Preston North End: From third-bottom to second-top and flying, what’s changed for Alex Neil’s men a year on?

North End were staring relegation in the face this time last year and are now looking at the Premier League.

Preston briefly moved to the top of the league at the weekend

This time last year Preston North End were third-bottom in the table with a goal difference of minus five.

How times change.

At the weekend – for the first time since 2006 – they briefly moved to the top of the table and have the league’s best goal difference.

So what’s different at Deepdale this season?

Goals from all angles

One of North End’s major issues last season was a lack of goals from their attacking players.

They relied on the midfield to score goals far too often but this season the team is coming together and are scoring for fun.

They have had 12 separate goal scorers this season with the rejuvenated Daniel Johnson already bagging eight and Tom Barkhuizen hitting the target on seven. occasions.

The Lilywhites are sitting pretty on the goals scored table this season. Their 28 goals put them joint top with West Brom – much like the actual league table.

A major factor in this has been Alex Neil’s fluid attacking system working much better this season, more often than not the front four can rotate and switch positions as needed.

Then you have the different options of Jayden Stockley and David Nugent, who have not been deployed as goal scorers this season but rather players to bring the wingers and midfield into play more often.

Style of play

Neil has this season made sure North End are retaining the ball much more at home rather than counter attacking.

The play has had an air of maturity about it, something that Neil has been looking for since he’s come in – and it has yielded results.

North End are unbeaten at home this season, winning six and drawing two .

Pearson more disciplined

Ben Pearson missed an incredible 13 matches last season through suspension, after picking up 14 yellow cards and three red cards in 32 appearances.

The bullish midfielder said at the end of last term he wanted to cut cards out of his game so that his mum returned to watch him and while it’s not been perfect, it might not be too long before she returns.

Ironically, the Englishman will miss Saturday’s game against Huddersfield after picking up a fifth yellow card, but this is his first ban of the campaign and so a substantial improvement on last season.

He’s not even picked up the most yellow cards in Preston’s squad, with Darnell Fisher racking up seven cautions.

German backing

The defence has been bolstered with the arrival of Patrick Bauer on a free transfer from Charlton.

The German is either both a good luck charm and a very good defender. He has been on the winning side in all three Football League divisions more than any other player in 2019.

The partnership he has formed with Ben Davies has been key to North End’s success this season and they have kept four clean sheets, while they have only conceded one in another five – none of which they have lost.

Johnson’s position change

While Daniel Johnson’s position hasn’t exactly changed, he has been playing in a much more advanced role.

Last season fans regularly saw Alan Browne in this position, a major reason why the Irishman contributed 12 goals and nine assists, but this term we have seen Johnson flourish.

The 27-year-old was teetering on the exit door in the summer, with Wigan believing they could get the player for £1.5m in the summer.

Alex Neil laughed off the offer and it has proved to be a wise decision to keep Johnson, with the Jamaican midfielder scoring eight so far this season already – the most in Preston’s squad.  

Less injuries

The Lilywhites had awful luck with injuries last season. This time last year Sean Maguire had just recovered from a long term injury and Josh Harrop, Billy Bodin and Andrew Hughes were all sidelined.

In contrast, this season only Louis Moult has a serious injury, while Harrop and Nugent are missing at the moment but only with slight niggles.

The fans are back

The feel good factor is back at Deepdale, there is no doubt about that.

With that comes the fans – and Preston supporters are certainly coming back.

The last two games at Deepdale have yielded an average attendance of 18,720 compared to the average of 13,381 for the first two games of the season at Deepdale.

In the first five hours that half-season tickets went on sale this season they sold more than they did for the entirety of last season.

With fans comes atmosphere, with atmosphere comes performances, and with performances comes results.

This certainly shows in the league table with North End second, and only looking up.