Championship Preview: Crucial Lancashire derby

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Andre Gray

Here are The Football Lab’s predictions for the weekend’s games in the Championship. Promotion chasing Burnley look for a first victory in four when they host Preston, a side that have conceded just one goal in their last four away games. Wolves search for just a second win in eight and travel to Rotherham at the wrong time, the Millers having picked up back-to-back wins.

Burnley v Preston

Don’t be surprised to see this Lancashire derby turn into a game of long ball football. According to Who Scored,  Ipswich Town are the only Championship side to have averaged more long balls per game (98) than Preston (96) and Burnley (91) this season.

The subtle difference – and perhaps one that separates these teams – is that Burnley have a striker in Andre Gray who has scored nine goals in 13 starts, while Preston’s strikers have registered just a third of that tally between them. The Clarets have not always outplayed teams this season, but they are clinical in front of goal.

That was certainly the case at Cardiff last week. Sean Dyche’s side looked dead and buried with five minutes to play and had created very few chances, but preserved their unbeaten record with two late goals. Strangely, Gray did not score either of those goals. In fact, only two of Burnley’s seven victories since August have not seen the former Luton striker score, which suggests the team have become reliant on his goals.

The dilemma for Dyche, who is unlikely to deviate from his favoured 4-4-2 system, is who to partner Gray with. Tall striker Sam Vokes picked up a groin injury on international duty, meaning the boss must decided on whether Chris Long or Rouwen Hennings should start this derby game. Long has looked lively in substitute appearances but is a similar type of player to Gray, in that he is small and mobile. Hennings scored in the draw at Cardiff, but has otherwise looked lost at times this season. Naturally, Long would seem the most appealing choice, but if Burnley play high balls against a team that will park the bus, there is a greater need for a target man to win the initial headers. For that reason, the absence of Vokes could be problematic for the Clarets.

Preston’s back-line has been superb this season. The summer departure of loanee Sam Johnstone has not hindered them, as Jordan Pickford has established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the Championship with some stunning saves this season. Paul Huntington has once again battled his injury problems to become a key fixture in the side, Greg Cunningham has shown impressive versatility while Marnick Vermijl is improving week by week.

Preston’s problems lie at the other end of the field, as a return of 13 goals in 18 league games might suggest. The absence of a reliable source of goals is not a problem many people would have anticipated after the team’s promotion in May, when Jermaine Beckford and Joe Garner had been in superb form. However, Beckford has struggled with injuries while Garner, along with recent additions Will Keane and Eoin Doyle, has come in for criticism this term.

While Burnley have a quick counter-attacking outlet in Gray, Preston rely on Joe Garner, who is perhaps not quite as mobile. Garner thrived in League One, because he was playing in a side with the objective of breaking down a lesser-ranked team. He is the type of striker that needs players making runs around him and likes the ball to be fed to him around the edge of the box. The problem is, this Lilywhites side is built to protect the defence, rather than support the attack.

There is no doubt that Preston are protecting the defence well, because they have kept nine clean sheets this season, no Championship side have kept more. However, the negative side effect of Grayson’s defensive game plans is a lack of support for Garner. However good his finishing might be, we do not get the chance to see it because he is not getting the help he needs.

Preston’s defensive setup does not normally work for them at home. However, they are good at stifling teams when they play away from home, having not lost on the road since the beginning of October with unbeaten Brighton among the teams failing to penetrate North End. If any team outside the Championship’s top five can stop Burnley at Turf Moor, it is Preston and this blog predicts a draw.

Rotherham v Wolves

This match sees Adam Le Fondre play against Rotherham for the first time since leaving the club in 2011. Le Fondre scored 54 League Two goals in the space of two years with the Millers before moving to Reading, a club he subsequently helped reach the Premier League.

Rotherham might have found a new goalscorer in Johnson Clarke-Harris, who is reportedly enjoying life at Rotherham, which is good news for Neil Redfearn ahead of the January transfer window. The former Oldham man netted twice in the 3-0 win over Bristol City and showed incredible quality for his first goal, teasing Nathan Baker before unleashing a left footed curling shot into the far corner.

That goal came about from some great work from midfielder Grant Ward, who showed the tenacity to initially steal the ball. The Tottenham loanee was considered to be the best player on the pitch that day despite Clarke-Harris’ brace, with Redfearn reserving special praise for Ward, citing energy and commitment to the cause as his key attributes. The 20-year-old did not start particularly well in South Yorkshire but is consistently improving and could be a player Wolves need to watch out for on Saturday.

The visitors find themselves in a state of flux as supporters have grown restless after a run of one win in eight. While manager Kenny Jackett has taken some of the flak, one must question whether he is truly the problem. Jackett has proven himself as a manager elsewhere. He enjoyed long periods of time in charge of Swansea and Millwall and is still regarded highly by fans of both of those clubs. Therefore, the question has to be whether he has been given the financial backing to support Jackett and the answer would have to be no.

They allowed key players to leave in the summer without providing the funds to replace them. To make matters worse, one of the few players the club has brought in with Premier League experience additions has now left. Loanee Mike Williamson had a reasonable impact on the defence in his first five games but has now been recalled by parent club Newcastle, thus leaving Jackett and Wolves back at square one. The manager may now have to bank on the naïve and unreliable Ethan Ebanks-Landell as a centre-back partner for Danny Batth, and it remains to be seen whether Ebanks-Landell can develop quickly enough.

It is important not to underestimate the influence Bakary Sako and Nouha Dicko had on the Wanderers team last season, before Sako left for Palace and Dicko suffered with further injury problems. Both players had the pace and power to press opposition defences and stretch things in the attacking third for Afobe to get space in the box. Le Fondre is a good finisher, but he is not a player that defences would be particularly frightened of when he is running at them. Wolves need to get an element of pace and intensity back into their play, because at the moment, they do not look like a side that can challenge for the top six.

In contrast to the Black Country visitors, Rotherham come into this with a little bit of confidence, having just won back-to-back games. They put in two very strong defensive performances against Leeds and Bristol City, restricting their opponents to a combined total of four shots on target. When one considers that, in the previous game, Rotherham had conceded five against Ipswich, the last two results are noticeable steps forward. This blog backs the Millers to triumph.