After a fairly disastrous 4-0 defeat to inform Cardiff City last weekend, I think it’s fair to say the pressure was certainly mounting on Alex Neil and the players following a run that had seen North End pick up only 7 points from a possible 27 in the league stretching back to our game on January 2nd and only scoring only four goals in the process.
Many thought that this last week that’s now come to an end would be massive in an attempt to halt that barren run as we entertained the league’s form team in QPR and fellow out of form side, Huddersfield Town. We went on to do very well, keeping two clean sheets and attaining four points, the highlight, of course, being the three goals without reply against Huddersfield on Saturday.
This included two sublime counter-attacking goals in the second half, which could be described as vintage Alex Neil style, that both had only 6 touches of the football from dispossessing Huddersfield to putting the ball in the back of their net.
Within these positive results, there have been many talking points. From individual performances to the tactical make-up of the side. In this piece, I will go through my 5 main talking points from this past week.
Brad Potts and His Best Position
I think a fair way to describe Brad Potts is that he is a marmite player.
Some people in the fanbase are on his back when he plays whereas others love his physical presence and running ability, as well as his ability to fill in numerous roles in the midfield. Both of these games saw PNE revert to a four at the back formation and this saw a return to a central role in the 10 position for Brad Potts.
He was a standout performer for PNE in Saturday’s game, earning the man of the match on WhoScored with an 8.73 rating as he registered both a goal and assist. He was also unlucky not to take anything away from Tuesday’s stalemate against QPR as his lay-off to Ched Evans was sliced narrowly wide and had a powerful drive following a corner blasted narrowly over the crossbar.
A positive couple of games for Potts then but that begs the discussion of what is his best position for North End?
According to WhoScored.com, Potts achieves his highest average match rating when he plays in the central attacking midfielder role averaging a 6.89 rating, with 2 goals and one assist in 6 appearances.
I believe Potts’ powerful running ability from that central area is a big asset to North End; several times he was able to stretch play beyond the striker as he ran in behind the QPR and Huddersfield defence from flick-ons and link-up play with Ched Evans that caused problems for both teams’ defence.
It’s a fair claim that a central attacking role is Potts’ best position for Preston, but is Potts Preston’s best option here? We are very well stacked when it comes to options to play in that role.
Alan Browne was outstanding there in Neil’s first couple of seasons before his role slightly changed; Daniel Johnson signed a new 2 and a half year deal in the window and hit double figures last season and we also have Jayson Molumby and the out-on-loan Josh Harrop who has also played there. However, I think it all depends on the opposition as Neil tends to pick his teams based on the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses.
Each player in that role has their strengths. Jayson Molumby is very good at pressing an opposition which often forces them to go long when they’d rather play out from the back, Johnson’s acute passes are often essential to us unpicking defences that want to sit in and absorb pressure and Brad Potts plays an integral role when Preston look to break fast high up the pitch and counter-attack.
Either way, I feel we have a lot of options capable of performing well at Championship level. Potts offers a lot that our other players don’t when he’s called upon and supporters should perhaps lay-off the criticism and appreciate what he does offer us going forward.
Anthony Gordon’s Return to the XI
Brad Potts may have stolen the limelight in Saturday’s emphatic win but there was only one player on everyone’s lips following Wednesday’s draw with QPR and that was the on-loan Everton winger Anthony Gordon.
Birthday boy Gordon had an exceptional game on Wednesday night in which he had the most attempts in the game with three and created the most chances with two. He also won the most fouls with three as QPR just couldn’t get to grips with the exciting youngster.
He was unlucky not to score on 2 occasions, one, when a dazzling skill move turned the QPR defender inside out before his shot, which lacked conviction, was saved. Then, later on in the first-half, his header at the far post flew agonisingly over the bar. It really was a display that caught the eye of everyone who watched it, including his manager who told George Hodgson at Lancs Live after the game, “Anthony Gordon reminds me of Callum Robinson when I first walked in. He’s an excellent talent”.
AN: “Anthony Gordon reminds me of Callum Robinson when I first walked in. He’s an excellent talent; he’s got to put his game together. He’s got the quality.” #pnefc— George Hodgson (@GHodgsonSport) February 24, 2021
Big praise from a manager who has coached some very talented and successful players in his fairly short managerial career. He’s certainly a player that every fan would love to keep for as long as possible. However, having already played 14 games in the Premier League for Everton and being widely regarded as one of, if not their best academy player, there’s almost no chance of us securing him in a permanent deal.
The best we can hope for is potentially another loan spell next season, but based on his form there’s a strong chance he will want to stay at Everton and fight for his place in the side.
Personally, I think we’re best just enjoying him while he’s here.
The Return of 4-2-3-1
During the 4-0 defeat in Wales, North End had reverted back to the 3-5-2/5-3-2 that had worked so well during the derby day victory away at Blackburn Rovers. This, it’s fair to say, did not have the desired effect as all four conceded goals came from defensive mistakes.
