Daniel Johnson: Undroppable

It’s fair to say DJ’s time at North End has been mixed. Arriving in Lancashire from Aston Villa in January 2015 he provided some vital goals from midfield that would eventually lead to us getting promoted. Fresh from impressive loan spells at Oldham Athletic and Chesterfield we knew what he could do at that level.

Predominantly played in an attacking midfield role and occasionally out on the left, that half-season had already shown that the £50,000 we paid for him was a bargain. Initially, Johnson coped well with the step up to the Championship but I think over the last four seasons it would be fair to say the fans views on him have been mixed. We’ve never been short of options in midfield during that time and with Ben Pearson and Alan Browne progressing each year and the evergreen Paul Gallagher still influential it’s been tough for DJ.

However, with Alex Neil playing him in a more familiar number 10 role this season he has shown he is still a key player for us. Thus far this season, he’s been given more freedom upfield and shown what a devastating impact he can on a game. I’m delighted with the start he’s had to the season and it’s quietened those fans who would have been happy to see him move to Wigan Athletic.

Alan Browne: Plenty of Hard Work Ahead

It feels crazy that I’m even writing this so early into the season but, our second top goalscorer from last season and probably just behind Ben Davies for the player of the year, Alan Browne has his work cut out to reclaim a regular place in the side. His two starts in the league this season against Millwall and Sheffield Wednesday didn’t pull up any trees. He doesn’t quite seem to be in the form we know he is capable of.

Of course, he had to settle for a deeper role behind Johnson on Saturday but he didn’t really seem to influence the game as much as we know he can do. He’s come on leaps and bounds under Neil but at the moment he may have to shine in the cup games and in substitute appearances to stake his claim.

Embed from Getty Images

Sean Maguire: Far More Effective out Wide

It’s probably something we always knew but hopefully, Alex Neil has now finally realised it too. With the ball at his feet, Maguire can be very effective in causing problems for the defence as Moses Odubajo will know all too well after Saturday. The Sheffield Wednesday stand-in full-back gave away two penalties on Saturday thanks to Maguire’s pace directness.

The Irishman has had his injury problems in his time at Deepdale which has hampered his run in the side. However, towards the end of last season, it was frustrating seeing long balls lumped up to him on his own up front. It clearly didn’t work, Seani either needs to play in a two down the middle or out wide.

With Louis Moult now injured, it does leave us looking light up front and that’s why another striker should have been a priority in the transfer window. However, with Tom Barkhuizen now an option there, perhaps there’s more flexibility than we first thought. Whilst the former Cork City player’s contribution to the team out wide is more effective he also looks far more likely to score. When isolated down the middle he doesn’t often find himself with many clear goal-scoring opportunities.

For Maguire, coming in off the left, making late runs into the box and taking on the full-backs, he looks much more threatening and gets himself into far more dangerous areas.

Embed from Getty Images

Jayden Stockley: A Defensive Option

The sight of Patrick Bauer coming off on Saturday was a worrying one seeing as his aerial dominance has given North End fans a sense of security. He’s been a brick wall at the back for us since joining on a free from Charlton. Although we have still been conceding far too easily from crosses, a lot of balls launched into the area are met by the big German’s head.

It’s already looking like him and Ben Davies have a good partnership blossoming. Whilst Bauer’s replacement, Jordan Storey, is more than capable, he isn’t as dominant in the air as the Backnang-born Bauer. With the introduction of Atdhe Nuhiu from the bench for Sheffield Wednesday, I think we all felt the same thing, it was only a matter of time until they scored. Time and time again the Kosovan has caused us problems.

He was the difference from the bench last season in this fixture pulling The Owls back from 3-1 to 3-3 and it looked as if he could have had a similar impact again. However, Neil brought Stockley back into defence to give us some extra height and he did win some important headers. I wouldn’t want to see it too often though as at one stage he did very nearly give away a penalty. An option for us though in desperate times.

Embed from Getty Images

Alex Neil: There Will be Rotation

Nobody could have predicted the lineup for the Stoke City game and the team for the match against Sheffield Wednesday also raised a few eyebrows. It’s going to be hard to predict our team going forward but this is mainly because we have so many players who are worthy of a first-team place.

Alan Browne, Tom Barkhuizen and Brad Potts were regular starters when fit last season, but have found themselves confined to the bench for the most part so far this season. Louis Moult and then Jayden Stockley were brought in out of the blue for their first starts against Wigan and Wednesday respectively. Josh Harrop was also a surprise inclusion against Stoke City but Neil’s decisions so far have paid off so you can’t argue with him or his choices.

It was interesting to see Harrop gain a starting place out wide for that game but he grasped the opportunity with both hands. With players like David Nugent, Josh Ginnelly and Tom Bayliss yet to feature in the league there’s still plenty more options in that squad and chance for Neil to rotate. I’m sure it’ll be a completely different XI for the game against Hull City in the second round of the Carabao Cup, but it allows us to keep the squad fresh and make changes based on the opposition.

Tom Barkhuizen up top against Stoke’s poor defence worked well, whilst we went for a more direct route with Stockley against Wednesday. Does Neil know his best eleven? Do we have one? I’m happy for a few a changes here and there to counter what we come up against, it’ll certainly keep the opposition guessing.

Embed from Getty Images