Preston North End finished the 2019-20 Championship season in ninth place. The final table had North End just four points adrift of the playoffs, in a season which ultimately ended in disappointment.
Alex Neil’s side were superb to start the season, and went top of the table in November. Sadly, Preston didn’t quite have the quality to make it stick, and ended up falling all the way out of the top six.
So, what now? It looks like Alex Neil is staying, at least for the foreseeable future. Preston’s summer plans will ultimately depend on the futures of Ben Davies, Ben Pearson, Alan Browne and Daniel Johnson, but we can’t really predict those situations.
Instead, we’ve had a look at areas we could improve on now, by digging into some of the numbers from last season whilst trying to identify players who can help Preston improve and take the next step forward.
Formation, playing style and data
Alex Neil has largely stuck with a 4-2-3-1 during his time at Preston, though did play a 5-3-2 with a running number 10 in a couple of post-lockdown games.
North End like to have plenty of the ball, averaging 51.2% of possession, which ranks 10th in the Championship based on the 2019-20 data. However, the numbers don’t exactly show a team that necessarily uses the ball too well.
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A pass completion rate of 71.6% is only good for 17th in the league, with the accurate short passes per game of 249.1 placing Preston slap bang in mid-table. Compare that with 35.4 accurate long passes per game – the best in the league – and 29.5 aerials won per game, and North End look like a direct side. Those aerial numbers do though account for defensive contributions, which Patrick Bauer and Andrew Hughes influence heavily.
We all know that North End’s problems are around the final third, and the numbers support that idea. Preston only manage an average of 8.4 key passes per game, which ranks Preston down in 19th. Unsurprisingly, Preston are also ranked lowly for assists, with just 31; only Luton Town recorded fewer.
Preston are having trouble turning possession into concerted pressure, with a lack of both key passes and assists pointing to a side that are lacking cutting edge.
One of the most concerning pieces of data relating to North End’s approach play surrounds successful dribbles. Preston are completing just 5.3 dribbles per game, which is dead last in the league. No other team has fewer than six per game, and no team is attempting fewer per game with 10.6.
When it comes to goals, Preston rank 13th in the league; unless you have a truly exceptional defence, that isn’t going to amount to a playoff place. North End are worryingly in the bottom half for shots per game and shots on target per game, averaging just 11.8 and 3.6 respectively.
Preston aren’t taking many shots from inside the six yard box, with just 0.8 per game; the third-lowest in the league. Shots outside the box isn’t much better with four per game, which ranks 20th in the Championship. Preston are though having seven shots inside the penalty area per game, which is a top-six rank.
North End are managing to pose a threat between from six to 18 yards, but nothing really either side of that. Additionally, Preston are having just 7.3 open play shots per game, which ranks 19th in the Championship. From set pieces, Preston are managing 3.9 shots per game, which is one of the best in the league.
This all paints the picture of a side struggling for creativity and magic in the final third. To have the 13th highest goal tally but the 23rd highest assist tally shows a side struggling for open play creativity, and Callum Robinson’s exit will have certainly contributed to that.
Robinson recorded 1.3 successful dribbles per game on his own in the 2018-19 season; only Billy Bodin recorded an average of more than one successful dribble per game for Preston last season. Robinson also posted 1.4 key passes per game in 2018-19, which was only bettered by Paul Gallagher last season.
Robinson was of course a huge miss last season, and we now need to see more from Scott Sinclair; 0.6 successful dribbles per game and 0.2 key passes per game simply isn’t good enough from North End’s big-name January signing.
Full backs are relied upon to cross the ball for North End. Darnell Fisher attempted 3.7 crosses per game last season, and Andrew Hughes 2.3. Tom Barkhuizen and Seani Maguire would often play out wide, but only recorded 1.6 and 1.3 crosses per game respectively.
Even Tom Clarke and Joe Rafferty played 1.3 and 2.2 crosses per game respectively from full back areas, with the wingers instead expected to work slightly more in-field. The anomaly in many categories is Billy Bodin.
The Welshman attempted 2.5 crosses per game, which is a relatively massive number for a Preston winger. He was the only Preston player to attempt more than two dribbles per game last season, but played just 941 minutes last season. With one year left on his contract, North End need to decide whether he’s going to be a potential attacking solution or a potential departure.
