Preston North End 3-1 Stoke City: 5 Talking Points

This was not the most scintillating performance, but we did what was necessary and executed our game plan perfectly.

When the team sheet was unveiled, I think it’s safe to say there were a few raised eyebrows. But once again, Alex Neil got it right – restricting Stoke’s diamond and pressing from the front.

So, here are our five talking points from a routine victory:

Rafferty is competent on the left.

We all know the left-back situation is a bit of a mess, but Joe Rafferty proved himself good enough to fill the void in the absence of Andrew Hughes.

A steady operator, Rafferty isn’t the most tricky player, but he does work hard and do his defensive duties really well.

The Liverpool-born fullback has shown versatility in the past and while he does give us less balance at the back, his positioning was spot on against Stoke.

Rafferty won 8 of his 9 duels, lost no aerial duels and made 6 recoveries. So, while the absence of Hughes is not ideal, Rafferty has shown that he is more than capable of slotting in as a replacement.

DJ is back to his best.

A MOTM performance for DJ last night as he continues to rebuild himself as a fan favourite.

Since being deployed in a more advanced role, the midfielder has been a revelation, contributing to goals, linking play and getting stuck in.

Alex Neil has shown plenty of faith in Johnson, much to our dismay at times, but DJ is really relishing his chance as an attacking midfielder and long may it continue.

Against Stoke, DJ grabbed the opening goal, completed 38 accurate passes and won 60% of his duels.

DJ is visibly more confident, drifting past players, being productive and picking out some sublime passes.

We all know the quality he possesses, but he hasn’t always shown it. Hopefully this season will see Johnson recapture a bit of form as we look to mount a push for the Play-Off places.

No more Clarke at right-back, please.

I just do not understand why Alex Neil opted for Clarke over Fisher at right-back in his starting XI.

Tom Clarke is a solid defender, but desperately lacks the mobility needed to be a top level Championship fullback.

In his 40 minutes played against Stoke, Clarke lost 5 out of his 7 duels, losing 4 out of 5 aerial duels too.

The lumbering defender looked sluggish when closing down the Stoke attackers and offered little going forward. This is why it is vital that Fisher stays fit, because he just offers so much more as a fullback.

Barkhuizen looked comfortable.

Playing as the number nine is a role Tom Barkhuizen has done before, particularly under previous boss Simon Grayson.

And last night, Barkhuizen appeared comfortable playing back in that central role.

Although he faded out of the game in the second half, his off the ball work, particularly in the first half, cannot be understated.

Barkhuizen stayed on the shoulder of the last defender throughout, offering the option of a direct ball over the top and this deeply troubled Stoke’s defence, who knew Barkhuizen’s explosive pace always had the potential to cause havoc.

Now, this was far from a perfect performance from Barkhuizen, but if he can find a bit of form and start notching a few goals, the speedster could become a decent forward option.

Our only available striker is still left out.

Is the writing on the wall for Jayden Stockley?

Once again, Alex Neil opted for a winger upfront, which begs the question – why did we sign Stockley in the first place?

It is becoming quite apparent that Alex Neil does not fancy the forward in the current system as even while we are down to the bare bones up front, the former Exeter striker continues to sit on the bench.

Stockley is a clinical finisher and a real presence in the box, but he lacks mobility, a trait Alex Neil really prioritises in his strikers.

If Neil is reluctant to use Stockley, then a new striker has got to be a top of the shopping list come January.

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