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Three To Watch: Preston North End (A)

As Reading go in search of their first away win of the season, Jack Simpson takes a look at three players from the Lillywhites to keep an eye on.

Preston North End v Newcastle United - Pre Season Friendly
This man scored twice in the last meeting at Deepdale
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Greg Cunningham

The first player that Reading fans should keep an eye on is Greg Cunningham. Playing at left-back, the former Manchester City academy product is one of the key names on manager Alex Neil’s teamsheet.

He has impressive defensive stats because, in his 40 Championship appearances for Preston last season, Cunningham made an average of 2.6 tackles per game - greater than Jordan Obita, who managed 1.7.

The former Bristol City man also managed to average 2.3 interceptions per game, as well as making 3.4 clearances.

Inevitably, stats like this are going attract interest from other clubs. This week Cardiff City made an offer for the defender, with the bid being turned down by the Preston board.

Therefore, the likes of Adrian Popa and Garath McCleary may struggle to get in behind Cunningham, due to the fantastic defensive qualities that this man brings to the table.

His offensive stats are also impressive. For example, during the last campaign Cunningham scored one goal, as well as getting five assists to his name. The left back’s crossing ability was also good with 0.6 crosses being created per 90 minutes.

This will mean that Chris Gunter will have to be on his guard to stop Cunningham from charging forward. It is likely that Preston will use Cunningham to provide an overlap for the Lillywhites’ attacking players and be a source of putting balls into the Reading penalty area.

Tom Barkhuizen

The Lillywhites signed Barkhuizen as a free agent in January with the 24 year old’s contract at Morecambe being terminated by mutual consent.

Since his arrival, the winger has made a fabulous impact for his side with six goals and three assists in 17 appearances during the second half of last season. The former Blackpool man also scored a brace when Preston beat Reading 3-0 in the last league meeting between the two teams.

Last season, Barkhuizen averaged 1.3 shots per game, as well as making 0.9 key passes per match. He also managed to have a pass completion rate of 76.5% with an average of 14 passes per 90 minutes. That’s not bad for someone who was playing in League Two at the start of last campaign.

Still, don’t expect him to put to many balls into the box, as he only managed to average 0.3 crosses per game. Despite this Barkhuizen has the potential to cause problems for any side, as the Royals found out last season.

Jordan Hugill

The final player that Reading fans should keep an eye on is Jordan Hugill. The 25 year-old had a fine campaign in 2016/17 with 12 goals and two assists in 44 Championship appearances.

That goal tally made the former Port Vale striker Preston’s top scorer in 2016/17, edging out Callum Robinson who found the net 10 times in the league. That’s a big achievement for Hugill, who had only scored three league goals in the previous season.

He’s also a big threat in the air, winning an impressive 5.1 aerial duels per game last season - making him the 11th best at doing that in the entire division. That compares favourably to Reading’s Yann Kermorgant, who averaged 5.6.

With plenty of creativity coming from the likes of Cunningham, Barkhuizen and new signing Josh Harrop, Reading’s centre halves will have to be wary to cut out the aerial threat of Hugill - who scored three times with his head last season.

With Reading needing to be tight at the back to win their first away league game of the season, how they deal with Hugill could be the difference between success and failure.

All stats come from Squawka and WhoScored.