On the final away day of Burnley’s season last year, Josh King’s 86th minute goal subjected them to a 14th away defeat of the season. The Clarets would end their campaign with just seven away points, the fewest for a non-relegated side since Coventry City in 2000.
Burnley’s troubles away from Turf Moor will not make original reading for fans, nor will revisiting their recent relegations from England’s top tier. However, these woes are exactly what makes their success so far this season even more remarkable.
Fast forward five months, and Burnley find themselves coming away from Everton 1-0 victors. They have already earned more points away from home than in the entirety of last season, taking points off Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool along the way. With a win against Crystal Palace and a draw to Huddersfield sandwiched in between, Sean Dyche finds himself and his team in sixth position, fit for a place in the Europa League come the end of the season. So how, after losing two of their best players from last year, in Andre Gray and Michael Keane, have Burnley markedly improved?
Lady luck has certainly played her part; Lee Chung-yong’s back-pass and Scott Dann’s awful miss come to mind, and perhaps if Chelsea had kept eleven men on the pitch or Harry Kane could score in the month of August the table may look different. Nevertheless, it is disingenuous to attribute Burnley’s achievements to just fortune. Sean Dyche has tailored a system to his players strengths like few other teams in the league. His defenders are disciplined and organised, comfortable letting the opposition have two thirds of the possession and tens of shots a game. Yet they rarely let this dominance materialise into concrete chances.
James Tarkowski and Ben Mee are thriving, and make a valid case for being the best centre-back pairing in the division so far. Goalkeeper Nick Pope is slowly getting noticed. Filling in for injured Tom Heaton, he has saved 94% of shots his way, the most in Europe’s top five leagues.
This is no anomaly, or heroics from one man in goal. Burnley’s defensive philosophy is simple – force as many shots from difficult angles, or from range as possible, without allowing anything clear cut. Tarkowski and Mee have both made 15 blocks each, again putting them both at the top of Europe’s leaderboard.
At the other end of the field, the Clarets are vultures. Their modus operandi seems to be forcing errors through sheer tenacity and physicality, and feeding on the scraps, as Liverpool and Crystal Palace discovered. The question then arises; is this sustainable?
As impressive as their stability has been so far, it could also lead to their downfall. The back four of Matthew Lowton, Tarkowski, Mee and Stephen Ward have all played every minute, with Jack Cork and Steven Defour also starting all seven in midfield. An injury to any one of them may disrupt their stalwart defensive operation. Conversely, most of Burnley’s attacks go through Robbie Brady, and should anything happen to him, chances may become much harder to come by.
Sean Dyche and his team have also managed to keep themselves out of the spotlight, which suits them well. The narrative surrounding most of their matches has focused on the opposition; Tottenham’s Wembley woes, the sacking of Frank de Boer, and an underperforming Everton. If these results continue, the media will undoubtedly make Burnley ‘flavour of the month’ and it’s unknown how the squad will respond to becoming the top story.
Dyche has been in charge of Burnley for five years now, with varying success, and in a Premier League where managerial life expectancy is usually measured in months, it’s refreshing to see a club’s faith in a manager paying off. Hopefully Burnley’s players can maintain their form and start causing some international managers a few headaches ahead of this summer’s World Cup.
Image courtesy of Ronnie Macdonald