5 Talking Points From the Last Week

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Had the second half been as dismal as the first on Saturday, I feel this piece would have had a lot more of a negative focus. A lacklustre performance away at Millwall (despite a superb Ched Evans volley) followed by a very poor first-half showing against Bournemouth and it looked like it would be a week with 0 points and not much to shout about for North End.

However, a spirited second-half performance saw a textbook Daniel Johnson effort secure a share of the spoils. It’s a point that many would have taken beforehand in a game in which ex-player and my personal ex-hero, Ben Pearson, stole the majority of the pre-match headlines as it was his first return to Deepdale since his move to Bournemouth in January.

Last week was a week where at the start, an optimistic me would have hoped to at least pick up at least one victory out of the two games, but hopefully, we can take confidence from the second half display and look to take it into key games coming up against Wycombe, Middlesbrough and Luton.

Here are my 5 North End talking points from last week. Enjoy and any shares would be appreciated. 

Costly Defensive Errors

Two of the three goals conceded this week came from very poor defending of some routine, route-one long balls from the opposition.

Against Millwall, it was Daniel Iversen who was at fault. A long ball that went straight over the heads of Storey and Hughes, on towards the big Danish keeper but he was hesitant coming off of his line which allowed Millwall’s Mason Bennett to nip in and knock the ball past the goalkeeper and ultimately win the home side the game.

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It was a similar long ball that led to Bournemouth’s only goal in Saturday’s game. A ball was sent in long in the direction of Domonic Solanke that appeared to be overhit, but Jordan Storey appeared to get under the ball and was beaten far too easily by Solanke which led to him laying off Bournemouth winger Danjuma to put the play-off chasers in front. 

This is by no means a dig at those two specific players, I’ve recently written an article on how good Daniel Iverson has been, and I believe Jordan Storey has looked very good since his return to the side in the game against Blackburn Rovers. However, as a team, it is a must that we cut these mistakes out.

As well as the mistakes this last week, a whole host of mistakes were made in the 4-0 defeat to Cardiff. There was the disastrous Joe Rafferty own goal against Rotherham and the sloppy penalty conceded against Watford. I feel like we are wrong to expect miracles from the defence, it’s no doubt going to be weaker since Bauer’s season-ending injury and the last-minute sales of both Darnell Fisher and Ben Davies.

However, these clumsy mistakes are going to seriously prevent us from picking up results if they continue. For a team that has only come from behind to win TWICE all season, we seriously need to stop giving ourselves mountains to climb in games by letting in sloppy, avoidable goals. 

Ben Whiteman Impresses, Again!

As previously mentioned, it was the return of former fan favourite Ben Pearson this Saturday, but since leaving his name’s not been mentioned in the context of him being missed nearly as much as the likes of Jordan Hugill and Callum Robinson were.

The reason for this you might ask? It’s largely been due to the impressive form of Ben Whiteman since his arrival from Doncaster, a player who according to Peter Ridsdale on the From the Finney podcast, broke the club’s long-standing transfer record. His pinpoint 30 yarders coming close to what Paul Gallagher has offered us since promotion.

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Whiteman has been outstanding since coming in and this last week was no different. Even in the dismal defeat to Millwall, he managed the most touches with 90, the most passes with 76, the highest pass accuracy at 86%, the most accurate long balls with 4, as well as the second-most tackles with 3. These numbers symbolise just how impressive Whiteman has been to Preston. 

Since coming in, Whiteman has been ever-present and is, in my opinion, likely to be the focal point of what will likely be a revamped squad next season. A very key influence for this Preston team and long may it continue. 

Barky’s Goal Drought Continues

Tom Barkhuizen has been a huge player for Preston since his arrival from Morecambe. Ever since making his debut in January 2017, he’s been at the forefront of Alex Neil’s sides and having made the right-wing position his own.

He’s since played 177 games for Preston, scoring 33 goals, including some memorable moments such as picking up the Championship player of the month award in March 2017, a brace against Lancashire rivals Blackburn in the 2019 comeback win and some sensational strikes such as the winner against Derby in the league cup this season.

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Unfortunately for Barkhuizen, the good days aren’t quite happening for him right now. He’s on a goal drought stretching back 20 games to his opening goal in the victory against Bournemouth on the 1st December. This is probably a source of frustration for the winger as his confidence can sometimes appear to look very low as he can often snatch at chances and lack conviction in front of goal, notably the chances against Blackburn and Cardiff that we all know a confident Barkhuizen sticks away.