Declan Rudd’s improvement means Preston won’t be searching for a first-choice goalkeeper unless fears over a pre-season injury are true. If Connor Ripley was to leave – and he has been linked with Salford City – a backup goalkeeper would be required, with Mathew Hudson not quite at the level needed just yet.
Joe Rafferty fared well at right back after lockdown, thought Darnell Fisher should still be first choice. Only a position to strengthen if Fisher was to leave; he has just one year left on his contract.
Preston have a decent mix at centre back; two tall, aerially dominant centre backs in Patrick Bauer and Paul Huntington, and two quicker, ball-players in Ben Davies and Jordan Storey. Josh Earl’s return from Ipswich Town offers another option.
Andrew Hughes will likely start the season as first-choice left back, with Earl as cover. It’s my personal opinion that we need an attack-minded left back to open the game up a little more at home and free up some space for Scott Sinclair.
Preston are well-stocked in midfield. Ben Pearson and Alan Browne are very good Championship players, whilst Ryan Ledson starred after lockdown. Paul Gallagher is here for another year, and Tom Bayliss will hopefully emerge. Brad Potts can also offer legs there.
Daniel Johnson is Preston’s top number 10 now, with Josh Harrop offering another creative option. Alan Browne or Brad Potts can play there in a ‘running 10’ role.
Tom Barkhuizen has the right side fairly locked down, though Brad Potts played well there in a couple of games post-lockdown. Billy Bodin is another option, but doesn’t appear to be in favour.
Scott Sinclair should be Preston’s top left-sided winger, though Seani Maguire and Josh Harrop will also feature there at times.
Seani Maguire likely enters the season as Preston’s top striker despite a disappointing season on the goal front, with Jayden Stockley offering a target man figure. David Nugent doesn’t offer much anymore sadly, whilst it’s unclear just how Louis Moult will return from a year out.
Conclusions: Preston need at least one striker, preferably mobile, good in the air and with Championship experience. An attack-minded left back – in the mould of Max Lowe, a Preston target last summer – should be wanted if Earl’s future is at centre back. Of course, replacements for Ben Davies or Ben Pearson would be needed if they move on, but we will have to see on that front. Identifying goalkeepers now to replace Ripley would be wise too, especially amid concerns about a potential Declan Rudd injury.
We have to remain somewhat realistic here; Preston operate predominantly in the English market, specifically in League One and League Two. North End do also look to Scotland and Ireland, though with not quite as much regularity.
The last player Preston signed permanently directly from a side out of the UK and Ireland was Keammar Daley from Tivoli Gardens in 2011. Preston did also sign free agents Juvhel Tsoumou and Thorsten Stuckmann in that season after spells in Belgium, whilst the last player to come in from a foreign side was Simon Makienok, as he joined from Palermo.
Both Makienok and ex-Maritimo defender Patrick Bauer ended up on Preston’s radar after spells at Charlton Athletic, with North End seemingly preferring to keep a core of players already adjusted to life in England.
It’s therefore not particularly realistic to suggest players from around Europe, as that simply isn’t where Preston recruit right now.
There’s a couple of routes Preston can go down if Ripley moves on; a player they view as a potential future stopper after Rudd, or an experienced veteran who will sit on the bench and offer help to Hudson.
For the former, we’ve picked out Kieran O’Hara. He ticks a number of boxes for Preston, having been schooled at Manchester United and then become a Republic of Ireland international.
He’s of a good age at 24, and has already been out on loan at other clubs such as Morecambe, Macclesfield Town and Burton Albion.
O’Hara possesses a strong frame at 6ft 3in tall, and having impressed in League One with Burton Albion last season, he is now ready to make the step up to the Championship.
O’Hara racked up the third-most saves in League One last season with 95; only Lee Nicholls of MK Dons and Bolton Wanderers’ Remi Matthews recorded more saves. He wasn’t used massively in the passing game with just 213 accurate short passes, and only a third of his 607 long balls were considered accurate.
He is a fine shot-stopper, and available for nothing after leaving Manchester United. Bringing him in as competition for Rudd would make sense, but only if Ripley is on the move.
