We’re six games into the new season, Preston are seventh in the table and have already progressed to the third round of the Carabao Cup, where they face Man City later this month. Could the start have gone much better?
Yes, it’s been much better than last season. They’ve got 10 points on the board now - last year I think they only had about five and then had a miserable September – but the start has been much more promising. The home form, which has seen them win three from three in the Championship, has been a real boost and is an improvement because, generally, over the last couple of seasons, the away form has actually been a bit better than the home form. That’s certainly a plus but to have a double figure point score already, given they’ve had a lot of injuries as well, represents a decent enough start.
The form of a club after an international break can dramatically alter, either for the better or worse. At this point last season, North End had only won one game, so are you confident they’ll be able to maintain this pace?
I hope so, but the recent record after international breaks is pretty miserable, actually. Hopefully the way they’ve approached this break, where they’ve maybe trained for an extra day, will benefit them. For whatever reason, they do tend to have a poor start, but they’ve only got one player away on international duty this time whereas they may have had three or four in the past. If the bulk of the squad are kept in training, fingers crossed, that might help get better results from this weekend onwards.
With the exception of three permanent signings and the loan capture of Andre Green from Aston Villa, Alex Neil’s squad has remained relatively unchanged this term. How would you describe the current dynamic in the dressing room?
The talk earlier in the summer was bringing a lot more experience in. They signed Patrick Bauer from Charlton and he’s 26, so he’s not a ‘old’ player though he’s got 180-odd appearances to his name and has brought some experience with him. David Nugent has come back - he’s 34, a lot more experienced than when he left Deepdale in 2007 and, probably, at the tail end of his career – but he’s not played yet because of an injury. They brought in Tom Bayliss for quite a decent amount of money from Coventry, but he’s seen more as one for the future and has come in in an area where they are quite strong at the moment. There’s not a massive change from last season dynamics-wise. They lost three players over the summer when Lukas Nmecha and Brandon Barker went back to Man City, as well as Callum Robinson, who was a big-money sale when he left to join Sheffield United for £8 million. There was always that concern they might miss the goals, but they’ve kept them going this season, though they have spread them around the team and have 10 different scorers already. The squad, I’d say, is pretty strong in some areas: a good number of wide players and plenty of number 10s but they are a little bit short in the full-back area, as well as with central strikers.
As you mentioned, David Nugent joined the club for a second spell this summer, but it’s been Daniel Johnson who’s been right among the goals so far. Is he the man to watch this weekend?
Certainly, yes. There was talk that Wigan were interested in him in the summer and I even heard Brentford linked, though I’m not 100 per cent there was too much in that. Wigan wanted him on loan but North End would not loan to another Championship club so they went away after that. In the past, Alex Neil has favoured a 4-2-3-1 system and Johnson started in the two, not as a holding midfielder, but further back up the pitch. What they’ve done since he got his place in the team is play him as a number 10 behind the striker, giving him an advanced role, and he’s revelled in that. Three of his four goals are from the penalty spot, but the freer role really seems to suit him, his all-round game has been good and he’s got three assists as well.
How are Preston likely to set up at Deepdale on Saturday?
Usually this season it’s been a 4-2-3-1, but in the second half of last season when they had a good run, they went more 4-1-4-1. It’s only a slight tweak, but there is a bit of a difference there. Alex Neil is very keen on studying the opposition and will know how Brentford are likely to line up so he’ll adjust slightly to that.
What’s your score prediction for the game?
I’ll go for a 2-1 win for Preston.
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