The Season So Far
Burnley’s start to 2018-19 has brought them back down to Earth with a bang. After a dazzling campaign in which expectations were exceeded in momentous fashion, Turf Moor was alive with talk of a European adventure and it wasn’t just the fans who spent the short summer eagerly awaiting the Clarets’ July kick-off. Captain Ben Mee spoke of his and the squad’s excitement ahead of their Europa League debut and the chance to test themselves on a bigger, grander stage.
Having beaten Aberdeen and İstanbul Başakşehir however, Burnley were eliminated by Olympiacos, and it was back to the domestic grind. It wasn’t even September yet, and their motivation for the season needed rescuing. Morale was low and their Premier League campaign was affected: their famously miserly backline was suddenly porous, and Watford and Fulham put three and four past them, respectively. After five games, Burnley were bottom and winless.
Fortunately for the Clarets, the incredibly popular, respected and valued Sean Dyche, still somehow convinced he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, excels in motivating his charges and Burnley’s season didn’t quite go down the plughole. A thumping, cathartic home win over Bournemouth was followed by a grinding win away to Cardiff and a creditable home draw to Huddersfield, and suddenly the Clarets are safe in mid-table, with daylight between themselves and the drop zone.
Burnley and Dyche are still nowhere near hitting last year’s highs, but they’re slowly getting back to their best.
The Season Ahead
The worst has surely passed: nothing will affect the club as much as the Europa League dream being ended so swiftly. While it’s true that going back to a “normal” Premier League schedule may not hold the allure it once did, Dyche will make sure his players remain highly motivated and, once they can put a proper run of results together, there’s no reason to believe they won’t begin to really enjoy their football and return to the levels of performance we saw last season.
Their stated target is now beating their points total from last time around and, while ambitious, it is manageable with a bit of luck and a lot of sacrifice. This season’s Premier League is stronger across the board than last year’s, and points will be much harder to come by, but with Burnley’s almost unique set of strengths, they’re not unreasonable in targeting progress.
Nothing has changed from a tactical perspective. 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 Clarets’ primary aims are defensive: they remain very compact, closing passing angles and minimising shooting angles. They know they don’t have the technical class to keep the ball or the tactical flexibility to play with the openness most other Premier League sides do, but by recognising their limitations and minimising the effect of their opponents’ superior ability, Burnley have been able to achieve spectacular results.
Chelsea fans have long been aware of the advantages of allowing the 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 they’re being held 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 not pretty, and at a bigger club Dyche would have no choice but to play more expansive football, but for Burnley, it’s the perfect setup.
Their key strengths haven’t changed: they’re still very good at keeping their shape and they’re still very well organised ad familiar with their roles and responsibilities. Their style is no-nonsense and they’re not worried about anything other than doing their job.
As with any uber-reactive backs-to-the-wall side, certain defensive action numbers are high: no Premier League team has made more clearances so far this season; no team has blocked more shots; no team’s keeper has made more saves. This is a team which comes under a lot of pressure by design, and they usually do a good enough job of withstanding it.
In attack, they’re still producing the sorts of numbers you’d expect from Burnley: only three teams have played more accurate long passes, only Cardiff have won more aerial duels and only four teams have had more headed shots on goal. Tony Pulis would be very aroused.
While their early fixture list has skewed the figures somewhat - with their most recent match being an expected but nonetheless brutal 5-0 dismantling away to Manchester City - there’s still no denying that Burnley have not been as effective as they need to be if they want to improve on last year’s points total.
No team has allowed more shots on their goal than Burnley. They have the second highest Expected Goals Against figure in the division, and Understat’s Expected Points tool has them bottom of the league. As previously stated, some of this is by design and they’re going onto the pitch every week knowing that, statistically, they’re about to get battered. That said, if you keep getting statistically battered then very quickly those are going to become actual batterings.
More worrying has been their failure to sufficiently increase the team’s attacking threat. While they have played periods of more sophisticated football over the last season and a bit, this season has seen them more often than not reverting to hoofball and hoping for the best. It’s incredible to have played Aaron Lennon in a key attacking position for almost every minute of the season and yet still be bottom of the Premier League’s table for successful dribbles. What is Dyche putting Lennon on the pitch for if not to run with the ball?
While this analysis has been largely positive up to this point, it has to be said that at their worst Burnley are one of the worst teams in the division. They have showed signs of making stylistic progress in order to consolidate their mid-table status, but until they fully commit to that and stop reverting to awful, 90s-Football-League type, they will always run the risk of being relegated. For all his bluster about being underappreciated, disrespected and actually a very modern manager, Sean Dyche will go down in history as a nothing more than a moderately successful caveman.
Burnley may be tempted to switch things up after an abominable, if not entirely surprising, pummeling by Manchester City last weekend.
Chelsea have a wealth of options available and Ruben Loftus-Cheek will surely be itching to start after his midweek hat-trick, while Ross Barkley will surely fancy his chances of a start instead of Mateo Kovačić.
With both managers having favoured settled XIs this season, however, let’s assume they’ll stick with what they know.
This game represents a chance for Burnley to reboot their season in front of a partisan home crowd and the TV cameras. Chelsea should have enough to win and to win easily, but if they stop working hard for any period of time, Burnley could snatch the points.