Having missed out on last season’s Sky Bet Championship Play-Offs by a mere two points, many thought Preston North End would build on their seventh-place finish. It hasn’t quite gone to plan though, has it?
There was a lot of expectation because, over the last five or six seasons, we’ve seen year-on-year improvement and that was the aim this time around. A few factors have combined meaning they are at the wrong end of the table at the moment. They’ve certainly performed below par from what was hoped in pre-season.
Alex Neil’s side have already lost away from home on five occasions. What’s the reason for North End’s troubling form on the road?
The away form was strong last year; they won one more game on the road than they did at Deepdale. The problem this season is that they didn’t score in the first four away matches and the 3-3 draw with Aston Villa at the beginning of the month was the first point gained away from home. Alex Neil has made them a little bit more attacking this season; they scored 18 goals in the first 12 games, which was the seventh best in the division at that point, but they also shipped 24 in the same period. He’s moved the full-backs a little bit higher at times and I think, in order to become slightly more attacking, they have tended to leave the back door open, whereas last season they were nice and tight, pressed well, nicked the ball and attacked on the counter. They’ve just not been able to do that this season.
North End haven’t really been convincingly beaten so far this season, so would you say luck has played its part in their misfortune?
They lost 3-0 at Leeds and had a good first ten minutes, but other than that they were under the cosh and Leeds coasted that one. Every other game has only been decided by one or two goals, including the successive 2-0 away defeats to Norwich City and Derby County, and that’s been one of the frustrations; they’ve not been absolutely thrashed, but there have been daft mistakes, slack play and a tendency to concede a short time after scoring.
In spite of the lacklustre start, the division is still so tight and a sequence of victories could see Preston rocket up the table. What’s the aim for the next few months?
In the short-term – particularly between now and the international break – they need some points to move away from the bottom three. It is still too early to talk about aiming for the upper reaches of the Championship, but there’s confidence that, with the potential in the squad and what happened last season, they can get themselves on a run and climb the table. That said, I’m not saying they are in a false position because the table doesn’t lie - they’ve not been good enough at times.
Which player has impressed you most so far?
Probably North End’s best player this season has been Callum Robinson. He’s been with the club a while now after two loan spells from Aston Villa, then they made the deal permanent in 2016. He’s this season’s leading goalscorer and has mainly played as a wide attacker in his time with the club, but for a little bit of last season and this season, Alex Neil has played him up front as a number nine. He’s not your traditional header of the ball or one to hold it up, but the position seems to have suited him at times and he’s got a few goals to his name. He’s always been a decent player but just seems to have gone up a notch or two this year. Though the number nine role has suited him at times, I still feel his best position is coming in off the left-hand side in a 4-2-3-1. He’s not a touchline-hugging winger but he operates down the channels as a wide attacker and has been very good.
How does Alex Neil set up his side and can you give us the latest on the injury front?
He likes to use a high-press; if the opposition try to play out from the back, North End will go after them. Last season they tried to nick the ball quite high up the pitch and went from there. They built on quite a sturdy defence and didn’t score many goals, so their approach has almost been flipped on its head this season. Sometimes he’s switched to playing three at the back, which hasn’t worked particularly well. Since they sold Jordan Hugill last January they’ve not got a big target to aim for so they do tend to play a bit more football, to be fair.
Injury-wise there are quite a few absentees: they’ve got Billy Bodin and Josh Harrop out, both with torn ACLs, so that is two long-term injuries. They’ve also got Calum Woods out at the moment with a hamstring/calf injury - he’s only featured once so far.
What’s your score prediction for Wednesday’s game?
I’m going to go for a 2-1 Preston win.
Preston have confirmed that they will be selling tickets on the gate from the away ticket office in the Bill Shankly Kop from 6pm on the night. Cash and card payments will be accepted, this is also the collection point for tickets sent to Deepdale or ones that need duplication.