Pre-season is over and the start of the new Championship season is now just a matter of hours away.
Preston return with an opening day trip to Wigan Athletic on Saturday afternoon with almost 5000 North End fans making the short trip.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited as a Preston fan right now, mainly because we are entering Ryan Lowe’s first full season in charge.
Six new signings have come in and with a more attractive brand of football than we are normally accustomed to, Preston fans are quietly hopeful.
With the new season almost here, we’ve analysed North End’s pre-season and summer activity…
Lowe isn’t entirely wedded to 3-5-2
This has been a criticism levelled at Lowe in recent months; that he will only play 3-5-2 and won’t budge at all.
We saw him dabble with a 4-3-3 at Derby County last season which didn’t really work, and Lowe has tested other ideas this summer.
Lowe has tried more of a 3-4-2-1 at times this summer, utilising two players behind a striker. There were even chances for Ben Woodburn to play off a striker in something akin to a 3-5-1-1.
The three at the back likely isn’t going anywhere, but Lowe is seemingly prepared to mix up his midfield and attacking composition moving forward.
Preston signings have big-club experience
Nothing again Jamie Thomas at all, but last summer saw Preston take a punt on a player from Bamber Bridge in the hope of striking gold.
It didn’t quite work for the former Burnley talent despite his ‘Roy of the Rovers’ story.
Compare that to this summer and you and see that most of North End’s arrivals come with a certain pedigree.
Freddie Woodman has been in the Newcastle setup for years whilst Robbie Brady came through at Manchester United before becoming a Premier League regular with Hull City, Norwich City and Burnley.
Ben Woodburn may have been released by Liverpool this summer, but he has spent most of his career under the watchful eye of Jurgen Klopp.
Even loan signings Alvaro Fernandez and Troy Parrott are coming in from Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
Lowe will be hoping to see that pedigree pay off as North End raise expectations this season.
North End’s exciting loan approach
Preston haven’t always worked with the loan market with great effect.
In the first two years of Alex Neil’s spell in charge, Preston only signed three loanees – Stephy Mavididi, Brandon Barker and Lukas Nmecha.
North End have enjoyed some strong loans of late though; Daniel Iversen, Sepp van den Berg and Cameron Archer all became fan favourites last season.
Preston have now been able to secure two very exciting loans in the aforementioned Parrott and Fernandez.
Both players had major interest from elsewhere but have been sent to Preston to continue their development.
This feels like a knock-on impact; once you get one or two strong loans, other Premier League clubs will view you as an appealing destination for talented youngsters.
Parrott and Fernandez look set for big seasons this term and if that does happen, you can expect North End to be active in the loan market again next summer.
Preston still need long-term assets
We love the loan signings – they’re exactly the kind of talents Preston need to add alongside the crop of permanent players.
Yet if you look at Preston’s six summer signings, only one of them – Freddie Woodman – is signed up beyond the 2023-24 season.
Dai Cornell is on a two-year deal, Robbie Brady has a one-year deal and Ben Woodburn has a one-year deal with the option of a second.
We would still like to see Preston make some signings for the future, especially with a number of players coming out of contract next summer.
For instance, Seani Maguire and Ched Evans are out of contract, Parrott is only on loan and Emil Riis is bound to have interest in his signature.
That would leave Preston needing three or even four strikers next summer, which is far from ideal for one transfer window.
Ryan Lowe wants to improve right now and we respect that, but Preston do still need some saleable assets emerging into the first team.
Woodman has an almost thankless task
Ask most Championship analysts and they will tell you that goalkeeper Woodman is a very positive signing for North End.
The problem for Woodman is that he is coming in after the excellence of loanee Daniel Iversen, who was just outstanding in 18 months at Deepdale.
How on earth do you follow Iversen? Even in limited pre-season action, there have been moments where Woodman’s performance has immediately been compared to Iversen.
Any mistake this season is bound to be compared to Iversen, but Woodman should be celebrated for his own qualities.
Woodman should help Preston’s progressing out from the back, whilst having him for three years is quite the coup for North End.
