The Season So Far
After a season of two halves last time around, in which Burnley started like relegation candidates but ended it back to their best, manager, messiah and grudge-holder Sean Dyche has overseen a much steadier, more controlled and more successful start to 2019-20. The Clarets have doubled-down on every possible principle they could have and they’re once again sucking up the pressure, rolling with the punches and landing knockout blows of their own out of the blue. Having kept the faith with the core of his squad when revolution must have been tempting, Dyche is reaping the dividends.
Despite being the Premier League’s lowest ranking side for pass completion, the second lowest for possession and fifth from bottom for shots on target, Burnley sit 8th in the table and have given as good as they’ve got in every game. Their defence looks as tough and resolute as ever, sharpshooters Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood have four goals each and new signing Erik Pieters is racking up the assists with booming crosses from left-back.
Liverpool are the only visiting team to have scored at Turf Moor so far this season and if Chelsea are to take three points here, it will require a performance every bit as intense and purposeful as the one in Amsterdam to beat Ajax midweek.
The Season Ahead
Having gotten Burnley back to their absolute overachieving best, Dyche’s task is to make sure performance levels don’t drop and that distractions and potential buyers don’t take away from his players’ focus. Injuries are also piling up, with both Wood and Barnes picking up niggles in recent weeks, as well as key midfielders Jack Cork and Johann Berg Gudmundsson. In most areas, Burnley’s squad isn’t deep enough to absorb so many blows and they could change the course of the club’s season.
Assuming these niggles are only niggles and not long-term issues, Dyche must surely be convincing his players that a push for seventh place and Europa League qualification is possible. Their last Europa League campaign ended in disaster and nearly torpedoed their entire season, so the chance to right that wrong and restore professional pride should prove a powerful motivation. Few would be surprised if Burnley were challenging Leicester and Manchester United (lol) to be the Premier League’s Best Of The Rest come the end of the season.
Burnley’s formation is the same as ever: a deep, boxy, tight and very defensive 4-4-1-1, with lots of direct long balls up to their strikers and next to no real attempts at ball retention. They sit back, wait for a turnover and then play the ball long, trusting their attackers to take advantage of 1-v-1 situations and get a shot on goal away as quickly as possible. Burnley’s average possession figure is 42% and their average pass completion is 65%. Despite this, they’ve had more shots on target than much-lauded Leicester and Wolves so far this season.
Of course, their primary aims are defensive: they remain very compact, closing passing angles close to their goal and minimising shooting angles, encouraging their opponents to take shots from range or from tempting but ultimately low-probability positions. Nick Pope is a very able shot-stopper behind a deep defence and Burnley’s defensive strategy, intelligent as it is, would be nothing were it not carried out so ably.
Attacks have primarily come down the left, with the skill and creativity of Dwight McNeil well-complemented by the physicality and high-quality crossing of Erik Pieters. No other side relies so heavily on crosses and headers for chances. Only Manchester City have created more chances from crosses and only City and Everton have had more headed attempts on goal, but, as better footballing sides, both have a higher proportion of chances created from open play and shots taken with feet.
It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt, but right now Burnley are in that sweet spot in which everyone has been at the club just long enough to be able to do automatically what’s expected of them at the best possible level, while remaining extremely motivated to continue doing so. The likes of Barnes, Wood, Pope, Ben Mee and James Tarkowski are at the top of their game but seemingly none yearn for pastures new: all are absolutely focused on the task at hand.
While it’s easy to sneer at their brand of football, which is about as easy on the eyes as a sandpaper massage followed by a vinegar rinse, it’s unique in the Premier League and undeniably effective. The likes of Everton, West Ham and Southampton have far greater resources at their disposal, but none do the basics as well as Burnley, while it’s arguable that no deep block in the division betters theirs.
Just when you think everything’s under control and you’ve got them exactly where you want them, they launch a long ball forward, win the header and score with a snapshot from distance. It’s not by accident.
It has only happened against Liverpool so far this season, and Burnley are usually happy to get outplayed on paper as long as they can land a sucker punch and steal at least a point, but they have in the past found that getting outplayed on paper becomes getting very actually outplayed. Chelsea have the individual quality to open Burnley up and the finishing quality to turn the low-xG openings Burnley allow into goals.
For this game, at least, the potential absences of both of Burnley’s starting strikers and two key midfielders give Chelsea a huge boost. Their replacements are simply not as finely attuned to Burnley’s style of play, rendering them much less effective.
Sean Dyche will be requesting minutely updates on Barnes, Wood, Cork and Gudmundsson, while leading extra shooting practice for Jay Rodriguez and Matej Vydra. Moving McNeil to the right last week and bringing Robbie Brady in didn’t really work, so perhaps McNeil will return to the left and regular sub Aaron Lennon will be used to counter Chelsea’s threat from full-back.
Frank Lampard will once again be waiting on news of N’Golo Kanté’s fitness, while Emerson Palmieri could come back in after two games for Marcos Alonso. Christian Pulisic will be pushing hard for a starting place after two impressive cameos off the bench.
If Burnley’s front two are fit, this will be a massive test for the Blues. If they’re not, it should be a comfortable win.