If Preston would rather go for a veteran – like Chris Kirkland in 2015 – then Andrew Lonergan would make some sense following his release from Liverpool.
The 36-year-old was born in Preston and started his career at North End. We can’t offer much data to back up targeting Lonergan, but he would be a real experienced head for Hudson to learn from, and decent enough backup behind Rudd for a year.
We would rather Preston didn’t put money into players with no sell-on value, and North End have been burned by bringing back Nugent when he just isn’t good enough anymore, summing up that sentiment in football is often misplaced.
Still, Preston are likely to lose money on Ripley, so we would totally understand going for a freebie as a new backup goalkeeper – even if it’s the ageing Lonergan.
Going for a left back ultimately depends on how Preston see Josh Earl. Our best guess is that he will be backup to Andrew Hughes, whilst possibly being groomed to become Ben Davies’s future replacement as the left-footed centre back.
Still, neither Earl nor Hughes offer as much going forward as Max Lowe does, and North End’s 2019 interest in Lowe suggests that they did at least look at signing an attacking left back.
If that is still something on the radar – and it should be given Hughes’ lack of attacking output and Earl potentially being a centre back moving forward – then here are some names to consider.
We have picked out three left backs that played in League Two last season, matching up with Preston’s recruitment from the third and fourth tiers in recent times.
Cohen Bramall, Harry Pickering and Ibou Touray were arguably League Two’s best left backs last season, so let’s dig into the numbers and see what they offer both going forward and defensively.
We’ve thrown in Hughes’ stats from last season and Greg Cunningham from the 2017-18 season, a player whose attacking ability hasn’t quite been replaced since his move to Cardiff City.
Bramall and Touray both recorded five assists to Pickering’s three, whilst Touray’s four goals brought him out on top with the total goal contributions (goals + assists). Pickering’s numbers for key passes per game are hugely impressive at 2.5, with Bramall and Touray in at 1.4 and 1.5 respectively – much higher than Hughes at 0.4 per game.
All three players average at least 1.5 accurate crosses per game, compared to Hughes at 0.4 Cunningham fared better than Hughes in all these areas, even if only marginally, but in order to provide more creativity and attacking thrust, Preston can stand to make these marginal gains.
Touray possesses the speed and ability to take players on, and remarkably posts more than one successful dribble per game; something Preston have struggled with, as noted earlier.
Both Touray and Pickering have recorded at least three accurate long balls per game, which may be appealing given North End’s strong record with long passes last season; it’s an area that Hughes is particularly strong in too.
Pickering has another string to his bow, as he scored some beautiful long-range strikes for Crewe last season, which would just add another threat to North End’s attacking play. The numbers show that Preston aren’t taking many shots from outside of the area, so Pickering could provide a boost to that aspect of play.
Bramall has shown real ability from set pieces, scoring a superb free kick in the playoffs against Exeter City. His deliveries from corners caused mayhem in League Two, which would add to one of Preston’s strengths. He is very quick and direct when given the chance to get forward, and puts quality into the penalty area.
Of course, being a left back isn’t only attacking, even if that’s something Preston need. Hughes is strong defensively, and Alex Neil surely wouldn’t want to sacrifice too much of that should another left back come in. With that in mind, here are the defensive stats for the players mentioned.
Bramall is noticeably lower for tackles, interceptions and aerials won per game. He is tight in one-on-one situations, which Neil likes about Darnell Fisher on the right, but his League Two numbers – coupled with the step up to the Championship – suggest that Preston would lose some defensive solidity from having him in the side, even if his recovery speed helps him at times.
Pickering is impressive defensively as well as going forward. His 2.2 tackles per game is the highest of the five, whilst he also fares well for interceptions. His clearance stats are the lowest of the bunch, but he played in a side that dominated possession, meaning clearances weren’t a huge factor for him compared to other left backs. Additionally, his 6ft 1in frame certainly helps with 1.9 aerials won per game.
Touray is the smallest of the lot, and can sometimes be targeted on the back post. His record of 1.9 aerials per game isn’t bad at all for his 5ft 8in frame, and he notably scored back post headers against Plymouth Argyle and Burton Albion, timing his runs well and attacking the ball aggressively in the air despite his size.
