Burnley FC: Doing the basics right.
Burnley FC is not a glamourous club. This is not to say that they don’t have glamourous moments. The mind travels back to October 2017 when Jeff Hendrick superbly finished a 24 pass, team move into the bottom right hand corner. At this time, Burnley were building upon a 16th place finish in their first season back in the premier league. In the 2 years that have followed, Sean Dyche’s men have become a well drilled, organised and confident set of players who have earned their premier league status and look good value for it. Dyche’s proudest moment would have to be an inexplicable 7th place finish in the 2017/18 Premier League. What followed was an eventful, if however short, Europa league campaign seeing the Clarets fail to qualify for the group stages. A 3-1 loss to Olympiacos denied Burnley what would have been a historic season. Despite these undeniably impressive exploits, Burnley are not always looked upon in a favourable light by football fans and pundits alike with insults such as: hoof-ball and anti-football being aimed at Dyche’s men during their time in the top flight. Dyche defended his side following a 2-2 draw to Chelsea saying: “28 points in 12 games? You can’t anti-football that.” Dyche’s gruff demeaner and commanding aura mean you can’t help but agree with him! In many ways Burnley’s playing philosophy mirrors the idiosyncrasies of the man in charge; it may not always look nice, but it is undeniably effective!
Sean Dyche sets his team out in a 4-4-2 formation. To the neutral, this already screams at being out of touch and failing to keep up with the modern game, however there is good reason for why the team lines up in this way. When defending, Burnley adopt a low block. This means their defensive back 4 is very tight. The 2 fullbacks; Charlie Taylor and Matt Lowton both tuck in rather than occupying the space further wide. In front of the back 4, Jack Cork patrols the space outside of the 18-yard box looking to pressure the attacker into making a mistake or trying to force an interception. A tight back four restricts opposition to crosses from deeper angles which lend themselves well to be headed away by the two defensive stalwarts: James Tarkowski and Ben Mee. Mee and Tarkowski also are positioned in such a way as to create a narrow shooting channel which funnels shots towards the centre of the goal making saves easier for goalkeeper Nick Pope. Creating a funnel also helps Mee and Tarkowski block more shots with the former being joint second in blocks so far this season on 16. Whilst Burnley accept that they will often face a lot of pressure from bigger clubs, Dyche’s men are well drilled enough to soak up the pressure and to not feel panicked when opponents are deep in their area. Burnley also work hard to ensure there is a blocker on the line when facing shots as well. This means that when Nick Pope is forced into a save, ideally, there is a man waiting to clear their lines or block a second shot so as to prevent a goal. Mee and Tarkowski also lead the league in the 2018/19 season for blocks with 56 and 50 a piece. From face value, these stats indicate that Burnley are lucky to not have conceded more goals than the 68 they did and are over reliant on “last-ditch defending.” However, this is a fiction. Dyche’s men practice blocking scenarios so they are adept at the skill on match day and it is a part of their defensive tactical arsenal. Burnley’s centre half partnership understand their role and are disciplined enough to maintain it for a full 90 minutes. This is a testament to Dyche’s man-management skills as he has demanded his centre halves do more ‘dirty-work’ in an era that has seen the ball playing centre half appear as the new fashion.
Burnley’s midfield 4 also remain well drilled and alert in defence so as to spring attacks quickly when possession is regained. In order to do this, they rely heavily on the pace and creativity of academy graduate Dwight McNeil. The 19-year-old has currently been involved in 5 goals in 12 games in 2019/20 and is joint 5thfor crosses in the premier league. McNeil is also joint second for assists in the premier league with 4. Showing the kind of form which has earned him a call up to the England Under 21s side. McNeil and striker Chris Wood have formed an almost telepathic understanding with the Englishmen assisting Wood for 6 of his last 15 goals. This is doubly as impressive when you consider McNeil only broke into the first team last season. In 2019/20 Burnley have had 49 shots on target in 12 games, 29 of these have come from headers. This is 59% of their total attempts on goal. This figure illustrates Burnley’s reliance on crosses and how vital players like McNeil are to Burnley’s style of play. McNeil is a left footed player playing on the left which mirrors the crossing trend Dyche likes to employ. On the right-hand side of midfield, Jeff Hendrick has been preferred to Johan Berg Gudmundsson with the Irishman appearing in 5 more fixtures so far this season. Whilst Gudmundsson has struggled for fitness, it is unlikely the Iceland international will replace Hendrick due to his fine form. This also follows the same trend as Hendrick is right footed. Dyche has realised the effectiveness of Burnley’s crossing and has set his team up accordingly. One player who perhaps doesn’t get the credit he deserves is midfield general Ashley Westwood. Signed from Aston Villa in January 2017 for a fee of around £5 million, it took a little while for Westwood to break into the first team, with Belgian, Steven Defour preferred ahead of him. Defour later left for Royal Antwerp and since then Westwood has made the spot his own. In 2018/19 Westwood had the most assists in the season for Burnley with 7. However, this could be attributed to the fact he takes corners. Westwood has been used to link play up from Burnley’s low block to their attacking minded players. Following an interception or clearance, Westwood will pick up possession and try to release the ball either down the flanks to McNeil or Hendrick or spring a long ball forward to Chris Wood or Ashley Barnes. It is a job that Westwood has taken to incredibly naturally with him leading pass rankings for Burnley so far with 584. Westwood has become an integral part of this Burnley side and is a prime example of how Dyche rewards hard work and dedication.
The final integral part of Dyche’s system involves the strike force of Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes. Their roles have become synonymous with the way Burnley play. Both Wood and Barnes are what many describe as a traditional number 9. They both have an Assist/90 value of 0.08 and 0.09 respectively throughout their careers. Neither of them register many assists but they thrive off chances within the 18-yard box. Sides in the Premier League don’t tend to favour 2 strikers with variations of a 4-3-3 formation favoured having 1 sole focal point for wingers to play off. Even fewer sides have chosen to let 2 taller, stronger men lead the line. Thinking of classic strike partnerships, Tottenham’s 2009/10 season springs to mind where Peter Crouch and Jermaine Defoe lead the line, spearheading Tottenham to a 4th place finish. Crouch, the classic number 9, and Defoe, the more diminutive striker looking to get on the end of aerial duels won by Crouch. Burnley have flipped these assumptions on their head with 2 larger men and it has paid considerable dividends. Both Barnes and Wood hit double figures in the 2018/19 Premier League season (12, 10.) An astonishing stat is that in their last 29 starts together, Wood and Barnes have scored 28 goals between them (source – Alex James, lancs.live.) They are proving themselves to be one of the most formidable attacks outside of the top 6.
Burnley FC is not a glamorous club. On a shoestring budget, Sean Dyche has engineered a side that can compete at the top level of English football. He has inspired both players and fans alike and it is testament to how adored he is that Burnley boasts a pub named after him. ‘The Royal Dyche’ rebranded itself after Burnley’s remarkable 7th place finish. In his 7 years at the club, Dyche has overseen 2 promotions and built the squad into a Premier League regular. Adopting a blend of traditional values and new, imaginative ideas, this Burnley side plays with confidence, charisma and clarity. It truly is an exciting time to be a Burnley fan.