A matter of months ago, this wouldn’t have even been a question.
Just cast your minds back to our trip to Derby County back in August. Granted, it certainly wasn’t a vintage Preston North End performance, but those who went will recall an embarrassing 2-0 loss.
Frank Lampard celebrated like his side had just won the European Cup, David Nugent looked unplayable and loanee Lukas Nmecha led the line pathetically for Preston. In fact, stats app FOTMOB gave him a dismal rating of 5.6 out of 10 – the lowest of any other player who started the game.
The Manchester City prodigy lacked all the necessities for the no.9 role. He looked disinterested, sluggish and toothless. In all honesty we may well have been playing with ten men.
I just remember looking across the away end in despair, us fans all sitting in disbelief at how the hell this lad was in the City youth setup. A few hinting in jest that we should trade Nugent for Nmecha.
Now don’t get me wrong, he still has plenty to improve upon. His movement could be better, he often tries to be a bit too tricky and he is not a clinical finisher.
But he has been the player this season that has surprised me the most. No question about it.
He came to Preston as a young loanee shrouded in promise. One of those players destined for greatness. I mean we have had our fair share in the past. Remember Josh King?
According to reports a number of top Championship clubs had listed Nmecha as a target, but we were the team that managed to land him. Why? Quite simply because of our willingness to take a chance with young prospects. We, above all else, could guarantee Lukas game time.
He was a loan signing that really got people excited after what had been a below par summer transfer window which saw us sign Graham Burke and Michael Crowe… Nmecha, then, was the statement piece.
He had been training with the Manchester City first team alongside the likes of Aguero and Raheem Sterling and had played 16 minutes in the Premier League for the Citizens. Which is quite something considering City are arguably one of, if not the best team in Europe.
Perhaps though we expected a little bit too much. Many fans hoping that Nmecha would finally be that player to come in and fill the void left by Jorgan Hugill. And with Seani Maguire out injured, Lukas Nmecha would find himself thrown in at the deep end
He made his first appearance for PNE against ex-Premier League outfit Swansea, a team tipped for a playoff finish, at least.
Nmecha led the line that day, but could only register two shots on target. He also completed a mere 15 passes and touched the ball just 29 times. After the fanfare he joined with, this was an underwhelming performance at best.
He struggled to influence the game and this was something that would characterise much of his initial time at the club.
Again he led the line in that action-packed slugfest at home to Stoke, but found himself subbed off just over the hour mark after touching the ball 15 times and hitting the target once.
To put this into context, Peter Crouch, who featured for less than half the time of Nmecha, had one more touch. Crouch also bagged the equaliser with one of his 16 touches.
Many labelled Lukas a fraud. He just didn’t really seem offer anything. Plenty of flicks and tricks but no substance.
But we cannot forget that this has been his first season in men’s football after spending a decade plying his trade in City’s youth ranks.
For Christ’s sake the lad is a month younger than myself and I can’t even begin to comprehend battling with the likes Richard Keogh, Chris Basham and Tyrone Mings.
It’s one thing coming up against kids your own age for the England U21s and the Manchester City U18s, but it is a completely different ball game when you’re battling with brutes like Basham in front of a crowd of anywhere between 13,000 to 40,000 in the Championship.
The Championship has been coined by some as the most competitive division of football in the world. For Nmecha, then, this has been a season of adaptation. Adaptation to a standard of football with incredibly high expectations.
One mistake can see you chastised for weeks at this level, but to Nmecha’s credit, he hasn’t sulked when he’s been taken off and he hasn’t cried over the criticism.
And according to ‘Transfermarkt’ (that dodgy website that lists Browne’s value at £1.8m), Nmecha has been involved in 55% of this season’s league action, playing a role in 14% of the goals scored.
He’s improved drastically in recent weeks, as it seems he is just starting to get to grips with his role at Preston.
First and foremost he has shown flexibility.
A player known for his dexterity with both feet, Nmecha has been deployed as the lone striker but also as a wide attacker with creative freedom.
When confident, Nmecha has dazzling feet and a great change of pace, meaning he can skip round defenders with ease.
He’s also quite strong. A well-built athlete, Nmecha can not only use his blistering pace to get round the opposition, but he can also hold off his man pretty well too.
We saw clear evidence of this away at Blackburn last month. Nmecha recieved the ball just past the halfway line before driving forward at speed while holding off experienced fullback Derrick Williams.
Nmecha breezed into the box, showing sublime vision as he picked out Daniel Johnson who had the simplest of finishes. Nmecha earned that goal in truth.
From that point on Nmecha featured much more on the right flank, a position he has had a considerable amount more joy playing in.
When given a creative license on the wing, Nmecha has shown the potential he came to Preston with.
In part this is because he has seen much more of the ball out wide. I talked earlier about his lack of touches when deployed as a striker, well compare that to touches as a wide attacker and you’ll understand my point.
Even in that horror show at home to Leeds, Nmecha could boast 56 touches of the ball. Add to that the fact that Leeds had 60% overall possession and you begin to realise that Lukas finds it much easier to affect the game from a wide role. Even when his side are being completely dominated by a high-pressing side.
In that game Nmecha, for me, was our MOTM. He came tantalisingly close to giving us the lead in the first half while also completing 21 accurate passes. And to put into effect what I said earlier about strength, Nmecha won 6 aerial duels and made 5 recoveries.
Oh, and on THAT afternoon at West Brom, Nmecha was again arguably our best player. He created 22.2% of our chances and assisted Robinson for our consolation goal – making his way into the box before slipping the ball to Robinson who directed it into the bottom left corner.
And since I keep banging on about touches, well, once again he registered 41 touches. If anything, he is making himself noticed.
In our 4-0 rout of basement boys Ipswich, Nmecha had his best game to date in a Preston shirt, interestingly this time from a more central role. Something which underlines his versatility.
He bagged himself his first brace in senior football, a brace that doubled his goal tally for the campaign. The first strike was an instinctive close-range chip with his left foot after the keeper had spilled the ball, the second a right footed drive at the far post following an intelligent run which saw him lose his marker. All he needed then was a header to make it the perfect three.
Nmecha is also proving himself to be a pinpoint passer, with a passing accuracy on Saturday of 91%. All of this earnt him a rating on ‘FOTMOB’ of 8.5 out of 10 – his highest to date for North End.
For me, his best position for Preston has been on the right of the attacking midfield trio. He definitely affects the game much more from that position and although he bagged himself two yesterday, you need a natural goalscorer to be leading the line.
We all know Alex Neil loves to tinker with player positions and this is why he must love Lukas. The loanee has the ability to stretch the game and make runs into the channels, but he can also come short in a central position to collect the ball and use his strength to spread the play.
Whether he stays or whether he goes is completely up to City, but Alex Neil made it abundantly clear post-match that those conversations will be had and Preston will hope to continue reaping the rewards of a man they have already developed considerably.
His loan spell this season certainly hasn’t been goal-laden, like we expected, but Nmecha has impressed in different ways. He is still progressing, but he has definitely shown enough raw talent to suggest he can make it at a very high level.
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