Touray is aggressive and fares well in the tackle, with his approach to the game reminiscent of ex-Preston left back Matt Hill in some ways. The former Everton youngster is also the only one of the three suggested targets to record more than two clearances per game, which somewhat meshes with Hughes and 2017-18 Cunningham, as both recorded more than three clearances per game, with that approach far from alien to Touray.
The big area of concern when it comes to a Hughes alternative is the drop off in aerials. The Welshman wins a huge six aerials per game, providing back-post solidity that somewhat goes unnoticed at times. Taking him out of the side would likely more of an issue in this area, but at least Pickering and Touray post around two aerials won per game. Greg Cunningham was strong in this area too with 2.8 aerials won per game, so it appears to be important to North End.
Pickering would be our pick here given his age, his attacking ability and his defensive solidity, but Crewe would be within their rights to command a considerable fee. Touray ticks some of the boxes, but asking a League Two defender to step up to the Championship at almost 26 could be a gamble. He would still be preferred over Bramall to us, but the Colchester United man should still be on the radar thanks to his attacking output.
Versatile attacker with creativity and skill
We’ve highlighted Preston’s lack of open play creativity. Attempting to rectify this by adding another number 10 or wide player with the ability to go past a man or unpick low block defences would make sense, but finding them is difficult. Key passes and successful dribbles are areas that Preston are lacking, so we’ve picked out a few players who can thrive in those metrics.
The youngest player here is arguably the most impressive. Colchester playmaker Poku only started playing league football last season having joined from Worthing last summer, but impressed with five goals and four assists.
Poku posted more than one key pass and dribble per game, and he’s also not afraid to shoot with 1.6 efforts on goal per game. The 19-year-old has shades of Eberechi Eze in the way he can go past players with a drop of his shoulder or with a piece of nonchalant skill, whilst he has the ability to drive forward from midfield and shoot on his dangerous left foot. Capable of playing out wide or as a 10, Poku’s trickery is what North End are lacking.
There are a number of options we’ve picked out from League One. Rhys Healey has the most impressive goal record with 11 last season, despite only playing 19 times for MK Dons. He’s more of a striker or wide attacker than a playmaker, but he has great feet – as shown with 1.4 successful dribbles a game – and he loves to shoot, taking 3.3 shots per game.
The 25-year-old suffered a significant injury in September, meaning he missed more than three months of the season. When he returned in December, the Manchester-born attacker racked up nine goals in 13 games for a stunning end to the season. His key pass numbers aren’t amazing at just 0.5 per game, having mostly been a striker for MK Dons, but his quick feet and desire to shoot could provide Preston with something different.
Scott Fraser is a name we’ve mentioned before, having posted impressive numbers at Burton Albion last season. The Scot is available for free having left the Brewers, and it’s hard not to be impressed. He racked up 11 assists last season, the most of any player in this list. He also leads the way for key passes per game with 2.4, summing up the creativity he provides.
Yet with 1.5 successful dribbles per game and 1.7 shots per game, Fraser ticks the other boxes we’re looking for here. Fraser is creative, tricky and dangerous from range, and his status as a free agent should be appealing to North End given the tight budget Alex Neil is working with this summer.
Fraser is predominantly a central midfielder though, and area where North End are well-stocked. He does have some experience as a number 10 and played a couple of games out wide last season, so Preston should manage to fit his creative ability into the side in some capacity.
Accrington Stanley’s Dion Charles is another player we have mentioned in the past, and North End should be aware of his quality given that he is not only down the road at Accrington, but he was actually born in Preston. The 24-year-old started out with Blackpool before impressing in non-league, and he got his big break last season with Stanley.
Charles picked up eight goals and four assists in the league last season, making the step-up from non-league to League One look seamless. Add in another four assists in the EFL Trophy, and Charles can be very proud of his campaign. He played in from the left flank or up front for John Coleman’s side last season, and – just like Poku – recorded at least one key pass and one successful dribble per game. They’re not sensational numbers, but they are promising signs.
Charles has the attacking versatility that Alex Neil tends to like given that he can play wide or up top, which Seani Maguire, Tom Barkhuizen, Callum Robinson and Lukas Nmecha have all exhibited under the Scot. He has shown quick feet during his time with Stanley, particularly with a superbly taken goal against Burton Albion earlier this year.
