We’ve Started to Grind Results Out

Saturday’s 2-0 win certainly wasn’t the prettiest North End victory of the season, but it was 3 points and a clean sheet against tough opposition. We took our chances and the early goal was key because after that Brentford dominated possession for the next 60 minutes. However, they didn’t really create many clear cut chances and Declan Rudd had a relatively quiet afternoon.

Whilst it was frustrating seeing Brentford players in acres of space time and time again, the defence tucked in and stayed strong so our tactics obviously paid off despite seeing Brentford enjoy more of the possession and have 11 corners in total. Last season on many occasions we played better than this without coming away with the 3 points.

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The win wasn’t the most enjoyable but I’ll certainly take it, 4 wins from 4 in the league at Deepdale, our home form has turned around and we’re finding different ways to win matches. Very promising.

No Pearo, No Party

With Ryan Ledson always an obvious replacement when Ben Pearson is absent, the midfield three seemed to have the right balance on paper before the Brentford game. Daniel Johnson sat a little deeper than in his previous games, with Alan Browne pushing up a little higher. We know what Ledson can bring to the side, he’s strong in the tackle and is a good passer of the ball as seen with his assist for Seani Maguire’s opener.

However, he doesn’t hustle and harry the opposition as much as Pearson does. Pearo is always all over the pitch closing down any opening, and this allows us to turn over possession much quicker. Whilst I’m happy to see Ledson coming in as his replacement, it’s clear that without one of the best midfielders in the league in our side, our approach to the game has to change.

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Ledson could perhaps have counted himself unlucky to be substituted off quite so early in the game as he was playing well, but we needed Paul Gallagher to come in and put his foot on the ball, and give us some control in the game. If Pearson was playing though, I imagine it would have been a much different game.

We’re Always in the Dark Over Injuries

The last we heard on Seani Maguire and Tom Barkhuizen’s injuries was that they would both be out for another couple of weeks. So it was a surprise to see them both named in the starting line-up. Whilst it is frustrating for the fans not to know when our players are going to be returning, the opposition is also left in the dark.

Thomas Frank wouldn’t have been expecting to come up against Maguire or Barkhuizen, so our front three would have been a surprise to him. With both players scoring our goals, maybe it is best that Alex Neil keeps his cards close to his chest. The North End team has been impossible to predict this season anyway, and with players returning from injury out of nowhere it is certainly going to keep everyone guessing.

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Hopefully, we’ll see David Nugent return soon to give us another option up front. The fanfare around his arrival in the summer has been dampened by his injuries since arriving. Perhaps a surprise inclusion for the Manchester City game could give everyone a boost.

Raff May Deserve to Keep his Place in the Team

Neil mentioned after the game that Andrew Hughes was close to returning this week, which suggests he should be ready for the Birmingham City game next week. However, in his absence, Joe Rafferty has slotted into that left-back position with ease.

Initially brought in as a back-up to Darnell Fisher at right-back in January, his limited appearances last season didn’t really show much to say that he would be suited to the step-up in level. Of course, Rafferty was some way down on our list of right-back targets at the time, and it even looked as if Tom Clarke was going to be preferred over him this season.

The injury to Hughes at the end of the Wigan Athletic game has given Rafferty his chance and he has grabbed it with both hands. His solid performances in an unnatural position have contributed to our good run of form in that time. Add to that his goal against Swansea City, and a great ball switching play to Fisher on Saturday which led to our second goal, and Rafferty could count himself very unlucky if Hughes does come straight back into the side.

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However, the disappointment that we failed to add another left-back to the squad in the summer has been appeased by Rafferty’s displays, who now looks like a more than capable deputy.

Our Fluid Front Three Gives us Many Options

Despite injuries to our natural strikers, and Jayden Stockley not being favoured by Alex Neil, we have managed to look dangerous in attack and actually have more options than we first thought. It was good that even though Maguire was brought back into the side on Saturday he started out on the left with Barky down the middle.

However, throughout the game we saw Maguire, Barky and Billy Bodin all play down the middle at some point. Maguire is the most natural striker of them all, but I don’t think it’s best playing him upfront on his own, he definitely causes more problems from out wide. Barkhuizen’s pace will always be beneficial, whilst Bodin’s trickery and quick feet can create something out of nothing.

With this flexibility it allows us to quickly change things around if we aren’t getting immediate success from the initial tactic, without having to necessarily turn straight to the bench. Our options on the bench can continue to allow us to shuffle things around, with Brad Potts and Josh Harrop playing out wide on Saturday, even though I believe they both play best as number 10’s.

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Such is the abundance of options available to Neil it means players like Andre Green, Jayden Stockley and Josh Ginnelly are struggling to get many minutes under their belt, but of course, it is early days in the season, and the depth we have should stand us in good stead in the long run.