So, here we are. The eve of the new Championship season for Preston North End. It doesn’t feel like too long since the 2019-20 campaign ended with a 1-1 draw at Bristol City, but we’re ready to go again.
The day after that result at Ashton Gate, we wrote that Alex Neil needed and deserved to be backed in the transfer market with more quality, especially in the final third.
Sadly, that hasn’t happened yet. North End have yet to sign anybody this summer; the only Championship side yet to make an addition, meaning it’s largely the same squad that ended last term.
Tom Clarke has gone to Salford City, Josh Ginnelly has been loaned out to Hearts and David Nugent has been told he is surplus to requirements. Other than those changes, Neil is working with what he had last term.
There are two ways to look at this; the first is that Preston still don’t have a goalscorer in attack, and whilst they cost money that is largely beyond North End’s reach, it’s hard to imagine that Neil can drag his side into the playoffs without a consistent source of goals in attack.
The other is that Preston haven’t actually lost anybody. As things stand, Ben Davies, Ben Pearson, Alan Browne and Daniel Johnson – now often known as ‘the big four’ – are still at the club, despite their contracts expiring in a year’s time.
So, it’s much of the same at Deepdale, and with that in mind, let’s dig into this Preston squad and where exactly it stands ahead of the new season, with inspiration taken from Carl Anka and Tom Worville’s Manchester United squad depth piece on The Athletic.
The Good – Midfield depth is possibly the best in the league
Brentford can maybe offer some competition here with Christian Norgaard, Mathias Jensen, Josh Dasilva, Shandon Baptiste and Emiliano Marcondes, but Preston’s midfield can go toe-to-toe with anyone in this league.
With Kalvin Phillips now in the Premier League, Ben Pearson is the finest holding midfielder in the league. He has toned down his disciplinary issues, allowing his ability to tick possession over, switch play accurately and break up play in front of the Preston defence shine through.
Ryan Ledson has really kicked on since lockdown, not only for his robust style but also his ability as a progressive passer. He looks more mobile and energetic than ever before, he is always looking to play forward and can find players in-between the lines.
Alan Browne is Mr Versatile, and may even start the season at right back, whilst Paul Gallagher is a veteran head who will be needed more than ever following Tom Clarke’s departure. Tom Bayliss is the next big hope, and showed his ability as a ball-carrier in midfield during pre-season, having – to borrow a phrase from US collegiate sport – redshirted his first season at Deepdale. Hopefully, Bayliss can really kick on this season, as his ability to carry the ball would possibly provide a spark in games where Preston are expected to break down low defensive blocks.
In Brad Potts, Preston have a player who looks to be reinvigorated since lockdown. He came in for big criticism at times last season, but looks fitter and more dangerous around the box than he did. Potts offers plenty as a running 10 with his strength and power, whilst he breaks the lines brilliantly and times his runs into the box well.
Outside of youngsters Jack Baxter and Adam O’Reilly, who we don’t expect to play a huge part this season, the final part of Preston’s superb midfield is Daniel Johnson. Many wanted to drive him to Wigan Athletic 13 months ago, but he was moved into a number 10 role last season and thrived, bagging 12 goals and eight assists. He’s a constant goal threat in an advanced role, whilst he provides creativity and guile around the box. Only Paul Gallagher averaged more key passes per game for Preston last season, and with Gallagher now 36, there will be real onus on Johnson to serve as Preston’s chief creator.
Few Championship sides have this blend of energy, power and progressive ability. Alex Neil can go in so many different directions with this group of midfielders, and it will be key to any Preston success this term.
The Bad – Contract concerns rife
As seen in the squad depth image, Preston have 13 players out of contract next summer. New deals for Josh Harrop, Seani Maguire, Mathew Hudson and Ryan Ledson have brought that number down, whilst Josh Ginnelly is off on oan to Hearts and won’t play for the club again.
The major concern surrounds Ben Davies, Ben Pearson, Alan Browne and Daniel Johnson. All four will be able to sign pre-contract agreements in a matter of months, meaning Preston may end up getting nothing for them.