At almost 25, he doesn’t quite have the ceiling that Poku does, but his versatility and productivity in the final third should appeal to North End even if Charles hasn’t grabbed the headlines.
Marcus Browne is something of a strange case; we mentioned him as a potential replacement for Callum Robinson last summer after starring on loan at Oxford, but he then struggled to make an impact having left West Ham United for Middlesbrough. When he returned to Oxford on loan earlier this year, Browne was back to his best.
In 14 games for Oxford, Browne notched nine goal involvements with five goals and four assists. His key pass numbers are strong at 1.1 per game, but it’s his dribbling that really stands out. With 2.3 successful take-ons per game, Browne is by far the best player in this area, and he also posts the second-highest number of shots at 2.7.
Browne has incredibly quick feet and great imagination in tight spaces, utilising flicks and ball-rolls to beat aggressive defenders. He takes up impressive positions in half spaces between the left flank and the centre of the pitch, drifting into dangerous areas like Robinson did.
The gamble here is whether Browne can end up becoming a Championship player. He made no impact at Boro, but was outstanding again at Oxford. Browne just 22 and cost only £200,000 last summer, so he could be a calculated gamble from North End, in the hope of turning him into a Championship player who can bring that dynamic dribbling ability to Deepdale.
The final player we’ve picked out is Jamal Lowe of Wigan Athletic. The 26-year-old notched six goals and five assists last season, a decent return in his first Championship season. Wigan’s relegation means Lowe is a wanted man, and they want at least £750,000 for him according to Wigan Today.
Lowe’s dribbles per game were the lowest of the bunch here at just one, and his key pass numbers weren’t particularly impressive either at 0.8. Still, he has Championship experience and the ability to play on either flank, whilst adding pace to a Preston attack that sometimes relies too heavily on Tom Barkhuizen to provide speed.
Lowe played on the right at Portsmouth but on the left for Wigan, whilst there were also instances where he would be working just off Kieffer Moore centrally. Just like with Charles, that versatility fits well with what Alex Neil likes, whilst that one year of Championship experience would minimise some of the risk compared to other suggestions here.
There’s a real mix in this list. Healey arguably fits the best, given his ability to play wide or as a lone striker, but Poku is the biggest talent of the lot and could earn Preston huge money in the future. Fraser posts the best numbers, but may have a harder time breaking into the side than others mentioned.
A goalscoring striker
That sounds easy, but they’re hard to find. Preston sold Jordan Hugill to West Ham United in January 2018, and still haven’t really replaced him. Louis Moult and Jayden Stockley have tried, but haven’t quite shown themselves to be of consistent Championship quality.
The fact is that Preston will need to spend in order to find a striker. That may be difficult in a post-pandemic world, but the numbers don’t lie. Seani Maguire was Preston’s leading goalscorer up top with just five goals. Stockley added another four and the ageing David Nugent just one. 10 goals from three strikers just isn’t going to cut it for a team chasing the playoffs.
We’re not going to suggest players that would cost millions upon millions, as we know that Preston simply aren’t in that market. Instead, we’ll suggest a few strikers who could be available for the right price if Trevor Hemmings and North End can just push the boat out a little to sign a real goalscorer.
In an ideal world, Preston would be able to find a player that provides what Hugill did. Hugill was big, strong and able to hold the ball up, but also mobile, hard-working and willing to initiate the press. Stockley fits the former, but not the latter. Maguire fits the latter, but not the former. Finding a mix would be ideal, whilst hopefully bringing some more goals.
We would have recommended Kieffer Moore and Lyndon Dykes for this role, but they have already moved on to Cardiff City and Queens Park Rangers respectively, both for around £2million.
The key areas we’re looking at hear are shot efficiency and their ability in the air. Given Preston’s strong numbers for long passes and aerial prowess, this has to be a key facet for any striker that joins Alex Neil’s side this summer. There are of course other factors to consider, but these are just areas we want to focus on for now.
We’ve added 2017-18 Jordan Hugill to the mix here as a comparison, given that North End have struggled to replace him in recent years. The other names we’ve added are Barnsley’s Cauley Woodrow, Charlton Athletic’s Macauley Bonne, Nottingham Forest’s Tyler Walker after a loan spell at Lincoln City, and Accrington Stanley centre forward Colby Bishop.
