Championship preview: Wigan Athletic v Preston North End

Preston North End are hoping to boost their Play-Off hopes with a victory on Saturday lunchtime, but neighbours Wigan Athletic are stirring from their slumber in the battle to beat the drop.

PNE’s Play-Off prospects

North End are on the coat-tails of the top six, hoping to close a gap that stands at three points before the weekend’s action.

Alex Neil’s side boast the Championship’s best ball-winner in Ben Pearson, a dynamic operator in Alan Browne and a direct runner in Tom Barkhuizen, while the return from injury of Daniel Johnson and the late January signing of Scott Sinclair has added an extra layer of quality.

The Lilywhites’ squad, though, looks somewhat imbalanced due to a lack of width on the left – Joe Rafferty, as a right-footed right-back by trade, is playing on his unnatural side.

They are also short of a complete centre-forward, because Jayden Stockley, Louis Moult, Sean Maguire, David Nugent, Billy Bodin, Barkhuizen and Sinclair – all the players to have started up top at least once – each have at least one significant weakness.

Wigan in good form

Before Christmas, Wigan dropped 17 points from winning positions in a nine-game sequence, which showed two things.

Firstly, that they were competitive in a lot of their games and were not getting too much wrong with some lively, energetic performances.

Left-back Antonee Robinson, in particular, was excellent before a proposed move to AC Milan heartbreakingly fell through at the 11th hour.

Secondly, that they were struggling with the game management aspect of their work with a young group of players.

Those issues though, have been eradicated since the turn of the year.

In fact, had the Championship season started on New Year’s Day, Paul Cook’s side would be as high as seventh with nine points from six, one point above their forthcoming hosts in a match available for those who wish to¬†watch live sports online free.

The Tactics Board

Cook gained a reputation for being a 4-2-3-1 disciple, but he has had to be more adaptable in the Championship and the 5-3-2 strategy he produced certainly worked in last week’s 1-0 win at Leeds.

We could see an adventurous tweak here, with wide forward Jamal Lowe coming in for Joe Williams or Lee Evans to facilitate a switch to 3-4-3, with wing-backs Nathan Byrne and Tom Pearce likely to operate high up the pitch.

The test will be whether North End can get in behind because, while Barkhuizen up top has speed, the trio behind him – Sinclair, Johnson and Josh Harrop – are more about precision than pace.

The fact Neil’s side will be operating with two right-footers on the left, though in Harrop and Rafferty, means they will need Browne making bold, third-man runs into the left channel to create space for Harrop.

At the other end, we can expect Wigan striker Kieffer Moore to win most aerial duels with Patrick Bauer or Ben Davies, but the question is whether the likes of Gavin Massey and Lowe can come into play from there, because we can expect Pearson to do a lot of good work to deny on-runners time on the ball.

Verdict

North End won the reverse fixture 3-0 at Deepdale, thanks to their proficiency from set pieces, but form suggests this could be a tighter encounter.

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