Trying to Solve Preston North End’s Striker Problem

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With one game down after the season restart, we look ahead to the Cardiff City game with the frustrations of the weekend still fresh in our minds and there’s plenty to discuss as North End enter the business end of the season.

I want to discuss a point that was touched upon on this week’s From The Finney podcast, and it’s a point that has been brought up many times this season and that is: we are lacking a goal-scoring striker.

However, we have to deal with what we’ve got for the remainder of the season and the manager needs to work out how to finish as strongly as possible.

Our Current Strikers

First of all, let’s look at the actual strikers we’ve got. Under Alex Neil, we only tend to play one up front and we very rarely move from the 4-2-3-1 formation. More often than not Seani Maguire has played that lone role up top. Seani particularly this season has caused a divide among North End fans. Of course, he gives a lot to the team and there is no doubting his effort and commitment, but by the same token, you need your main striker to be hitting the back of the net on a more regular basis.

When he arrived in the summer of 2017 from Cork City, it was on the back of some superb performances back in Ireland, even impressing in Europa League qualification. Obviously we have become accustomed to treating our imports from Ireland with trepidation now, but he certainly looked a promising talent.

However, he suffered some bad injuries in his first season but even when he made that famous return with two goals on Gentry Day away against Bolton Wanderers, he looked as if he was the player we needed; natural pace and a poacher’s instinct.

That seems to have gone now and while further injuries haven’t helped, his confidence seems shot at now. This isn’t a surprise considering some of the things that have been levelled at him on social media are, quite frankly, ridiculous. However, this season he has only scored four goals with three coming in his first six games and just one goal in his last 30 games.

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He’s started 26 of those games as well. Simply put, it’s not good enough from your main striker. No team in this league can afford to have a striker with those sort of stats, never mind one pushing for promotion and hanging on to the play-offs. It might be forgiven if he provided a few assists for his teammates but he has a grand total of two assists this season and none since the home game against Blackburn Rovers in October.

I believe he’s best playing out wide but I wouldn’t put him ahead of Scott Sinclair or Tom Barkhuizen at the moment. Obviously, the team will be rotated for the remaining games but I believe the best place for Maguire is on the bench right now.

One of his best games for us this season, in my opinion, was at home against Leeds. He only played 18 minutes, but his introduction from the bench nearly won us the game. He provided the goal for Barky, and it’s this sort of impact in small bursts we may need from our number 24 to get the best out of him.

Now, on to Jayden Stockley. He’s managed just the two goals this season, and no starts since the 7th December. As was covered on the podcast this week, he probably wouldn’t have even been starting for us in League One, but he does give us an ‘alternative’. There’s no doubt about it, he’s a plan B, perhaps even a plan C now but it can work sometimes. A prime example of this is the home game against Blackburn earlier in the season where he completely changed the game.

He rarely tests goalkeepers with headers, but then again, we don’t really whip any crosses in to give him this opportunity. Also, he has only won 38% (43 of 112 attempted) of his aerial duels. Even David Nugent has a higher success rate at 41% than Stockley. Granted, it’s marginal but still. I think he may work well as part of a front two but we’re never going to see that from Alex Neil.

Again, as I said earlier, he remains a decent option off the bench to worry an opposition and maybe the odd start away from home.

The majority of North End fans welcomed David Nugent back last summer with open arms, myself included. Whether it was the signing we needed or not was disputed at the time, but I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t. In fact, we could have done with another striker as well to give us another option.

Give credit to Nugent, however, as he has had a few good games for us this season. In both Leeds games, I thought he led the line well. He’s one of our most experienced players and that also showed against Stoke City away. He completely changed that game when he came on.

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However his best asset in his first spell with us was his pace, and that has sadly gone. His goals have dried up as well. Only one for us this season, and as Oli pointed out on the podcast he’s only got 3 goals in his last 61 Championship games and just the solitary one since his return which came at home against Fulham in December.

Finally, Louis Moult. He’s been at the club for two-and-a-half years now and I think this season could have been a huge one for Louis for him. His first half-season after joining in January 2018 allowed him to just find his feet mainly making appearances from the bench. He scored two goals, both as a sub that season away to Sheffield Wednesday and in the last game of the season which saw us relegate Burton Albion.

Last season he began to find his feet despite a few injuries hindering him, but he scored some very important goals. A winner away to Nottingham Forest, a crucial goal at home to Blackburn and a last-minute equaliser away to Hull City. He showed glimpses that he’s probably our most natural number 9.

‘King Louis’ didn’t even feature in the first matchday squad of the season, but after a toothless display against Millwall, he was brought into the starting eleven for the home tie against Wigan Athletic and I thought he led the line well and he even scored a goal in the 3-0 win.