Gone are the days of loan signings in goal, and whilst Iversen was outstanding, we have to let Woodman step out from that looming shadow.
Liam Lindsay may get the nod over Patrick Bauer
You could barely imagine saying that sentence just a few months ago, but with the opening day on the horizon, it doesn’t feel that shocking anymore.
Bauer proved to be a calming influence in the North End back line after returning from injury last season, but some mobility issues appeared to be present.
Lindsay has played more of a prominent role in pre-season and started in the final pre-season game against Leicester City; Bauer didn’t even come off the bench.
The German only signed a new deal in January, meaning he will be staying until 2024, and we would expect him to break back into the side at some point.
For now though, Bauer may well be sat behind Lindsay in the initial pecking order this season.
Andrew Hughes looks perfect for Ryan Lowe’s approach
Lowe has been a little more expansive with his approach in pre-season and his usage of wide centre backs has been interesting.
Those players have been pushed forward to support the attack in a daring setup, akin to Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United side.
That approach isn’t ideal for all defenders but Andrew Hughes just looks perfect as the left-sided centre back.
The Welshman was superb last season and could be even better this term given his ability to get forward with great effect.
Hughes’ experience as a left back means he can operate up the flank perfectly, taking up great positions whilst having the final ball to make an impact – as we saw with his assist against Leicester City last weekend.
Sepp van den Berg will be missed as right-sided centre back battle begins
Few could have really expected Sepp van den Berg to become such a fan favourite when he joined on loan from Liverpool in 2021.
Sent to Preston as part of Liverpool landing Ben Davies, Van den Berg ended up becoming a top Championship defenders with North End.
The Dutchman has now returned to Anfield and Preston haven’t signed a right-sided centre back; as things stand, it doesn’t look like they will.
Jordan Storey and Bambo Diaby have been sharing playing time there in pre-season but it looks like Storey is the favourite to start against Wigan.
Storey has shown promising signs carrying the ball forward but whether he has the pace of Van den Berg at the back is another question.
Diaby does have that pace but he was caught out positionally against Leicester. Jamie Vardy has done that to many defenders in his career, so there’s no great shame there, but Diaby may be better suited in the centre than on the right.
It’s up to Storey and Diaby to step up as Van den Berg’s replacement, which doesn’t seem ideal given how perfect the Dutchman was in that role.
Right wing back still a problem position
Lowe has tested the likes of Ali McCann and Brad Potts in that right wing back role, but neither are naturals there.
Potts could start the season in that position but it’s largely because a new signing still hasn’t been signed there.
Moves for Moses Odubajo and Cyrus Christie failed to materialise, whilst there have been links to the likes of Marlon Fossey and Dujon Sterling.
The left wing back area has gone from a position of concern to a position of strength with the signings of Brady and Fernandez.
With a month of the transfer window to go, Preston do have time to find a right wing back, but Preston will be seven league games into the new season by deadline day.
Matthew Olosunde seemingly won’t save his North End career after all, so a quality right wing back has to be the next priority if Preston are to really kick on this season.
Preston’s midfield depth looks hugely impressive
This has been said for a few years now but few Championship clubs will have depth in midfield like Preston.
It looks like the main three in Lowe’s 3-5-2 will continue to be Ben Whiteman in a deeper role with Alan Browne and Daniel Johnson ahead of him.
Ryan Ledson, Ali McCann and new signing Ben Woodburn offer depth and competition, allowing Lowe to swap his midfield around whilst retaining real quality.
We would still love to see more of McCann in the side as few can really match his defensive actions, whilst Ledson faces a big season as he enters the final year of his contract.
And speaking of Woodburn…
Ben Woodburn is a punt, but there are encouraging signs
Preston needed to find another attack-minded midfielder to support Daniel Johnson, with Lowe turning to Woodburn.
The Welshman had been released by Liverpool and joined Preston for the first week of pre-season training before signing permanently.
