Another hugely entertaining game at Deepdale and another win over our Lancashire rivals Blackburn Rovers. It was far from plain sailing, however, as the Lilywhites had an atrocious first half that saw the team booed off at half time going in 2-0 down.
Tactical changes helped turn things around and a superb individual performance from Tom Barkhuizen led us to the 3 points and the lofty heights of second place with just the Monday night game left to go of this round of fixtures. Here are five things we learned from the Blackburn Rovers game:
Alex Neil Doesn’t Always Get it Right
Quite a few times this season Neil has surprised us with his team selections but they’ve proved to be spot on tactically. However, on Saturday he got it massively wrong and it was down to him that we were on the back foot from the very start and left the team bereft of any confidence heading into half time.
The absence of Ben Davies left a huge hole in the defence. Andrew Hughes was never going to be the answer, with Neil saying he wanted a left-footed player at the back. An outrageous decision considering we had Jordan Storey and Paul Huntington available. They are natural centre backs, whereas through no fault of his own really, Hughes looked vulnerable in the first half.
The choice of Alan Browne on the right wing was a strange one as well with Neil just trying to fit too many central midfielders into the side. Credit where it’s due though as the Scot made changes before the half-hour mark to mix things up but they were rightly booed off at half time which didn’t go down too well with Ben Pearson who seemed to question those boos coming from the Town End.
Jayden Stockley Proved His Worth to the Team
It’s been a mixed 2019 for Stockley since he arrived from Exeter City in January. He did well initially but hasn’t got going this season, not even making the bench on some occasions. We’ve chosen to play without a target man and often with Barky as a false number 9.
However, on Saturday we needed a change. Gallagher was the unlucky player to be pulled off and on came Stockley down the middle with Seani Maguire and Barkhuizen either side. It was in the second half where he began to make the difference, causing problems for the Rovers defence. Little flicks ons with his head and layoffs with his chest were allowing us to keep the ball at the right end of the pitch and bring others into play.
He contributed to all three goals, with balls forward coming to him and others creating things in and around. His lay off for Browne was key which he then put through to Barky to curl in a superb winner. We know Stockley lacks pace but he gives us that different option to our other forwards and as has been said on the podcast in the past, there will be some games that he suits more than others. He’s clearly a popular character in the dressing room as well, with the other players delighted with his impact and Tom Barkhuizen saying as much in the press after the game.
We Massively Struggle Without Ben Davies
Ben Davies has become such a key cog in this well-oiled North End side. The game against Rovers was the first league match he had missed since January and his absence was clear to see straight away.
Aside from the fact that Hughes isn’t a centre back, the whole defence looked troubled every time Blackburn attacked. There was no leadership at the back and even the usually calm and collected Patrick Bauer looked shaky on the ball and was losing all his battles in the first half at least.
Davies is a class act and is comfortably one of the best defenders in this league. Saturday really showed us how much he organises that defence and he is a natural leader. Neil said he should be back for the game against Charlton Athletic next Sunday which is good to hear. He’s come on such a long way since that game against Notts County on the opening day of the 14/15 season where he played at left-back and got torn apart by Jamal Campbell-Ryce.
Now he’s one of the first names on the team sheet and let’s hope he remains injury-free for the rest of the campaign.
Barky’s on Fire
Another superb performance from the attacker on Saturday, it’s clear to see he is full of confidence now and he’s obviously really passionate and ambitious about our chances this season. That has shown in his goal celebrations this week, turning to the Town End and shouting in delight and punching the air.
His pre and post-match interviews have been honest as well, commenting yesterday on the fact we were awful in the first half, ‘a disgrace’ in his words.
It’s refreshing to hear that but also you can tell in his voice that he’s not surprised to see where we are in the league, that’s the aim and we can keep on going and mixing it with the very best. He’s taking his goals superbly at the moment, he’s got the confidence to keep on taking players on and I feel against Blackburn he grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and he’s instrumental for us right now. 7 goals for the season in all competitions and 4 in his last 3 home games in the league.
Darnell Fisher Has a Secret Weapon
Towards the end of the game on Saturday, there was a jubilant atmosphere at Deepdale as the fans were coming to terms with a crazy 90 minutes. As we were awarded a central free-kick 35 yards from goal, Daniel Johnson and Darnell Fisher stood over the ball.
A few fans looked around and joked ‘imagine if Darnell hits this’. As DJ stepped away, it was clearly being left to Fisher. In a David Luiz sort of way, he slowly ran up to the ball before hitting it with his side foot. The ball was swerving towards the top corner before Christian Walton managed to tip it over the bar for a corner. If that had gone in there would have been absolute scenes at Deepdale. Interesting to see if he takes any more free-kicks in the future.