He still offers a lot to North End’s attack, however. When he’s on form, his blistering pace is an absolute nightmare for opposition defenders and the way he stays high and wide can prevent the attacking runs of opposition fullbacks, therefore, helping prevent overlaps and dangerous attacks from the opposition. 

Although this season Barkhuizen has only scored 4 goals and assisted 2 in the league, he’s a very dangerous player on his day as we’ve all previously seen and it would be a big boost for us to have him back to his best.

Unfortunately, he seems to be slightly out of favour at the moment having only completed one 90 minutes in the last 10 league games and the impressive Anthony Gordon having pushed him further down the pecking order. There’s almost no chance that Barky can replicate the 14 league goal contributions (9 goals, 5 assists) from last season. I’m sure we all hope he can find some form and help us finish the season as strongly as possible. 

Performances Dipping From Last Season

It’s a common theme on Twitter that a lot of fans believe that the football under Alex Neil has gone stale. They feel we don’t play the same free-flowing football we used to and don’t create the same amount of chances as we did at the beginning of last season. To be fair, after the whole Millwall game and the first half against the Cherries, you couldn’t exactly argue with them.

However, in the second half on Saturday, we played a lot more like we know we are capable of and left the majority of fans feeling a lot more optimistic than they did at half time. To investigate claims about performance I’ve researched our expected goals (a performance metric used to evaluate football team and player performance) for and against for this season and last season to attempt to see if these claims are right or wrong.

In terms of expected goals scored (xG), this season there has been a dip compared to last season. This season, we have an xG of 1.12 whereas last season it was 1.28 for the season which would mean we are expected to score just over 7 goals less than last season.

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This is a key indicator that performances from an attacking and key chance creation point of view has somewhat dropped off. However, it’s worth noting that last season we were awarded 10 penalties which does inflate xG. 

For expected goals against (xGA) we have the 3rd highest in the Championship with a score of 1.44 per game which is higher than the 1.17 per game that we had in the whole of last season. This means this season we are expected to let in 66.24 goals which is a large increase on the xGA of last season which was 53.28. A key reason for this will be the loss of several key defensive players such as Davies, Pearson, Fisher and of course, Patrick Bauer’s injury. There is no doubt that this does show that we have got a lot weaker in terms of protecting our goal this season compared to last season. 

Overall, these statistics do point towards a substantial dip in performances in the 2020/21 season compared to the season prior in 2019/20. This also allows us to calculate that we had an expected league position of 5th last year whereas it is only 17th this term.

This isn’t at all me banging the “Neil out” drum, but it does suggest that his team’s performances are getting stale from an attacking point of view as well as sloppier defensively.

Season 19/20Season 20/21
xG per game1.281.12
xG whole season58.8851.52
xGA per game1.171.44
xGA whole season53.8266.24
xLeague Position5th17th

Greg Looking Like He Never Left

One player fans were delighted to see us re-sign in January, initially on loan but now permanently until the end of the season, was Greg Cunningham. The Irishman re-signed with Preston from Cardiff in January and it went down exceptionally well with the fans as many claim he was the best left-back they’ve seen at Deepdale. 

There were a few question marks over the signing, many pointing out Greg’s lack of football since leaving Preston due to a mix of being out of favour and injured (roughly 2,000 minutes since his departure in 2018 (having played 3,500+ in 16/17)). This combined with an imminent 30th birthday not long after signing for us had cast a few doubts over whether or not the fullback would come back the same player that had left 2 and a half years prior.

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Well, since making his first start for us since his return against Blackburn, which he marked with a superb goal and a whoscored.com man of the match rating of 8.22, Greg has completed 90 minutes since times out of the last 7 games including the last 5 in a row.

This suggests the Irishman’s fitness levels are up to where they should be and if he can cope with this crammed covid fixture schedule, there’s no reason why he can’t do it on an extended deal next season and into the future when (hopefully) the fixtures have returned to normal somewhat.  

At the time of writing, it’s been over a year since we last sat inside our beloved Deepdale watching our team.

I sincerely hope everyone is coping okay and hopefully we’ll all be back in August to see the team and have the whole match experience that we all love and miss. Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment your opinion on my 5 talking points from the last week and follow me on Twitter here – @weeden_sam.

Finally, the latest “From the Finney Meets…” episode is out now with former “defensive forward” and co-host of the Undr the Cosh podcast, Chris Brown. Find it in your streaming apps or hit play below.