Winger Tom Barkhuizen knows Preston North End need to show more bite in attack
Ever since he walked through the door at Deepdale Alex Neil has been working on refining Preston North End's play in the final third.
It has certainly proved easier said than done, especially with injuries to Sean Maguire and Billy Bodin on the eve of the campaign.
And Tom Barkhuizen, while admitting things need to improve, believes other factors are at work too.
Those outside the club, be it elsewhere in the Championship or in the media, are expecting the Lilywhites to be in the mix come May as they bid to improve on last season’s seventh-placed finish.
That is new territory and is potentially being reflected on the field with the 2-0 defeat at Norwich on Wednesday night another frustrating one for all involved with the Lilywhites.
“Last year we had a massive expectation on ourselves so what other teams and people outside of the club think of us shouldn’t really make a difference,” Barkhuizen admitted after a disappointing night at Carrow Road.
“Teams are showing us a bit more respect than they did last year and that’s something that we need to adapt to quicker than we have done.
“We struggled a little bit last year when teams sat in.
“The teams that were lower down in the table, we struggled to break them down, and now the bigger teams are doing the same.
“We have to get used to that and start picking up some points.
“We’re struggling to get goals from open play and it’s something we need to address.”
Under Simon Grayson North End were a solid side first, who often used the counter-attack to great effect.
Neil wants the Lilywhites on the front foot but breaking sides down and being ruthless in front of goal has not always been PNE’s strongest suit during his time in charge.
“We have been very good on the counter-attack and this year teams aren’t giving us the space to do that,” Barkhuizen said.
“It’s probably just teams being more cautious and that’s leaving less room for our forwards to work in.
“We don’t have big focal point up front and we do have to try and work our way through and we’re struggling to do that at the moment.
“And when we do get there, we’re not taking the chances that we get.
“It’s about being more creative up front and then being more clinical.”
Despite questions being asked of those in the final third, Barkhuizen insists there is no lack of confidence in the dressing room.
Things have changed, though, with injuries meaning Lukas Nmecha has been asked to step up immediately on his arrival from Manchester City, with Graham Burke and Brandon Barker also still settling in as Neil bids to manage without Maguire and Bodin.
“In the dressing room there’s no doubting the quality we’ve got,” said Barkhuizen, who returned to the starting line-up at Carrow Road on Wednesday night.
“People from the outside can have their own opinions.
“Some probably don’t think we’re good enough and some think we’re going through a dry spell.
“We don’t really pay much attention to that. We know when we click we’re a good team going forwards.
“It’s about getting it to click and picking up some points now.”
The game against Norwich was one low on quality, 0-0 looking the most likely result until late goals from Teemu Pukki and Alex Tettey settled the game.
“I don’t really think there was much in the game to be honest,” said Barkhuizen, who was replaced by Barker with 10 minutes to play.
“It wasn’t the best of games and 0-0 would maybe have been a fair result. They’ve got the first goal and then the lad’s hit a shot that he’s probably never going to hit again and that’s just the way our night went. It’s one of those.
“We need to pick ourselves up and go again on Saturday.”
The game arguably swung on Callum Robinson seeing a shot come back off the crossbar shortly before Pukki opened the scoring.
‘What ifs?’ aside, Barkhuizen conceded that a result is now needed against Derby at Pride Park on Saturday to stop it being considering a poor start to the new Championship season, North End so having picked up four points from their opening four games.
“If Callum’s shot goes in rather coming back off the bar then we probably go on and win the game,” said the winger.
“The gaffer said after the game that it’s fine margins at the moment and we just don’t seem to able get the first goal or the crucial goal in games and that’s what is holding us back.
“For the first 80 minutes we’re really solid and then with one ball in behind they go in front and that kills the game.
“We’re naturally a bit disappointed with the start we’ve made.
“Every game is important but we need to try and get three at Derby and try and push on.”