Tom Sandells’ big match verdict: Great to see Preston North End discover their missing cutting edge
Preston made it look easy on their return to competitive action as they brushed aside Mansfield Town in a 4-0 win at Deepdale.
The win meant that North End will be in the next round of the Carabao Cup – it was not just another pre-season game although many could have been mistaken for assuming so.
The game came two weeks before the start of the Championship season and fresh off the back of two pre-season friendlies.
The PNE side deserve credit for taking to the game in the way that they did without yet being up to full match fitness.
The most any player had played so far was 60 minutes, so a full 90 for eight of the starting XI was always going to pose a question in itself.
It’s a curious position that might rarely – if ever – be seen again.
PNE didn’t start the game particularly well and nearly fell behind to an Andy Cook effort that hit the inside of the post. That seemed to wake the home side up and they soon got out of first gear.
Firstly Tom Barkhuizen finished off a good move involving Sean Maguire and Brad Potts, a fine finish that showed no signs of rust.
Maguire then made it two with a calm and composed finish into the far corner, collecting a through ball form Josh Harrop. The former Manchester United man’s corner was then turned home by Patrick Bauer at the far post, and in a commanding show of force PNE were three to the good at half-time.
North End showed their ruthless streak in the 15 minutes between the first and third goals.
Their forward four causing huge problems for the Stags. In the second half a combination of Barkhuizen and Harrop would see the scoring end, but in a flash the hosts had taken the game away from their League Two guests.
It was a clinical streak that had been lacking towards the end of last season – arguably the whole of it – from the forward department.
Maguire never looked in any doubt once presented with the one-on-one and the interchanges between the four seemed effortless at times.
It’s hopefully a sign of things to come this season, both for the Irishman, who signed a new deal in recent weeks, and the team as a whole.
The Lilywhites showed a maturity and confidence about their forward play, there were times when they were happy to control possession in the final third and times when they wanted to go for the kill.
Barkhuizen, Potts, Harrop and Maguire are all generally quite direct in their approach.
They look to get the ball forward and attack the space.
That worked perfectly against Mansfield and was a ploy specifically chosen by manager Alex Neil.
If this vein of form that they have now begun could last, it hints towards and exciting time watching PNE this season – albeit it might be from afar for supporters.
In saying that they were specifically chosen for their opposition – don’t expect Neil to remain faithful to his forwards indefinitely.
Although they were excellent against their lower-league opponents, there will be occasions for different options.
Scott Sinclair is one of the biggest names to arrive at Deepdale for some time and he had to make do with a cameo appearance.
A game changer in his own right, Jayden Stockley had to watch the entirety from the bench, with Billy Bodin alongside him for company.
The PNE boss is still partial to the battering ram approach and Bodin also provides the option of using a left-footer in the forward areas, so both will likely have their time.
Last season’s top scorer Daniel Johnson was given the afternoon off.
With scoring goals the issue last season, and a striker still being on the radar of PNE if they can find the right deal, it is at least looking like a positive step as the new campaign approaches.
It is only one game so we shouldn’t get carried away but credit has to be given when it is deserved and the front four on Saturday were great to watch, as was the quality of play, goals and finishing.