For years, the Burnley approach has received criticism. While some see it as unique and a side sticking to their strengths, others see it as ‘backward’, ‘boring’ and even ‘anti-football‘. Yet in an era when short passing and playing out from the back are as popular as it has ever been, manager Sean Dyche has insisted his side play a different way, which involves getting the ball from one end of the field to the other, with minimal risk involved.
It is a strategy that has worked wonders. They have comfortably avoided relegation from the Premier League in every season since their return to the top flight in 2016/17 and even pushed on for European honours in 2017-18. They are unlike many clubs, especially in the fact that the focus has not been to invest heavily in new additions but to instead develop their current group and drill them into becoming comfortable in executing an uncomplicated, no-nonsense and resolute style of play.
Burnley Suffering From Attacking Issues
Dyche Approach Beginning to be Questioned
The success of Dyche’s side sparked debate about whether there is a right way to play at all. “Any manager now, whether they believe in playing like this or not, I think they’ll feel forced,” said Gary Neville on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football in October last year. “If you don’t play out from the back you’ll be labelled a dinosaur.” Burnley’s method is not pretty but it has been damn effective.
Dyche’s side has not changed much this season, either. Burnley have very much continued their approach of getting the ball from one end of the field to another. Despite playing one game fewer than most sides, The Clarets have hit more long passes (542) than any other team in the Premier League. Last season, they ranked second in this metric with 2,698 and it starts from the goalkeeper. Of Nick Pope’s 192 passes so far this campaign, 86.9% have been long-only Sheffield United’s Aaron Ramsdale (89.4%) has a higher percentage in this metric, according to WhoScored.com.
Burnley average the fifth-lowest average percent possession in the Premier League this season (44.1%) but have only been dispossessed only 55 times – the fourth-fewest of any side. Opposition teams are having to win the ball further away from Burnley’s final third because Dyche’s side do not attempt to keep the ball there. As a result, Dyche has reduced the defensive risk from his side. Since their return to the Premier League, Burnley have only conceded 18 errors leading to goals. Arsenal, by contrast, have made 38, Liverpool 26 and Manchester United 24 and Chelsea 21.
Yet somehow so far this season, things have been different. Burnley sit second from bottom in the Premier League and have just two points from seven games. Unlike most clubs in this part of the table, Burnley’s defence, largely due to the aforementioned game plan, has not been a huge concern – they have conceded fewer goals than any club in the bottom seven. This issue is coming at the other end of the field – the Clarets’ have scored just three league goals so far this season – the fewest of any team in the top flight – with two of those coming in a 4-2 defeat against Leicester.
So why is this? Burnley are enjoying their usual success in the air, winning 25.4% of their aerial duels, the most in the Premier League, according to WhoScored.com. Only in 2017/18 (second behind Stoke), have they not ranked top in this metric since their return. They are even averaging more crosses per game this season (19.9) than last (19.6), with chief provider Dwight McNeil have a more successful season in this metric (7.14) crosses this season compared to 6.76 in 2019/20.
Yet a closer look at the numbers reveals that Burnley are lacking in two key areas. The first of which is creativity. Over the previous two top-flight full seasons, the Clarets were creating 1.34 big chances per game, on average. This season, albeit in a smaller sample size, that number has dropped to 0.71. As a result, the number of efforts at goal per game have also dropped from to 10.2 last season to 9.1 this season.
“We know we have to create better chances but it’s a base to build on,” Dyche told the Lancashire Telegraph after his side’s 0-0 draw with Brighton. “We’re never a million miles away. We’re getting closer.” It’s hard to score goals in the Premier League.
“Our history strongly suggests that we have players who can score goals in the Premier League and sometimes you go through little spells when it’s not working for you and suddenly you pop out of them. You can’t always define those moments but we know that we’re short of goals at the moment, we’re certainly not hiding from that. But it is important we have a base to build from and I think three out of the last four games we’ve had that base to build from.
“The thing I know about football is you’re never as far as away as you think and I don’t think we are. But we have to keep adding to these performances to win games.”
McNeil has been his side’s main provider from the flanks, but the lack of a creative midfielder means that not only are Burnley over-reliant on his crossing ability but they lack options elsewhere. The Clarets’ centre midfielders all fit well in deep-lying midfield roles but only Ashley Westwood, who created 11 big chances in the Premier League last season, possesses the ability to provide from more advanced central positions.
The second area of concern for Burnley lies in their quality of finishing. Last season, they were averaging 3.5 shots on target per game. This season, that number has decreased to 2.7 – only Sheffield United and Newcastle average fewer. Also, and perhaps more alarmingly, Dyche’s side have converted just 3.2% of their 94 shots at goal this season – the lowest in the league, according to Transfermarkt. Last season it was 14.9% – a worrying drop for a side that does not create a hell of a lot in the first place.
Burnley aim to use the presence of the likes of Chris Wood, Jay Rodriguez and Ashley Barnes to their advantage, especially from out wide. No forward scored more goals from headers than Wood (5) in the Premier League last season, while only five managed more than Rodriguez (3). Yet when the aerial threat decreases, as it has this season, Burnley struggle to consistently find the net due to the style of forwards at their disposal. With the absence of an expert finisher or a striker who can run in behind, Dyche lacks variety in his attack. And when Plan A proves to be less effective, problems arise.
The question now for Dyche is if he needs to change things up or stick to his guns. Burnley have started Premier League seasons slowly before but none quite in the manner as this one and without a viable alternative to their simple style, things could get worse before they get better.
“He (Dyche) won’t panic,” said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher after Burnley’s 1-0 defeat to Tottenham. “It’s still very early in the season. Going back a couple of years, I remember them losing 5-1, I think, at home to Everton, on the Boxing Day. “That put them in the bottom three with half a season to go and they still got out of that comfortably in the end. I think when you’re looking at the bottom three, I know it’s still early but I think it’s going to be difficult for Fulham and West Brom, for me, to be in the Premier League season.
“So you’re almost looking at who is going to take the other place, really. I still feel Burnley will be fine. As I say, it’s early in the season and I think they’ll have enough to stay out. Dyche, almost every season, we seem to worry at some stage for Burnley and they always prove you wrong – or prove your right, in some ways. And I think they’ll do the same again.”
Dyche may once again find a way out, as he so often does. But this season, teams are finding ways to combat his side’s style of play. Whether he stays true to his principles or adds another dimension to Burnley’s game could determine the Clarets’ Premier League future.
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