It’s been a strange summer for Preston North End, following on from a fairly bizarre ending to last season. On the one hand, many fans felt deflated after a shocking final few games, and on the other, many felt a new sense of optimism after Alex Neil’s decision to sign a new, improved, 3-year contract with the club. A decision which many people assumed came with certain assurances about transfer budgets and player signings.
This summer has pretty much been and gone with little in the way of transfer activity but a fair bit in the way of a sense of disillusion creeping in amongst the fanbase. A negative feeling that I don’t concur with. I’m quite positive, maybe naïve, about the upcoming season. With the turmoil surrounding many clubs, from the turnover of managers to uncertainty about the ownership of clubs to clubs being spooked by FFP regulations, it feels like this season is one where North End can really take advantage of the stagnation and the unpredictability of the league.
Below, I will focus on why I believe North End have a good chance of being competitive, firstly focusing on ourselves and then turning my attention to the unpredictable state of other clubs and the league.
Strong and Stable
Preston North End, I would argue, are the most stable club in the league, with a very settled squad, full of players we have seen grow into seasoned Championship professionals in front of our eyes. Alan Browne, Daniel Johnson and Tom Clarke go into their 5th seasons at this level with the club, Ben Pearson is heading into his 4th full season with the club at this level whilst the likes of Ben Davies, Darnell Fisher, Tom Barkhuizen and Sean Maguire are now what I’d consider well versed at this level.
Then we have the old guard in Gallagher and Nugent, as well as natural leader Patrick Bauer, and suddenly we have an extremely well-balanced squad, with good experience and a good spread of ages. Maybe subconsciously in many fans’ eyes, the squad has transformed from a young squad full of potential, into what many fans of rival clubs would consider a very competitive Championship squad.
Almost 3 months on from our last competitive game, with hours to go until the new season, there is still a strange feeling around the club and the fans. The early summer signing of Patrick Bauer from Charlton, staving off competition from other Championship clubs, including local rivals Blackburn Rovers, was seen by many as a sign of intent, and hopefully of things to come.
So long ago it was now, maybe the signing of the big German has been forgotten almost and overshadowed somewhat, as it was not immediately followed by other, similar incomings. The former Charlton man, alongside Ben Davies, should form an extremely complementary pairing, with ball-playing ability, pace, reading of the game, aerial strength and nous. Instantly, the spine looks very strong.
Flanked by Darnell Fisher and Andy Hughes, two very competent full-backs, and the starting back 4 looks extremely solid. Shoutout @rramesss on twitter for the graphics below.
Other options in Tom Clarke and Jordan Storey are very solid, with Huntington, Rafferty and Earl also in reserve, defensive numbers are good and there should be strong competition for a starting berth come match day.
Two question marks remain about the defence – the desperate need, in my view, for a goalkeeper, as well as the potential need for a left-back which would allow Josh Earl to go out on loan and develop. The goalkeeper situation has dragged on for too long, and I share many fans’ frustrations, but I’d put my house (if I had one) on us signing a keeper in the next week. A physical presence, in my opinion, is the key attribute that I’d look for in a stopper.
Somebody like Fraser Forster, out of favour at Southampton, would add real presence and experience, whilst showing considerable financial intent. A signing like that would complete the defensive jigsaw, and I’d consider our backline, with Pearson ahead, to be extremely solid.
The second question mark, the potential incoming of a left-back, is less of an issue but would be more of a luxury. I firmly believe that Andy Hughes is one of the more complete left-backs in the league (see the graphic above). He’s extremely underrated and so strong in the air, but to bring someone in to compete with him, allowing Earl to go out on loan, would really benefit the squad and Earl himself.
It’s hard to envisage exactly who we could bring in, you’d assume a loan, but the development of Earl in an external environment could benefit us massively in seasons to come, as it has done with Ben Davies.
So, with a commanding keeper, Hughes, Davies, Bauer, Fisher, fleshed out with Clarke, Storey, Huntington, Rafferty and Earl/new left-back, we’d have a very strong defensive unit, which is usually key to finishing at the right end of the table. It’s worth noting at this point that there has been lots of turnover of defensive players and goalkeepers at lots of rival clubs this season – Brentford (Konsa), Leeds (Jansson), Derby (Tomori), Bristol City (Webster), Boro (Flint), Rovers (Raya), West Brom (Dawson) and Huddersfield (Lossl) have all lost key defensive players in the off-season. This surely creates some uncertainty in the defensive units, which could lead to shaky defensive displays if replacements don’t settle adequately. Again, this is something we can take advantage of in my opinion.
I fully believe that our midfield, with its flexibility and range of skills, is one of the best in the Championship. As I’ve said before, Ben Pearson is the best defensive midfielder in the league, and going into his 4th season at this level, his ball-playing skills continue to improve, and he increasingly influences games with relative ease.
