The Season So Far
After a very bright start to the season, during which time they seemed primed to challenge for 7th place, Sean Dyche’s Burnley have experienced a terrible loss of form, stopped keeping clean sheets and found themselves very much in the thick of the relegation battle. Not for the first time, Dyche finds himself wondering what he can do to arrest such an alarming slide.
The dangers with Burnley’s uber-reactionary defensive football are obvious: the physical and mental demands of playing that way are so high; goalscoring chances are necessarily few and far between; injuries could mount and leave a small squad badly stretched; very few players of Premier League quality actually want to play that way every week, so star signings of transformative quality aren’t easily found, and any squad which masters this style can easily grow to feel stale within a few years. The last few weeks have seen each of those problems clearly manifested.
While December brought priceless 1-0 wins against fellow strugglers Newcastle and Bournemouth, it also brought four damaging defeats, with a combined score of 1-10 accrued in games against Tottenham, Everton, Manchester United and Aston Villa. The last and most recent of those games was the most damaging: very few people thought Dean Smith’s injury-hit Villans could rock up to Turf Moor and blow Burnley out of the water before half-time, but that’s precisely what happened.
This time last year, when Burnley were in danger of losing their top flight status, Dyche decided to double down on his principles and simply work twice as hard, challenging his players to prove that they still possessed the quality and organisation that had led them to qualify for Europe in 2017-18. That feels a very long time ago now, and the same solution can’t really work again. It’s presumably time for an injection of new blood, or for Dyche to go for one of those bigger jobs he’s adamant English managers can’t get and leave the Turf Moor rebuilding job for someone else.
The Season Ahead
The last time this column previewed a Burnley game, the Clarets were flying high, every sucker-punch was turning into a knockout blow and qualifying for European football was their objective. Now, with half the season played and with Burnley sitting four points above the drop zone, the situation is very different, especially with West Ham, Aston Villa and Watford below them but looking resurgent. Nothing matters except staying up, and between now and May every point they pick up will be vital.
Unfortunately for Dyche and his side, the fixture list has dealt them a shoddy hand: their next four games are against Chelsea, Leicester, Manchester United, and Arsenal. They could hardly come into this run of fixtures in worse form. By the time they play opponents of equivalent quality and go into a game as favourites, they will probably be in serious relegation trouble and the pressure will have been ramped up considerably.
Burnley’s setup is the same as ever: Dyche’s side use 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, block the path to goal and wait for a turnover. Having won the ball they swiftly play the ball long, trusting their physical, determined attackers to take advantage of one-v-one situations and get a shot away as quickly as possible. Burnley’s average possession figure is 43.1% and their average pass completion is 68.3%. By contrast, no team has won more aerial duels. They’re not going to win any prizes for aesthetics.
Of course, their primary aims are defensive: they remain very compact, closing passing angles and minimising shooting angles, almost daring their opponents to take shots from long range or from tempting but 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 had it not been carried out so ably. Indeed, now that it’s not being carried out so ably, the Clarets have dropped close to the foot of the table.
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 four sides have created more chances from crosses and only Everton and Manchester City have had more headed attempts on goal.
While it’s easy to sneer at their brand of football, which is no fun to watch whatsoever, even less now that they can’t even get a result that way, it’s unique in the division and undeniably effective. When they’re at their absolute best, no other Premier League team can produce a defensive masterclass like Burnley can. Just when you think everything’s under control and you’ve got them exactly where you want them, just as you have had them for half an hour already, they launch a long ball forward, win the header and score with a snapshot from distance from the second ball. It’s not by accident.
While it’s tempting to characterise Sean Dyche as some kind of stone age troglodyte – so tempting in fact that Dyche himself does so on a regularly basis – he’s not. There is method to his madness, albeit a risky one: it doesn’t matter if his team gets outshot 20-1 if the other team has 20 poor quality shots from long distance and with plenty of bodies between the shooter and the goal, as long as his team’s 1 chance is shot unopposed from two yards out.
That makes sense, but when you realise how much Burnley practice snapshots and shots from distance, you realise that they’re trying to game the odds even more: if the other team has 20 shots that they’re more or less hoping for the best with, that’s worth less than the same snapshot taken from distance by one of Burnley’s forwards, who will have practiced exactly this strike in exactly this scenario 50 times this week.
Thus, Burnley are able to take a beating in the stats but outperform them, again and again. Fans of beaten teams may well feel aggrieved, saying that Burnley didn’t create anything, relied on their keeper and only had a couple of shots from distance, one of which miraculously flew into the bottom corner – but that’s not luck, that’s exactly what Burnley set out to do.
Of course, none of that matters if Burnley fail at the basics: getting outshot 20-1 only works if your chances are better than the other team’s, otherwise you just get hammered without ever having been in the game. If your defenders don’t block the majority of the other team’s shots, or if your keeper gets himself stuck behind the sea of bodies in his box and can’t see shots flying past him, that makes your job that much harder. If your strikers then waste their two or three chances per game, the small probability that you’ll steal a win shrinks to zero.
Indeed, that’s where Burnley find themselves now. In some games they’ve been absolutely destroyed – losing 3-0 to Sheffield United, 5-0 to Tottenham and somehow only 2-0 to Man Utd stand out - but even when they haven’t, individual errors or minor details are costing them. Had Expected Goals produced Actual Goals, they’d have beaten both Aston Villa and Crystal Palace in recent weeks; as it is, they lost both games. Indeed, according to Understat.com’s Expected Points metric, only Watford, Man Utd, Norwich and Everton have been unluckier this season based on the Expected Goals outcomes of their games: the very opposite outcome of what Sean Dyche’s philosophy is supposed to produce.
Burnley come to Stamford Bridge with a host of injury worries and it’s possible if not probable that they’ll end up fielding a somewhat makeshift side. Key players Dwight McNeil and Johann Berg Gudmundsson are out, while each of their three senior strikers – Ashley Barnes, Chris Wood, Jay Rodriguez – face late fitness tests ahead of the game.
Marcos Alonso and Christian Pulisic are rated 50% ahead of the game, but unlike Dyche, Frank Lampard has sufficient squad depth and we should see a very strong Blues XI.
Chelsea could barely ask for more obliging opponents right now than an injury-hit, out-of-form and possibly toothless Burnley. This is a big chance to run up a big score and get the season back on track.