The Season So Far
Burnley’s first Premier League campaign since 2009-10 was always going to be difficult. With a squad glaringly short on quality and depth, as well as the smallest operating budget in the division, most observers felt that simply staying up would be an achievement. So it has proved: victories have been few and far between – their first came in their eleventh game of the season – and their obvious limitations have routinely and ruthlessly been exposed.
Manager Sean Dyche is no fool, however, and his ability to apply a cold realist’s view and somehow use that to generate enthusiasm is one of Burnley’s biggest assets. "What I find interesting is I keep reading 'this struggling Burnley’," he told the Telegraph recently. "The bigger picture is 'what is the struggle?’ They mean we are not at the top end of the Premier League. Did anyone think we were going to be? Did we? No. Were we realistic with the challenge? Yes."
Dyche knows his team is a relative minnow and will probably go down, but he remains convinced that with applied effort, cohesion and a bit of luck, his team of journeymen can survive. This means that despite being 19th in the table, with only one league win from their last nine matches, spirits are high at Turf Moor.
Like most teams that come up from the Championship, Burnley are all about fierce commitment, keeping a good defensive shape and generating a lot of shots on goal with direct attacks and good delivery from set pieces.
Their deep, reactive 4-4-1-1 is well-drilled and each player knows and understands his responsibilities to a tee, which means that they can be tough to break down despite employing a relatively basic system. Unusually, especially for a reactive side, they tend not to try to stifle their opposition with aggression: despite having the Premier League’s second lowest average when it comes to ball possession (43.5%), they also have the second lowest average figure for tackles per game (16.8). By contrast, Chelsea average 55.6% possession and make 20.9 tackles per game.
In Saturday’s game, therefore, we can expect Burnley to surrender the ball, form a compact and disciplined unit behind it and wait for Chelsea to run themselves into dead ends. Giving the ball up so readily and then applying very little pressure to it seems somewhat counterproductive, and it’s no surprise therefore that Burnley’s defence has looked porous all season. Chelsea should find it fairly easy to make chances.
Though Chelsea will find it pretty straightforward to break Burnley down, they will find it harder to keep them out. Burnley’s attacking ideas are somewhat rudimentary – at times their tactics are undeniably hit and hope – but they’re effective. They attack mostly down the right, where Kieran Trippier and George Boyd usually combine to build moves, or else launch long balls at Danny Ings, a smart and versatile forward good at bringing others into play and making shooting opportunities for himself.
In either case, they get the ball forward very early – no team has played more than Burnley’s 80 long passes per game – apply heavy pressure to the second ball and look to get a shot away as soon as possible.
Despite playing with such elementary attacking ideas, Burnley have pulled off some sublime moments of skill this season. Goals such as Ashley Barnes’ rocket against Spurs and Scott Arfield’s solo double-nutmeg effort against QPR may have been the direct results of individual skill, but these solo goals were only possible because of the team’s organisation, their relentless forward momentum and the players’ developed understanding of how and when to take risks.
First and foremost, Burnley are organised and committed and while that might not seem like a particularly daunting attribute, it’s only a few weeks since an organised and committed Bradford side came back from 2-0 down to win at Stamford Bridge. Even if Chelsea open up a sizeable lead, Burnley will keep going and try to get something out of the game. They’ve already come back from 2-0 down to take a point at the Etihad this season, so Chelsea mustn’t take their foot off the gas at any point.
In a more technical sense, Burnley’s biggest strength is their attacking perseverance: every long ball or cross into the box will be ferociously contested and followed up by at least a couple of runners, who will look to take snapshots and surprise Thibaut Courtois. For such a guileless tactic, it works pretty well: they’ve scored several times this season simply by shooting while the opposition defence was reacting to a bouncing ball and before the goalkeeper was ready. This is not an accident, and if Cesc Fàbregas starts and doesn't support Nemanja Matić properly in midfield, Burnley could get a lot of these shooting opportunities.
Simply put, Burnley aren’t very good. They can’t keep the ball for very long, don’t try to win it back from their opponents, give away a lot of chances and don’t finish many of the opportunities they make for themselves.
To make matters worse, they’re pretty much running on empty after the Christmas period, which pushed their tiny squad to breaking point. They haven’t picked up many injuries – central midfielder Dean Marney is the only absentee from their regular starting eleven – but energy levels are starting to dip. The reserves of stamina they called on to shut out Manchester United in August and to come back from the dead against Manchester City in December seem to have run out. If Chelsea score early, the floodgates could open.
A particularly relevant point to make here is that right-back Kieran Trippier usually starts and leads most of Burnley’s attacks, creating the highest number of chances per game of any Burnley player (1.5) and making the highest number of passes per game of any Burnley player bar Marney (43.8). On Saturday Trippier will have his hands full with Eden Hazard, which means that Burnley’s attacks will presumably go through Ben Mee on the other flank, and Mee simply doesn’t offer the same threat going forward.
Sean Dyche likes to keep a settled side and with Marney injured he will probably go with the same team that started their last match, a 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford which will have acted as a nice rehearsal for facing Chelsea. Despite losing, Burnley pushed Man Utd hard and could easily have come away with something to show for their efforts.
Chelsea haven’t looked anywhere near their best lately and if they don’t come flying out of the blocks then Burnley could conceivably reprise their heroics from Old Trafford and give the Blues a good game. More likely, however, is a comfortable home win – anything from 2-0 to 5-0.
All stats from WhoScored.com.