This prompted Alex Neil to revert back to his tried and trusted 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation that he has most commonly used since his arrival in 2017.
He told the Lancashire Evening Post after the QPR game how he felt our wide players are our most creative players are wide players and in a 3-5-2, it’s difficult to get them in and also, how in the midweek game that he thought we with a 4-3-3, we carried more of a threat. It again came to fruition on Saturday’s game as the formation’s natural flexibility allowed Preston to condense into a 4-1-4-1 out of possession before springing out on the counter-attack.
As to what Preston’s best formation is? I’d probably lean towards the 4-3-3 personally. Since Ched Evans’ arrival, it has allowed us to have a striker with brilliant aerial ability as well as having the mobility to stretch defences and pick up the ball in awkward pockets for defenders. This allows us to bring our wide players into play higher up the pitch, whether that be coming short or stretching in behind and allows us to really attack teams and score the goals needed to win football matches. Dare I say it, have we finally replaced a certain Jordan Hugill?
For comparison, in the 3-5-2 games against Blackburn and Cardiff we created 9 and 12 shots respectively whereas in the last week with the 4-3-3 15 and 13 shots. This, for a team that before this week had scored 4 goals in 9 games, is essential in how we have helped to rectify the poor form since the turn of the year.
Sepp Van Den Berg Filling in at Right Back
The most eyebrow-raising player selection from the QPR game was the deadline-day loan signing from Liverpool Sepp van den Berg filling in at right-back, as Alan Browne moved back to his more natural position in central midfield.
It’s fair to say, despite not being the 19-year-old’s natural position, he slotted in exceptionally and over the course of the week has picked up an impressive average score of 7.29 from WhoScored.
His defensive qualities in the midweek draw caught his manager’s eye who said to the local press that he was strong and got his distances right. He was given the licence to be a bit more attack-minded against Huddersfield and impressed with great natural athleticism and composure on the ball. However, it’s unclear what will transpire over the next few months or so with Preston’s right-back situation.
We sold Darnell Fisher to championship rivals Middlesbrough in January and since then have tried Joe Rafferty, Alan Browne and now the Liverpool loanee in that position. Following Rafferty’s dismal form, including the comical own goal in the first minute against Rotherham, it seems that it will be the captain Browne and the young Dutchman who will fight it out this season and potentially next season depending on our summer business.
The Liverpool Echo reported that if van den Berg plays a certain percentage of games while in Lancashire, PNE will have first refusal should Liverpool decide to loan the defender out again next term. If the Premier League champions decide to do so, based on the last 2 games there is no reason why PNE wouldn’t want the teenager back on loan next season.
However, Alex Neil has stressed before that he believes Alan Browne has the qualities to be a Premier League right back in the future and the Irishman was also named in WhoScored Championship team of the month for January as a right back. It’s clear that it’s a position he plays very well in but the captain has previously said, as recently as after the hammering to Cardiff, that he prefers playing in the midfield but reiterates that he will do whatever job is needed for the team.
Whether the club decides to bring in a more established fullback in the summer, return to Liverpool to acquire Sepp again or continue to deploy Alan Browne there is yet to be seen.
Is Ched Evans Preston’s Best Striker Since Jordan Hugill?
The January signing from Fleetwood Town certainly ruffled a few feathers when he joined, but since then fans have been impressed with the Welshman since his debut against Rotherham.
Whether or not you agree with people’s opinions about Ched, of which everyone is entitled to their own without criticism or point-scoring from other fans, I think it’s fair to say he’s definitely offered something that Jayden Stockley didn’t.
He’s more than matched the aerial ability as well as being a lot more mobile, allowing for a higher-level of link-up play. The striker has definitely caught the eye of the Preston faithful on Twitter with some fans claiming the Welshman is the striker we’ve been crying out for. He’s now scored 2 goals in his 6 starts for the club and picked up a Sky Sports man of the match award for his performance against Blackburn Rovers a few weeks ago.
He also picked up an impressive 8.28 match rating from WhoScored for his performance against Huddersfield. His impressive form makes it somewhat inevitable that PNE will look to extend his contract past the end of this season and look to have him in the squad for next season alongside the likes of Emil Riis, Sean Maguire and potentially Louis Moult or another summer addition.
As to what will happen with Jayden, this is unknown. The striker has impressed with 4 headed goals for Charlton so far and with a year left on his deal here come the summer, Stockley will return to North End after his loan spell. However, it is believed that there’s an option for Charlton to turn his loan move permanent should they want.
It’s safe to say that Ched’s form has been a huge plus for us since his debut in the Rotherham game and long may it continue!
Thanks for reading this piece, I’ll be back next week to discuss some talking points from the trip to London to face Millwall as well as a return for a certain Ben Pearson next Saturday. Here’s to hopefully another couple of positive results. I’m on Twitter here – @weeden_sam if you want to give me a follow.
Finally, if you’re new to From the Finney, below is a thread with all of the “From the Finney Meets…” episodes that have been released to date. Check them out if you haven’t already.