Take one of them out of the Preston side and it’s hampered massively; take all four out and it’s hard to see North End getting close to the top half, never mind anywhere near the playoffs.
There is of course the financial aspect to this too. Preston have used sales of Jordan Hugill, Greg Cunningham and Callum Robinson to inject cash into the club and attempt to ease the burden on owner Trevor Hemmings. If the four biggest assets at the club leave for absolutely nothing, it could have a hugely damaging impact on North End not just next season, but moving forward.
We’re expecting Josh Earl to get a new deal deal, but there are some players in grey area; Andrew Hughes, Darnell Fisher, Paul Huntington, Billy Bodin and Louis Moult could genuinely go either way. There are so many factors involved in them; injury concerns with Bodin and Moult, the age concern with Huntington and then whether Hughes or Fisher are worth giving improved terms to for years to come.
David Nugent won’t be here much longer, Paul Gallagher could well retire next summer and youngster Adam O’Reilly would be well within his rights to move on at the end of his deal given his lack of first-team opportunities.
Preston face a battle tying down key players, and may well need to rebuild the side next summer with so many players coming to the end of their deals, so this could be the one last chance for this group of players – which has been together for a long time now – to make the big time.
The Ugly – The striker issue still hasn’t been resolved
Preston head into the season without a new signing, which means no new striker, which was ultimately the biggest need heading into the transfer window.
North End do have four strikers. However, Louis Moult hasn’t kicked a ball since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament at Swansea City in August 2019, and David Nugent is set to move on having been told he is free to go.
Seani Maguire and Jayden Stockley managed just nine goals between them last season, and Preston ultimately need a consistent goalscorer; somebody who will at least break 10 goals up front in order to finish in the top six next season.
For context, Swansea sneaked into the playoffs with Rhian Brewster scoring nine goals in 18 league outings, matching the record of Maguire and Stockley on his own.
Fulham had Aleksandar Mitrovic, Brentford’s front three were on fire all season and Cardiff City had five players score seven or more goals – Preston had just two, and neither were out and out strikers.
We understand the budget issues at Preston; we can’t go out and spend £3million-plus on a new striker in the hope they will fire us to the Premier League, we can’t do what Nottingham Forest have done in paying Lyle Taylor big wages to support Lewis Grabban before then going and landing Spanish striker Miguel Guerrero too.
Preston need to find an addition within the budget restrictions at Deepdale, which won’t be easy at all, but we have flagged up Charlton Athletic striker Macauley Bonne as a potential option.
The Addicks are in financial trouble, and there has been talk that Bonne can be snapped up for £1million at most as they look to raise funds – and that’s the kind of deal Preston should be looking for if true.
Bonne scored 11 goals in his first Championship season last term, more than Maguire and Stockley combined, all whilst playing in a team that ultimately suffered relegation.
The Zimbabwean is only 24, so he has plenty of room to develop and offer Preston resale value, whilst his fit appears to be very good for this North End side and Alex Neil’s style.
Most of Preston’s shots came from inside the penalty area, ranking lowly for shots inside the six-yard box and for shots outside of the box. Five of Bonne’s goals last season came from inside the box, meaning he would fit into how Preston create chances whilst also offering something of a ‘fox in the box’ threat having scored five goals inside the six-yard box, possibly adding a new dimension to Preston’s attack.
Four of Bonne’s goals were headers, and despite being just 5ft 11in tall, he possesses a great leap and desire to get up and win headers. Preston are quite a direct side, ranking fourth for aerials won per game in the Championship last season, so having somebody who can lead the line whilst possessing movement and pressing ability would be ideal – and Bonne ticks the boxes.
Is Bonne a top Championship striker? Possibly not, but he seems to be a great fit for North End and available at a reasonable price, whilst upgrading Preston’s most troubling position.
Without a new source of goals, it’s hard to imagine that Preston will break into the top six. This is a very good squad with great depth in midfield and a solid back line, so one strike addition could push North End from a team hovering around 7th to 11th into a top six side. With a month to go, hope is not lost yet, but fans are growing a little impatient and ultimately don’t want this strong side with an exciting manager to fall apart next summer.