The Season So Far
Burnley started 2018-19 in just about the worst manner imaginable and, rather than cementing their place in the top half as they had hoped, they spent the rest of the season fighting relegation. Their campaign has suffered a number of blows, from unexpected Europa League heartbreak to having to play Joe Hart, and it is to their credit that they have now secured their Premier League status for another season — still an achievement in and of itself.
Manager, shameless self-promoter and likely Brexiteer Sean Dyche has had to use all of his motivational skills to pull Burnley back from the brink. From the start of October until Boxing Day they won only one of twelve games and conceded three or more goals in half of them, getting absolutely pummelled by Manchester City, Chelsea and Everton. It looked for all the world that Burnley’s opponents, no longer taking them lightly, had figured out how to break them down. More worrying still, it seemed like the players had lost their will to survive.
Since Boxing Day however, Burnley have won eight of their fifteen league games and their recent run of consecutive victories against Wolves, Bournemouth and Cardiff have lifted them up to fourteenth, comfortably clear of danger. The return of Tom Heaton between the sticks arguably changed Burnley’s season in an instant, allowing the Clarets’ defence to stabilise and solidify. Meanwhile, things started to click in attack: in Dwight McNeil, Dyche has unearthed a real gem of a player, while forwards Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood, workmanlike as ever, have found form and are now bullying every defence they come up against.
Their recovery has displayed every quality Dyche would want to imbue in his teams: indomitability, dedication, defiance, fortitude and immense wells of belief. They have shown themselves to be a worthy addition to the Premier League.
The Summer Ahead
While it would be an exaggeration to say that Burnley need to overhaul their way of playing, it remains at least somewhat true that they need to diversify their style of attack. Perhaps they have tried to do that in recent weeks, with the guile and ambition of Dwight McNeil on the left wing bringing an otherwise absent element of trickery into the side, but the fact remains that for a large part of this season they looked one-dimensional going forward.
Last summer’s recruitment drive will provide a “what not to do” guide, with the likes of Aaron Lennon and Joe Hart proving to be expensive, unmotivated additions which only served to dilute Burnley’s identity and their effectiveness. Rather than look to add “much-needed experience”, Dyche should be aware that Burnley are never better than when they’re being themselves: unknown and unheralded, under the radar and uncaring of what everyone else thinks.
They should also be especially aware that with two or three sides of genuine quality coming up from the Championship and with no duds left over in the Premier League — unlike this season — the relegation battle will be that much harder and that much crueller next year. Standing still will be equivalent to going a long way backwards.
Burnley’s formation is the same as ever: 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. They sit back, wait for a turnover and then get a shot on goal away as quickly as possible. Over and over and over again.
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 low-probability positions. They know they don’t have the technical class to keep the ball or the tactical flexibility to play with the flair and style most other Premier League sides aim to show, but as Dyche is so fond of reminding everyone, Burnley have nonetheless achieved spectacular results since coming up.
The ace in the pack at the moment is McNeil, who at the age of nineteen is carrying the Clarets’ attack. He dribbles way more than any of his teammates, creates way more chances from open play and he’s started scoring goals too. Expect him to become a familiar figure over the next decade.
They’re Burnley. That is to say, they’re good at keeping their shape, familiar with their roles and responsibilities and they’ll shed blood to stop the opposition from scoring a goal. They’re prolific at blocking shots and clearing the ball and, since Heaton has returned to action, they’ve been considerably harder to score against. While no team has allowed more shots on their goal than Burnley, they have the fifth highest Expected Goals Against figure in the division. They’re achieving their aims.
In attack, they’re still producing very little in terms of raw output but what they lack in quantity of chances they make up for in quality: their Expected Goals figure of 41.66 and their actual goals tally of 42 are significantly higher than the numbers posted by their relegation rivals. A large reason they’ve stayed up is because they know how to soak up pressure through long, gruelling bouts and still be able to land a knockout blow when the moment arises.
As previously stated, they know they’re a ragtag set of journeymen and they consciously play to get “dominated” in every game before suckering their opponents. Sometimes the stats don’t tell the whole story of Burnley games and what may look like domination in the numbers is actually sterile and ineffective in reality.
However, as Burnley have found out many times against the big teams this season, getting statistically thrashed often becomes getting actually thrashed. Chelsea strolled to a comfortable win at Turf Moor and, with Eden Hazard lighting up Stamford Bridge every time he plays there at the moment, few would be surprised if the Blues racked up another huge scoreline.
Burnley’s eleven shouldn’t contain any surprises at all. The only question mark looks to be whether Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson will come back in for the in-form Jeff Hendrick.
As for Chelsea, we know the drill.
Burnley are safe and have nothing to play for. It’s at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea 4-0 Burnley.