Woodburn burst onto the scene at Liverpool and looked set for stardom, but lost his way amid loan spells to Sheffield United, Oxford United, Blackpool and Hearts.
Now likely to play as a midfielder for Preston, Woodburn should receive plenty of minutes this season and offers flexibility given that he can play further forward.
Woodburn has enjoyed a strong pre-season and his knowledge of when to press out of possession seems to be well-appreciated by Lowe.
Daniel Johnson’s contract an urgent matter – again
It’s only a couple of years since we were worried about Daniel Johnson entering the final 12 months of his contract and here we are once again.
Johnson is out of contract in 2023 and there hasn’t been much noise about a new deal or even discussions on that front.
The Jamaican turns 30 in January and remains absolutely vital to how Preston play going forward.
Johnson has been with North End for more than seven years now and we could hardly blame him for thinking about a new challenge.
Yet having become a part of the furniture at Deepdale, we would love to see Johnson stay for a couple more years and push towards 400 appearances for the club.
North End surely won’t want Johnson to head into January without a new deal, as he would then be able to sign a pre-contract agreement with a non-English club.
Whether it’s Callum Robinson or somebody else, Preston must land another striker
As we’ve said already, we love the signing of Parrott and think he should be able to provide goals alongside Emil Riis.
Lowe has though made it abundantly clear that he wants another striker this summer, which is no surprise with Ched Evans and Seani Maguire both goalless in his reign as manager.
Lowe told Lancs Live on Thursday that he would like to sign a striker who can pick the ball up, beat defenders and put one in the top corner; wouldn’t we all!
That sounds like a Ricardo Fuller-type player, which would be hugely exciting yet hard to find.
Callum Robinson has been strongly linked with an emotional return from West Bromwich Albion, who are calling on Preston to pay up.
This one could go down to the deadline, but whether it’s Robinson or another striker on Lowe’s radar, North End need another goal threat.
Optimism around North End is high after positive off-field steps
Preston have been criticised over the years for their off-field approach but it does seem like Peter Ridsdale and co are listening and making a real effort.
North End fans became a little disconnected at times; maybe it was down to COVID, maybe it was the style of play, maybe it was the match day experience; fans had various reasons for feeling that way.
That buzz, elusive at the time, now seems to be back.
The arrival of Lowe kickstarted things as he arrived with positivity and a certain charm, before a superb season card offer saw Preston rack up more than 10,000 sales.
Summer business has been positive even if it seemed slow at times, whilst we have always praised the club’s Community and Education Trust.
The feeling around the fanbase seems completely different to a year ago, and we can only hope that the results on the pitch match.
North End’s youth ranks look as exciting as ever
Preston haven’t always had great success in terms of bringing through young talent, but this crop of homegrown players looks to be exciting.
Mikey O’Neill is the leader of the pack in that regard and will surely receive minutes this season having caught Lowe’s eye.
Lowe also likes the look of midfielder Dana Amaral, who seems to have emerged rapidly in recent months.
Add in James Pradic, Harry Nevin, Josh Seary, Aaron Bennett and Noah Mawene – as well as the now loaned-out Lewis Coulton – and Preston appear to have some very promising young talent.
It’s up to Lowe to know when to use these talents and how much first-team exposure to give them, but it’s nice to have hopes for the clubs youth products.
Lowe has been backed with his own men
Any manager wants to be backed, and there are many ways in which that can materialise, whether it’s transfer budget, recruitment approach or backroom staff.
Lowe maybe hasn’t had huge money to spend but North End are certainly giving him tools to work with at Deepdale.
MRKT Insights were brought on board for recruitment analysis after Lowe worked with them at Plymouth Argyle.
Lowe was also allowed to bring in a new ‘head of physical performance’ in John Lucas having worked together at Bury and Plymouth in the past.
Tom Little’s exit forced that move but Lowe’s preference was listened to and acted upon.
James Wallace has arrived as chief scout too, having played with Lowe at Tranmere Rovers.
It looks like Lowe is being given the men he wants around him, hopefully making sure that everybody is on the same page moving forward.