How Burnley have gone from relegation contenders to mid-table safety
Among the big sharks of the Premier League in the top seven of the points table this season is a minnow by the name of Burnley FC. The club that hails from Lancashire currently sits seventh on the league points table with 28 points from 16 games, raising more than just a few eyebrows.
Burnley, a team managed by a Triple H look-alike named Sean Dyche, doesn't look like a side that struggled to stay in the league last season as they now have the same points as Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspurs and are only two points behind the fourth-placed Liverpool FC managed by 'the father of heavy metal football' Jurgen Klopp.
Before the season started many would have predicted Burnley to be one of the three teams to be relegated this season, but the Clarets have proved their sceptics wrong with their flabbergasting performances.
While they may not have big money players and fancy tactics to play by, Burnley have managed to be up there with the big guns with eight wins and four draws in the league. They have only lost four matches, which is lesser than Arsenal's five and equal to Chelsea's and Spurs' tally.
The number's so far
Despite not having a Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in midfield, nor a David de Gea in goal; neither a Eden Hazard on the wing, nor a Mohamed Salah upfront- Burnley is up there fighting with the big boys in the league this season. And that exactly is Dyche's Burnley's biggest success.
The team that has Turf Moor as their home has only scored 15 goals this season, which is just two more than Liverpool's Salah and yet they are just two points behind the Reds. Their goalscoring tally, which is mainly contributed by strikers Sam Vokes and Chris Wood, is the lowest from a top 10 side.
Yes, the goalscoring numbers do not explain why Burnley is seventh on the points table because that is simply not the reason why they are there. The real reason for the team's astonishing success is their unyielding defence.
Even the team's defence do not have fancy names like Mustafi, Valencia, Cahill or Vertonghen. Burnley usually start with a back 4 consisting of Lowton, Tarkowski, Mee and Ward.
The Clarets' defence has only conceded 12 goals this season, which is the second best to Manchester City's and Manchester United's 11. The two Manchester clubs occupy the first and the second place on the points table only with the help of that record.
Burnley have made an impressive improvement in their performances against the 'big six' of the Premier League (Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs). Last season the side got only five points out of the possible 36 against those top teams, while this season the Tom Heaton-captained team has already earned five points from 15.
Last season's relegation battle
The Clarets were promoted to the Premier League in 2014 only to be relegated back to the Championship the following season. However, despite losing key players like the team's previous season's top scorer Danny Ings, right-back Kieran Trippier and centre-back Jason Shackell, Dyche took his team straight back to the first tier in 2016.
It looked like Burnley were again dropping back to the second tier last season, but they clung to the rope of survival and managed to remain in the league. They finished 16th in the points table with 40 points, which was same as 17th placed Watford and six points above the relegated Hull City.
The 135-year-old club won only 11 of their games last season, drawing seven and losing 20. Burnley have already won eight games this term with still 20 games left to play before the season ends.
It has to be noted that Dyche's side only won game away from home, for which they had to wait till the 35th gameweek of the season. This season the side has already won four away games, one of them being against the title defenders Chelsea in the first game of their season.
Another stat that shows the drastic improvement of the team is that Burnley, who has conceded just 12 goals this season, have to concede 2.15 goals on average in the remaining 20 games to match last season's tally of 55. And it is hard to believe that the team's current defence will do so.
What has made the difference?
Numbers and statistics show the difference, but not what made the difference. To find the answer for 'what', we have to look somewhere else. Somewhere where digits can't take us to. And that somewhere is the system.
Burnley played in the 4-4-2 formation majority of the last season, sometimes switching to a more defensive 4-5-1. However, this term manager Dyche has gone with a 4-2-3-1 system that usually transforms into a deep lying 4-4-1-1. This formation has played an important role in the side turning things around.
The Clarets have gone from Vokes and Andre Gray, who scored 19 goals between them, upfront to just Wood this season. Burnley are well aware of the fact that the New Zealand centre forward won't score as much as his predecessors, but this change is a hit that the team took to reinforce their defence.
Ben Mee and James Tarkowski are the pillars of Dyche's current system. The pair is joined by two 32-year-olds - Phil Bardsley and Stephen Ward on the sides. And this defensive line of four is protected by former Swansea player Jack Cork and Belgian international Steven Defour. This already well guarded defence is further reinforced by the services of Manchester United academy product Robbie Brady and Chelsea academy product Johann Berg Gudmondsson.
It is as clear as daylight that Burnley's defensive stability is what has made the difference for them. So how do they defend?
The Clarets defend deep and narrow, with the full-backs placed close to the centre backs. Cork and Defour stays ahead of the back four, but not too far away. Brady and Gudmondsson provide further support to the midfield when Burnley are on the back foot. However, this low block creates a huge space between the defence and the two-man attack of Wood and Jeff Hendrick. This space could be easily utilised by the opponents, but as they say it is not the weakness that is actually the weakness, but the inability to realise the weakness.
Dyche is well aware of this major frailty in his system and the 46-year-old knows how to prevent the opponents from taking advantage. As Burnley set up in a defensive low block, it will be too congested in their penalty box for other teams to easily get into. Hence, opposition players are forced to use the space that is there between the defence and the attack.
In reality the Clarets encourage their opponents to make use of their flaw, but they are more than well equipped to face the consequences. With the luxurious space provided by Burnley in front of their defence, teams can either have shots from outside the penalty box(48 percentage of shots against Burnley are from outside the box) or make crosses from wide areas. The shots usually get blocked on its way to goal, and the crosses headed away.
This is where the efficiency of Mee and Tarkowski comes in. The two defenders have the best defensive numbers in the league this season. The former has 80 headed clearances, while the latter has 83(Burnley's total is 294). The 28-year-old Mee has a total of 114 clearances, but the 25-year-old Tarkowski's total of 130 belittles it(the club total is 527).
This system could fall apart into pieces if the defenders are inefficient and lack in concentration, but Mee's and Tarkowski's numbers highlight the wonderful job done by the both. The midfielders and full-backs deserve equal credit for their hardwork and persistence.
Another major strength of Burnley is their ability to protect the lead. They won seven of their eight matches with a goal margin of just one. This talks a lot about the ability of the team's defence to contain heavy pressure well.
Comparing Burnley's expenditure on their defence last summer transfer window to Manchester City's and Manchester United's will also show how much of an achievement Burnley's current position is.
The Clarets just spend €10 million on their defence including Cork in the summer, while the Sky Blues and the Red Devils spent €170 million and €35 million (just Victor Lindelof) respectively.
Dyche's Burnley might not be the most entertaining side to watch this season, but it is always good to see the underdogs put up a fight. If they are able to maintain the way they are playing now and finish exactly where they are now, it will be one of the greatest seasons in their recent history. The new West Brom, surely? (The Pulis one of course!)