals in 16 games in Wycombe’s promotion-winning season last campaign, including a brace in the play-off semi-final against Fleetwood.
He is yet to get off the mark in 2020/21, although he did have a headed goal eventually ruled as an own goal against Birmingham City, after seeing a goalbound effort turned in by team-mate Scott Kashket.
Onyedinma has also been heavily praised for his defensive work-rate as well as his attacking play.
The second major Wycombe threat is left-back Joe Jacobson. The 34-year-old is one of the club’s longest-serving players, having joined back in 2014 from Shrewsbury, and has made a big impression at Adams Park.
He is one of the best players in the division from set-pieces and contributed 11 goals last season. Remarkably, in a hat-trick against Lincoln last September, two goals came directly from corners. Jacobson has missed just one game for the Chairboys this season, with his left-back spot cemented.
The third player for North End to watch out for is forward David Wheeler.
The 30-year-old is traditionally a winger but played up front for Gareth Ainsworth’s men against Stoke on Wednesday night, with his manager praising his performance as “probably the best game he has had for us.”
Wheeler was another hero of Wycombe’s play-off campaign last season, scoring in the semi-final against Fleetwood before playing the full 90 minutes in the final against Oxford. He also netted the solitary goal in a crucial 1-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday in October, which was the club’s first league victory since promotion back to the Championship.
For this week’s opposition view, we have Tom Hancock, the man behind the twitter account, Chairboys Tactical. You can follow Tom on twitter here – @Tom_Hancock_. You can also find the Chairboys Tactical page on twitter here if it’s more your kind of thing – @chairboystactic.
I think it’s finally sunk in that Wycombe are a Championship side now – not just because (a very small number of) were back inside Adams Park for the loss to Stoke on Wednesday, but because we are competing and have a solid amount of points on the board after a miserable start.
Those seven straight defeats prompted all sorts of mockery and ridiculous takes (such as a prediction that we weren’t going to win a single game), but Wycombe fans knew that we’d turn the corner – and sure enough, we did. We’ve won two and drawn four of the last eight games and could climb out of the drop zone with a win here. All things considered, we’re in a good place.
Our early season woes were down to a combination of adjusting to the division after a very short pre-season – the first month almost became a pre-season in itself – and a lot of injuries. Unfortunately, we’ve been plagued by the latter again recently, and we’ve had most of our midfield wiped out.
We were able to improvise well against Stoke, but then we lost Jason McCarthy – who, although a right-back, was having a very good game in a destroyer role – and we really struggled to shield the back four (Jack Grimmer, sensational Leicester loanee Josh Knight, Anthony Stewart, and set-piece king Joe Jacobson), which has been excellent on the whole but can’t do it all by themselves. Curtis Thompson – one of a number of first-team regulars who’ve been with us since the League Two days – has been absolutely immense this season and left us wondering, once again, why on earth Notts County let him go on a free.
Similarly, Everton loanee Dennis Adeniran has been a revelation. Their importance to our upturn in form cannot be understated, but they both look set to miss this one.
We’ve tried a number of variations so far this season, but we may have our arm forced into going back to more or less a 4-4-2 with Matt Bloomfield and possibly David Wheeler – a winger by trade but highly versatile and able to do a good job in midfield or up front – flanked by former North End man Daryl Horgan on the right and Fred Onyedinma on the left. Having not started either of the last two games, Adebayo Akinfenwa should start this one alongside Scott Kashket – making for a classic little and large partnership.
Some teams have had the measure of Akinfenwa – Stoke played a fairly high line and were aerially dominant enough to keep him at bay, while Brentford also dealt with him well for the most – while others – mainly Watford, Sheffield Wednesday, and Birmingham – have had no answer for him and he’s had a huge influence on proceedings.
There is a sense that there’s an overreliance on the big man, but with summer signing Uche Ikpeazu enduring a torrid time with injuries, we lack an ideal plan B at the moment.
The other main striking option is Alex Samuel – an absolute machine who won’t give defenders a moment’s rest, but a hold-up man and presser rather than a goal threat. We’ve only managed seven goals – the joint fewest in the league – and one of them was an own goal. We need to be more creative more consistently, and that may well come from getting Onyedinma and Horgan into more threatening positions over the full course of a game.
Both are quality operators – Horgan may be the best player technically that we’ve ever owned – but their big defensive contribution arguably hinders them and we perhaps need to give them greater licence to do their thing in the final third.
I can’t say I’m feeling confident about this one. I know you’ve only scored two goals at home all season, but I’m not sure anything can be read into home and away records behind closed doors. Having beaten Brentford and Bournemouth despite conceding two goals on both occasions, you’re clearly capable of outscoring teams – and while we will be hard to beat, our midfield injury crisis means we probably won’t be as hard to beat as we’d like.
My XI for the game would be as follows in a 4-4-2: Allsop; Grimmer, Knight, Stewart, Jacobson; Horgan, Wheeler, Bloomfield, Onyedinma; Kashket, Akinfenwa. I’m going to go for a 2-0 home win and hope it’s some kind of reverse jinx!
Wycombe were tipped to go down by many at the beginning of the season, and although they are currently three points off safety in 22nd position, have impressed with their fight and attitude, as well as some excellent performances against Watford, Derby and Birmingham.
Gareth Ainsworth’s meh have shown real defensive resilience and will no doubt be difficult to break down on Saturday afternoon.
That being said, North End will be buoyed by the excellent performance against Bournemouth, where the football seemed more fluid in attacking areas than it has done for several weeks, so I’m backing them to return to winning ways at home with a 2-0 victory.
In terms of the starting XI, I think this is one of those occasions where Alex Neil will not look to change a winning side.
He will have to make one change, of course, with Patrick Bauer now a long-term injury absentee, with Jordan Storey potentially most likely to step forward in what could be the only change. The only other doubt will be whether Ben Davies and Ben Pearson are able to complete 90 minutes given their injury struggles recently, and although I think both will likely play anyway, Bauer’s injury may well force Neil’s hand in Davies’s case.
My starting XI would be Alex’s favoured 4-2-3-1 as follows: Rudd; Browne, Storey, Davies, Rafferty; Pearson, Ledson; Barkhuizen, Johnson, Sinclair; Maguire.
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