The first thing to look at is goals. Woodrow hit 14 in the Championship last season in a struggling Barnsley side, with Walker hitting 14 in League One at Lincoln. Bonne smashed 11 goals in his first Championship campaign having previously been in non-league action, whilst Bishop scored 10 times last season.
Woodrow is well clear in terms of shots per game at 3.5, with Bonne mustering just 1.5 shots per game. That’s rather low, but he gets 46% of his efforts on target. Walker and Bishop posted very similar numbers for both shots and shots on target per game in League One, whilst the numbers show how profligate Hugill was, getting just 28% of his shots on target in the 2017-18 season.
So, let’s dig into aerials. As much as Alex Neil likes to play a progressive brand, North End do like having a physical focal point up top. Hugill had 13.9 aerial challenges per game, and the nearest of the pick was Accrington ace Bishop. He has a very similar robust stature to Hugill, and a similar rise from non-league football to the Football League. Their success rate in the air is also very similar, in the low 40%.
Bonne was tasked with plenty of aerial battles at Charlton, and despite standing at shorter than 6ft tall, he still managed to win around 37% of those aerial duels. Woodrow stands at 6ft tall, but won just 27% of his aerial battles, though it’s worth noting that Barnsley’s style of play meant that he didn’t even have five aerial challenges per game.
Another important factor to consider is where their goals came from. We noted earlier that most of Preston’s shots are taken from inside the box, with few outside of the area or inside the six-yard box. That’s even highlighted by Hugill’s 2017-18 record; all eight of his goals came from inside the box, with none outside the area or inside the six-yard box.
There are two schools of thought from there; you can either look to find a player who fits what you already have, or bring in somebody can bring a different dimension.
Woodrow has outstanding ability on the ball, and his five goals from outside the area last season showed off his technical ability. He’s a clean striker of the ball, and isn’t afraid to have a dig from range; something that Preston somewhat lack. Woodrow is fairly well-rounded though, as he is also a fine poacher, though just the one headed goal again shows an issue in the air.
Bonne again shows up well. He doesn’t do much outside of the area, but he comes alive inside the box. He managed four headed goals, again showing aerial prowess beyond his billed height – and that will surely be appealing to North End.
Bishop again shows up similarly to Hugill in that he didn’t score from outside the box, doing most of his work from close range. Three penalties do very much bolster his numbers though, and asking a League One striker to be a play-off chasing striker after just seven goals from open play could be a major gamble.
Walker – who could be available after Forest signed Lyle Taylor to support Lewis Grabban – is quick, technically good and makes great runs off the shoulder of the last defender. He’s not particularly robust, and did struggle a little as a lone striker at Bolton Wanderers in 2018, but his work in and around the box makes him very appealing.
So who is our pick here? Woodrow is the most technically impressive of the lot, and was effective as a pressing forward at Barnsley. His lack of ability in the air is a concern though, so we’re picking Bonne as the man to go for. His aerial numbers are very impressive for his size, he takes up great positions inside the box and he still has bags of potential whilst having a year of Championship action under his belt.
Bonne won’t come cheap now, but adding a double-figure striker would make Preston a much bigger threat and is certainly worth investing in if the money is available this summer.
From looking at the data, Preston have a couple of areas to improve. We all know North End need a striker this summer, and that has to be the priority if we’re to really challenge for the top six next season.
There are other ways to improve that attacking output though; it isn’t simply about signing a striking, sticking him up top and hoping for the best, not that we could imagine that’s what Alex Neil would do anyway.
The lack of dribbles and key passes is of big concern, so a versatile attacking player could provide that spark that Preston need in games against low block defences. Hopefully Tom Bayliss can add to that after – to borrow a term from American sports – redshirting his first year at Deepdale.
Even adding a more attack-minded left back could open up the game more whilst creating space infield for Scott Sinclair. Greg Cunningham did that well alongside Callum Robinson, and we identified a few left backs who can do just that.
This is all pretty raw data and, quite frankly, we’re not quite at the level to be digging into xG and advanced metrics just yet, but they highlight some areas where Preston can improve and some players who could aid North End.