Ahead of him, or alongside him, Paul Gallagher and Daniel Johnson, offer good progressive ability through the middle third, and at almost 35, Gallagher will never lose his technique and his ability to influence games. Question marks remain over DJ’s future, but 13 goal contributions from a deep midfield role last season cannot be sniffed at. Ryan Ledson has shown promise and grew into last season, and going into his 2nd season under Neil’s guidance, you’d hope he continues to improve.
More advanced, Alan Browne has developed into an excellent, if unorthodox, number 10 with bundles of energy and ever-improving finishing ability, he is what I’d consider a very good Championship player, and he offers tactical flexibility and most importantly, goals. Brad Potts is similar, offering tactical options whilst having a good knack of arriving into dangerous areas with a good sense of timing, and he has shown good finishing ability as well. Josh Harrop, whilst dividing opinion, has undoubted quality and again, is tactically flexible, if he can add the application to go with his ability, he will be another dangerous player. Importantly, he adds set-piece ability for when Gallagher isn’t on the pitch.
So, our central/attacking midfield options are, in my opinion, underrated by our fans and rival fans, mainly due to our tactical flexibility and our ability to score goals from central areas. We can play 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1, sometimes with two number 10s, depending on the opposition and how Neil wants to approach a game. In Ben Pearson, we have one of the best players in the league, and if he stays fit and sensible, results will follow. Our central areas of the pitch are excellent.
No Wide Boys
Wide options remain a slight issue at the time of writing, having lost Callum Robinson, Brandon Barker, and Lukas Nmecha from last season. The return of Billy Bodin has not been underestimated by anyone, least of all by myself, but I think he will take the league by storm. His natural ability to glide past defenders, to create space out of nowhere, and to use both feet to get shots and crosses off early, is rare.
If fit, we have a real player on our hands, and he will go some way to replacing Robinson but on the opposite flank. We missed a player of Bill’s ilk last season, particularly at Deepdale, who could unlock deep blocks, whether by using skill, shooting sharply, or simply winning penalties – an underrated trait in a player (cynical I know). So, I’m simply buzzing to see Bodin back in the frame.
Tom Barkhuizen is a great option, tactically excellent, trusted by the gaffer and hopefully back to his old self after a few injury niggles last season. His ability off the ball goes unnoticed, stretching defences and creating space for the likes of Alan Browne, pressing, harrying, and allowing a genuine option on the attacking transition. At his age, and with a new contract under his belt, Barky will be looking to really kick on this season and could quite conceivably reach double figures for goals.
He is so much more than numbers, but again, he will be a big player for us and is a player I suspect many other Championship managers would love to have in their squads. Brad Potts, like Barky, adds an energetic option in a wide area if needed, particularly if Neil wants to press teams to death.
Sean Maguire, whilst more of a number 9, has shown in the past that he can be effective cutting in off the left-hand side, a sort of wide attacker rather than a winger, similar to Callum Robinson last season. If Seani can put his injury troubles behind him (he has been relatively unscathed in 2019, touch wood) then he can return to the player who burst onto the scene in 2017/18 following his arrival from Cork City.
His ability to use his body to manipulate situations, his low centre of gravity, and his ability to find pockets of space, make him a good option to play off the left, and again, he could easily reach double figures. Another good option.
There is no doubting, however, that a wide attacker must be signed before next Thursday’s deadline, firstly to replace Robinson, but also to add depth after losing Barker and Nmecha.
Josh Ginnelly looks like a great prospect to me, very direct but still raw, so we need to add someone who is ready to play 35+ games. Preferably someone who can move into narrow pockets and attack the box, like Ashley Hunter, who has so much potential to develop, but could make an instant impact.
So, Bodin, Barkhuizen, Maguire, Potts, Ginnelly and a new wide player, would make our wide options look very healthy, with good depth and genuine flexibility.
Upfront, the signing of David Nugent will add nous and experience to an otherwise fairly unproven front line. Nuge won’t score many for us, I don’t think, but his value will be in-game management, something that just can’t be taught. Jayden Stockley adds a good alternative option and showed on occasions last season that he can be effective if the team sets up to suit his strengths – playing high up the pitch against deep defences. His ability to hold the ball up, and finish well in the box, will provide a good option for Neil.
We know what Sean Maguire will bring, clever movement, a burst of pace, rotation and strong finishing ability, and if he stays fit, simply put, he will score goals. Finally, with the impending exit of Louis Moult, we have been heavily linked with Fraizer Campbell, who scored 12 and assisted 6 for Hull last season.
At 31, he is exactly what Neil has been crying out for, genuinely experienced, not over the hill, and he contributed to 18 goals last season – a great return. Forward options of Campbell, Maguire, Stockley and Nugent looks competitive, and again, flexible. All 4 offer good variation, which is key under a manager as tactically focussed as Neil.