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He had taken his chance and kept his place for the next game against Swansea City but, as we all sadly know, he didn’t last the full 90 minutes in Wales and the injury he suffered has kept him out for the whole of this season. On that day a certain Andre Green replaced him to play up front. It seems that even at this stage of the season Alex Neil wasn’t quite sure what he wanted in that position.

I honestly think with a fully fit Louis Moult we would have been in a much better position than we are now, and I think he would have just about reached double figures for goals.

The Alternatives

So, with all that in mind, my suggestion to solve our striker problem would be to play none of the above. We can play better without any of the aforementioned and we have done already this season.

With players like Tom Barkhuizen, Scott Sinclair, Billy Bodin, Josh Harrop and Daniel Johnson, we’ve got great attacking players who can link up with each other and interchange positions. I believe it’s best for us to play a false 9.

Against Nottingham Forest, at the start of the season at The City Ground we played Billy Bodin down the middle, with DJ just behind, and Harrop and Potts on the wings. But in truth, those four players basically played free roles, with the Forest defence struggling to pick any of them up. Bodin scored that day and it was a game we should have won.

One of our best away attacking displays came in January at Oakwell when we ran out comfortable 3-0 winners against albeit a very poor Barnsley side. Again we played without a recognised striker and Scotty Sinclair was on the scene then, too.

On this cold Tuesday night, Scotty played up front with Tom Barkhuizen, and behind them we played a diamond with DJ, Harrop, Ben Pearson and Alan Browne. Sinclair wasn’t even particularly on song that night, but it showed that we have different options in our squad to mix things up. Barkhuizen’s pace would cause every defence in this league a problem. He’s also one of our best finishers, and under Alex Neil, in the last three years, no player has scored more goals than Tom Barkhuizen (26).

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We need to make the most of that, and I think playing him down the middle can allow us to see the best of him. Playing on the last defender, being able to run in behind, and one-on-one with a ‘keeper you would always back Barky to score.

Sinclair has more to come, and I think again if we play him in an attacking role, but not necessarily restricted to being out wide, then we can see more of him. He’s gone missing in many of his game so far but both his goals were extremely well taken. Perhaps if he was played more centrally we could see him become a more important figure in the team rather than a peripheral one.

I’m not Billy Bodin’s biggest fan personally, I don’t think he’s quite up to Championship standards, but what I will say is that he does create chances for us. He also has a lot of efforts on goal, which frustratingly not many of our other players do. He’s possibly our most skilful player in the squad and loves to take on a defender.

His career with us has been a stop-start one but he remains another option who could play on either wing or down the middle. If those front three players are continuing to change positions with each other it makes it incredibly hard for the opposition defence to pick them up.

Josh Harrop is another player who could offer a lot and I believe he should have been playing a lot more often this season. He’s never had a good run of games in the side in his 3 years here.

In his first season with us, it took him some time to get going, but he showed promise towards the end of that campaign. His second campaign was a write off due to a serious injury.

This season he has started to look like the player who arrived with such potential in 2017. Harrop only has one year left on his contract and we definitely need to tie him down to a longer contract. He’s been in and out of the team this season but has still managed to score eight goals in all competitions.

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He scored three in three in August and also scored the same amount in January and went on to be nominated for Championship player of the month, too. However, the next game after this nomination, he was dropped. It baffles me the way Neil treats Harrop and I think he deserves better.

For me, his best position is number 10, and yes DJ is having the season of his life and Browne had the season of his life in that position last year. However, he needs to be getting involved more often. He is capable of playing out wide and cutting in.

The former United midfielder is the sort of player who is capable of producing something out of nothing, and so often we are crying out for that type of player in games. His goals are usually top drawer as well. His winner against Charlton was a thing of beauty, and his volley to equalise at Ewood Park was incredible as well, nearly bursting through the net. He’s a top player, let’s get him involved more.

In the league alone he’s averaged a goal every 240 minutes. More than a goal every three games. Yet, his longest run of consecutive starts in the Championship this season is just four. I think he deserves more than that, although we probably won’t see it before the end of this campaign.

Add DJ into the mix for his constant creativity sitting behind the front three, and suddenly we look a much stronger attacking force on paper than lumping it up towards Stockley, having Nugent just chase down everything, or watching Maguire look a shadow of his former self.

Of the front four attacking positions of a 4-2-3-1 formation, Barkhuizen, Sinclair, Harrop, Bodin and DJ are the ones we should be looking at rotating between for the most part. The others I have mentioned in this will still have a part to play, but I think it’s best if we play with a false 9.

I think any of Barkhuizen, Sinclair and Bodin can play that role, it suits our style of play, and I believe it gives us our best chance of scoring. How do you think we should line up in these final 8 games? Let us know on social media.

Also, if you haven’t listened to this week’s episode of the podcast, give it a listen.