It makes for enjoyable reading doesn’t it? Ahead of the international break, Preston cruised to an emphatic 5-1 victory over Barnsley and jumped up to third in the Championship table. You can read that again if you’d like and don’t let your eyes deceive you.
It may be early days but the Lilywhites are flying high in the league and every player in this squad seems to be performing well. Daniel Johnson has had an absolute stormer of a season so far, Josh Harrop is excelling in his roles along the forward line, David Nugent has slotted back into the team well after a hiatus of over 10 years and the new centre-back pairing of Ben Davies and Patrick Bauer has been resolute so far. However, in the case of a certain Alan Browne, it hasn’t been all plain-sailing this season for the youngster.
Now, don’t worry, this article is not a character assassination of the Irish midfielder. I myself am a massive fan of the 24-year old and who wouldn’t be after the way he has continued to go from strength to strength for PNE since his move to the club for absolutely NOTHING back in 2013.
The Cork boy has grown into a fully-fledged Northern powerhouse (albeit while still holding onto his accent), becoming an integral cog in the Preston machine with his goals, assists and his ability both off and on the ball. The last two seasons in particular, he has really shone in the attacking midfield role and made himself one of the first names on the teamsheet.
Going into the 2019/20 campaign, you would have expected the same from Browne but the midfielder has struggled to break into the side. When he has, he hasn’t hit the same heady standards that he has set himself.
We’re only 11 games into the season and there’s a long slog left but so far, Browne’s contributions to the side have been minimal compared to his normal rate. Having featured in a total of 14 games in all competitions so far this season, the Irishman is yet to register a single goal or assist. By this point last season, he had made four goal contributions, although he’d also started ten games compared to just the six this campaign.
It’s not just the goals and assists that the club are missing though. He turned in several MOTM performances throughout the 2018/19 season and helped control and win games on his own at times. His play as an attacking midfielder was tremendous. He would start and finish attacks for Preston but also track back and make key tackles when needed.
Some fans are puzzled as to why he has yet to perform on the same scale as normal but it is not time to panic. The 24-year old’s ability remains and he is, without a doubt, still a key player for the club. It’s likely that this drop-off in form is down to a number of factors, like the emergence of a multitude of other options in the same position as him.
Let’s start with Daniel Johnson. DJ has been a bit of a mixed bag at North End. In League 1, he was an astute purchase for just £50,000 (as the chant itself goes). He ripped apart teams in the division with his passing and movement. Since promotion to the Championship though, he’s flip-flopped between being one of the best players on the pitch in certain games to letting games pass him by. Most recently, the central midfielder was linked with a move to Wigan and many fans took to Twitter to voice their opinion on how they would happily ‘drive the 27-year old to the DW Stadium.’ However, since an inspired move from Alex Neil to change his position from CM to CAM, he’s looked like a different player. DJ currently has a fantastic return of 11 goal contributions (7 goals, four assists) in 11 games in all competitions and this is in no small part down to that positional switch. In fact, he’s been a standout not just at the club so far this season but in the league in general, bagging the September Player of the Month award for all of his efforts.
Josh Harrop also seems to finally be showing glimpses of the player that everyone thought he would be. The former Manchester United man has struggled for game time since his move to Deepdale, which is largely down to the fact he has suffered from injuries, one of which put him out of action for a full season. But, he’s taken his chance with both hands so far this campaign now that he’s fully fit and also proved that he deserves to be considered for a place on the teamsheet.
The same could be said for Billy Bodin, who has also had some rotten luck with injuries. He too has had to deal with long-term injury problems but back to full fitness this term, he has already terrified some Championship defenders with his pacy runs and goalscoring ability.
So where does Browne fit in?
It’s not a bad problem for Alex Neil to have but he has only four attacking roles to fill in his usual 4-2-3-1 formation (including striker). With Sean Maguire, David Nugent, Harrop, Johnson, Bodin, Brad Potts, Tom Barkhuizen, Andre Green and even Paul Gallagher all vying for the positions alongside Browne, you can see why it isn’t easy right now for the Irishman to break into the side. Even in just the central attacking role (the position that Browne has made his own over the past few seasons) we have the in-form Harrop and DJ and even Potts who can play there. How can you unseat a man who has just won a Player of the Month award and a 23-year old who has three goals in five starts to his name?
Another factor to consider is the fact he’s also filled in as a bit of a utility player so far. Instead of sticking to Browne’s preferred role at CAM, he’s been used all over the field by Alex Neil. The 24-year old has had to revert back to his CM position for two games this campaign and has even had to slot in as a RB when injuries and suspensions have meant that there isn’t a player to fill that gap.
Browne is a player with undeniable talent. There’s no need to worry about the midfielder’s ability and no, the player hasn’t peaked at 24. Alex Neil seems to be giving every player at the club (or at least most players) a part to play in the squad this season and picking teams based on tactics and strategies against the different opposition this campaign and it just so happens that Browne’s role is currently to fill in where needed and step in to fill the CAM role (which we know he is more than capable of doing and doing well) when required.
There is no question that at some point this season, he’ll be called upon in his usual role and probably step in and put in a MOTM worthy performance. Or, he’ll play some minutes at RB and play his part in ensuring that crosses are whipped into the box and PNE keep a clean sheet. Maybe he’ll get a bit of game time at CM and help marshall the midfield alongside Ben Pearson (if he isn’t suspended). Whatever the case, he’ll step in and do a job where he can and that’s what continues to make him a very important player in this Preston side and even if he isn’t the standout in the squad like he has been, he’ll still be an important part of the Lilywhites team.
This approach from Neil seems to be working considering the way things have been going for the club so far in 2019/20. Browne won’t be complaining.