In Short, We Have a Chance
So, adding a goalkeeper, a wide attacker, and possibly Fraizer Campbell in the next week would make the squad look extremely competitive, in my eyes. The return to fitness of Hughes, Clarke, Browne, Barkhuizen, Harrop, Potts and Bodin simply cannot be understated, and it will give the manager genuine options and a strong bench to choose from. Adding 3-4 quality players will add the bit of quality that we so desperately lacked at times last season.
To summarise, I fully believe that the squad is at a good age, there’s a good level of experience, tactically flexible and with good depth in areas, and with a few quality additions, it will be very competitive. Under the leadership of an astute tactician who clearly improves players, Robinson, Browne, Davies just a few examples, there is every reason to be positive, as most other clubs are in a state of flux.
Moving onto other clubs, astonishingly 16 of the 23 (70%) other clubs in the division either have a new manager, or a manager with less than 1 years’ experience at this level. Fulham, West Brom, Derby, Boro, Huddersfield, Luton, Swansea, Barnsley, Forest, Hull, Birmingham and Charlton (12 clubs) are being managed by a coach who has never managed before at Championship level. Stoke, Brentford, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday are being managed by coaches with less than a year’s experience of the league.
So, half of the managers in the league have no experience, and the other 4 are very inexperienced. This is certainly some sort of phenomenon at Championship level. Only Leeds, Cardiff, Bristol City, Blackburn, Millwall, QPR, Wigan and PNE are coached by someone with more than a year’s experience of Championship football.
Surely then, this can work in Preston’s favour, as Neil knows his squad, and the squad know what Neil demands. Tactical systems have been developed and fine-tuned, and a settled squad continues to improve. Of the other clubs in PNE’s category, Wigan, Millwall, and QPR have far inferior squads and coaches, whilst Leeds, Cardiff, Bristol City and maybe Blackburn could be competitive. So, North End are in a really strong position in terms of continuity.
Moving on from the bizarre turnover of managers, many clubs have lost key players. Admittedly, PNE have lost Robinson, an excellent footballer, however I feel we are better equipped to deal with his loss compared to other sides. For example, Derby have lost Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fikayo Tomori – 3 players who essentially carried them to Wembley last season.
West Brom have lost Harvey Barnes, Craig Dawson, Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle. Brentford have lost Ezri Konsa and Romaine Sawyers, and it looks probable that they will lose Neal Maupay and Ollie Watkins. Swansea have lost Daniel James and could soon lose Oli McBurnie to Sheffield United. Leeds have let Jansson go. Luton have lost both full backs in James Justin and Jack Stacey. QPR have lost Freeman and Furlong. Charlton have lost Aribo, Bauer, Bielik and Cullen. Wigan have lost Reece James and Nick Powell. Barnsley have lost Pinnock, Davis and Lindsay. Birmingham have lost Che Adams and Jota. Boro have lost Flint. Bristol City look set to lose Webster.
You get the point… essentially every team at this level has lost a key player or two this summer – keeping hold of Pearson, Browne and Davies is a huge achievement for the club and shouldn’t be overlooked.
The turnover of players at other clubs, and the scaling back of spending at clubs due to FFP regulations hitting the likes of Leeds, Derby, Boro, Swansea and Wednesday has really levelled the playing field, in my opinion. FFP is finally coming into play now, as teams look set to rely on academy players and younger players rather than financially bullying their way to a play off place.
This could be positive for the league in general, as there will be an ever increasing importance placed on developing academy players, and Premier League loans, which should make for an interesting league and could eventually benefit the national side.
So, having assessed managerial situations, the loss by other clubs of key players, and the FFP situation, I can only say with confidence that a handful of clubs look to be in a more positive state than North End. Folk seriously underestimate the squad, and I am extremely confident that many will be surprised in the next week as we supplement it with 3-4 quality additions. This extra quality added to an already competitive squad, the (hopeful) lack of injuries and an incredibly astute manager, makes for North End to be very competitive in our own right this coming season. Add this to the state of flux that the Championship is currently in, for the reasons mentioned above, and I am genuinely confident that this season could hold something special.
Of course, you need luck to firstly finish in the top 6, and then to win the play offs. The auditing of the injury situation looks to have so far paid dividends, the age of the squad, the development of our young coach, the continuity at the club, and the recklessness of other clubs, makes for an exciting season.
Once the incomings we are currently working on are over the line, I’m hopeful that many will agree with me and what I’ve outlined in this post and that the air of negativity that’s been doing the rounds recently can start to lift.
After all, Alex Neil said all along that this window would take time to come to life, and I’m supremely confident that the wait will be worth it.