The Season So Far
Burnley’s 2017-18 campaign has been successful beyond the wildest dreams of everyone associated with the club. Last week manager Sean Dyche declared himself “the proudest man in Proudsville” as the Clarets briefly shot up to fourth in the Premier League table, and while no-one realistically expects Burnley to maintain such a lofty league position, the fact that they’re even for a second challenging the top six clubs despite their relatively paltry budget is absolutely remarkable. As the title race has become a non-event, Burnley have found themselves becoming the story of the season.
It’s worth spelling out everything Burnley have achieved this season. Only the Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool have won more games. Only the Manchester clubs and Liverpool have lost fewer games. No team has conceded fewer goals. Only four teams have taken more points away from home – Burnley have won at Stamford Bridge, Goodison Park and St Mary’s. All this, remember, from a mostly Championship-standard squad which previously played long-ball football and took seven points away from home in the entirety of last season.
It hasn’t always been the most watchable football – only two games at Turf Moor this season have had more than two goals and only five teams have scored fewer goals than Burnley this season – but that’s not to take away from the highlights of the season. Their stunning opening victory at Stamford Bridge set the tone for the rest of the season and their 24-pass goal against Everton will doubtless be spoken of among the best of the year, showing that they’re not the purely agricultural side they were before.
Dyche, a long-term complainer about a lack of credit, has been crushed under a deluge of praise for almost the entire season, touted for just about every Premier League job that becomes available and even proposed as a future England coach by a few pundits. There is no doubt that he has done a sterling job – just look at where Burnley were when he took over and where they are now – and the fact that he has achieved so much on such a shoestring budget in this day and age is very admirable, but there are also doubts about the transferability of his skills which explain why he hasn’t yet been promoted to a more high-profile role.
The Season Ahead
As with every side which finds itself living the dream, each week bringing a newer and even bigger high than the week that preceded it, it’s all about seeing just how long this bubble goes without bursting. It’s obviously very possible and even likely that Burnley’s overachievement collapses under its own weight, but surely the fans’ and owners’ biggest concern will be that Sean Dyche is poached by a bigger club. With Mark Hughes under immense pressure at Stoke and vacancies possibly opening up at Newcastle and Southampton in the next month or so, there’s plenty to be worried about.
Burnley’s trump card, of course, is that no other team can offer Dyche what Burnley can. No other club can give him the total control across all levels of the club that the Clarets do, nor afford him the time to build as incrementally as he has and would surely prefer to again. He would get a significant bump in his salary, but there would be greater pressure for instant returns, constant demands for more attacking football and at a club like Southampton Dyche would find himself as a cog in a machine, as opposed to being the entire machine himself.
One suspects that one of the reasons Dyche hasn’t made the step up to a bigger club is that he is playing a longer game and knows that simply climbing the ladder as quickly as possible isn’t necessarily the best way of building a career.
In an era in which managers like Tony Pulis are criticised and even sacked because of their style of play, and owners face mutinies from their own supporters for hiring managers like David Moyes and Sam Allardyce, Sean Dyche appears something of a dinosaur. To his credit, however, he is not a man who feels like he has to change with the tide of public opinion, and while Burnley’s methods can appear somewhat old-fashioned, they undoubtedly represent the best way to achieve results with this set of players.
Burnley’s formation is a deep, boxy, tight and very defensive 4-4-1-1, with lots of long balls and next to no real attempts at ball retention. The addition of Jack Cork (!) has added a much-needed touch of composure and class to their central midfield, but their overall approach hasn’t changed – this is not a leopard that has changed its spots.
The Clarets’ primary aims are remaining compact, closing passing angles and above all shooting angles. They know they don’t have the technical class to keep the ball or the tactical flexibility to play the way most other Premier League sides do, but by recognising their limitations and minimising their opponents’ significant advantages across the pitch, Burnley have been able to achieve spectacular results.
Dyche has spoken about allowing their opposition the lion’s share of possession but only affording them low-probability shots on goal, giving the opponent the impression of total control when really Burnley have them at arm’s length, with plenty of bodies between the ball and the back of the net, and mostly unfavourable angles with which to advance play. It’s fair to say that no other side may do dedicated ‘shot-blocking’ drills in training, but Burnley know exactly what they have to do to win against far stronger sides.
Their undoubted strengths are their organisation and their discipline. Few other sides are as clear on their tactical aims, both as individuals and as a collective, and only Manchester City can claim to have a Plan A so perfectly suited to getting the best out of their players. Effective long-term planning and recruitment have allowed Dyche to build a squad that can do exactly what he needs them to do, without the players wanting to do any more than that or to play differently – to see just how badly it can go wrong in this regard, look no further than Tony Pulis at West Brom.
Normally, playing without the ball and defending the penalty area for long stretches of time would be the sign of a weaker side, and yet Burnley have turned their weakness into a strength. No team has blocked more shots than the Clarets this season, only one has made more clearances and only two have blocked more crosses, while only three teams’ keepers have made more saves. It’s basically anti-football with a brain, and whether or not that’s a good thing is subjective, but it’s been undeniably successful.
In attack, no team has created more chances with crosses or had more headed attempts on goal. They are as clear in their attacking aims as they are on their defensive duties. They also have a tendency to try and succeed with the spectacular – long-range dipping volleys from second-balls are routinely taken advantage of and provide much-needed excitement for fans used to watching relatively dour fare.
Burnley’s overperformance against Expected Goals (xG) is frankly astonishing. According to UnderStat.com’s Expected Points tally based on xG, Burnley should be in the relegation zone – they are 6th. The Clarets have scored 16 goals against 11.78 xG, and they’ve allowed a mere 12 when their Expected Goals Against (xGA) tally is 23.33. While it’s fairly common for a team to run hot in one of the Expected Goals columns, doing so in both and so spectacularly to boot is remarkable. Whether or not this represents elite levels of managerial performance or a bubble that will soon not just pop but explode remains to be seen.
On paper, Burnley have a very poor team and a number of significant statistical weaknesses: no team allows more shots on their goal; only two teams have made fewer tackles this season; only two teams have averaged less possession and no team has a lower pass completion average; no team has played more long balls; only one team has averaged fewer dribbles; only five teams have taken fewer shots and had fewer shots on target. If you look at these measures and trust in xG to get an idea of how good a team is, Burnley are absolutely terrible and their results are beyond freakish. That said, we have established that Dyche’s team is playing a different game to the rest of us, and there’s method in their madness.
If Spurs can take hope from any one thing this weekend it’s the absence of several key players in Burnley’s defence and their necessity to change their angle of attack: centre-back James Tarkowski is suspended while Stephen Ward and Robbie Brady are also out, meaning Burnley’s left flank will be vulnerable in all phases of play. While Burnley are used to losing key personnel and seeing their trust in their system see them through, this may be too big a storm for them to weather.
Dyche doesn’t have that many options at the moment. With so many injuries and suspensions, there shouldn’t be too many surprises over who plays.
Burnley’s over-performance must come to an end at some point and with so many players out, their slide down the table will surely start here. Tottenham aren’t in great form but we can expect them to enjoy this one. 2-0 Spurs – at least.