Dave Seddon's verdict: Barnsley 0 Preston North End 3 - change of shape delivers PNE's biggest away win of the season
Alex Neil did not copy Gerhard Struber’s fashion sense but he matched up the Barnsley head coach in formation and saw Preston romp to their biggest away win of the season.
The pair cut contrasting styles in the technical area, Neil is regulation grey PNE tracksuit and coat, Struber going for jeans, white trainers, donkey jacket and woolly hat.
Barnsley have improved since recruiting Struber from Austrian football and Neil’s scouting of them pointed to their midfield diamond being a big part of that.
So the North End manager chose to go like-for-like, ditch his preferred 4-2-3-1 for the night and saw it work to a tee.
Neil’s men were diamond geezers, Ben Pearson, Alan Browne, Daniel Johnson and Josh Harrop making the new midfield shape work.
Ahead of them they had bags of pace in Scott Sinclair and Tom Barkhuizen, a rare occasion Neil had gone with two up front from the start.
Cutting to the chase, the Lilywhites’ diamond worked better than Barnsley’s.
It was ‘job done’ by the interval, the visitors three goals to the good as they headed for the dressing room.
The second half was more of a battle, hold on to what they had and try and nick another.
Keeping a clean sheet pleased Neil too, the performance good at both ends of the pitch.
Barkhuizen scored the first and third goals, Johnson netting in between.
Johnson’s 40th goal in Preston colours was a rare right-foot effort, with him usually using his left to find the target.
It is two wins on the spin since he returned after a seven-game injury absence.
Granted, Barnsley and Charlton last Saturday were both from the lower rungs of the Championship but Johnson has clearly made a difference and showed how much he was missed.
Barkhuizen’s double saw him comprehensively end a goal drought.
Since scoring that superb late winner against Blackburn in October, he had gone 14 games without a goal.
Focus had tended to fall on Sean Maguire’s run without a goal but it was Barkhuizen who had gone longer without troubling the scorers.
It was Maguire who dropped out of the team which had beaten Charlton to allow Pearson’s return to the fray after a sickness bug.
Adapting to the change of system was not all plain sailing – in fact it was Barnsley who started the better of the two teams.
Had Declan Rudd not got fingertips to a low shot from Conor Chaplin in the fifth minute, PNE would have conceded another early goal.
They bucked the trend of the last few weeks though, and then displayed a welcome ruthless edge to their game.
Their three shots on target in the game were concentrated in a 26-minute spell and all ended up in the net.
Barkhuizen’s 19th-minute opener was the best of the lot in terms of the build up and execution.
North End opened up their hosts with some lovely play, starting with Pearson’s pass to find Johnson to the right of the Barnsley box.
Johnson played it inside to Harrop who knocked a first-time pass down the side of the box for Darnell Fisher to chase.
Fisher put over a low cross to find Barkhuizen who tucked a side-foot shot into the bottom corner from eight yards.
Barkhuizen turned from scorer to provider for the second goal in the 34th minute.
He wrestled possession from Mads Andersen by the corner flag and cut along the byline. Harrop met his low cross with a shot which Aapo Halme blocked on the edge of the six-yard box.
The rebound came to Johnson who was falling as he hit it home – a better finish than it might have seemed at the time.
PNE’s third on the stroke of half-time was a right pig’s ear from Barnsley’s point of view.
Ben Davies played a ball up the right channel which Barkhuizen headed to Sinclair.
Andersen and Halme both challenged him, the ball bouncing off them into the path of Barkhuizen.
He moved into the box, his shot clipping off keeper Sami Radlinger and looping into the net.