It was easy to overlook Burnley’s 2-0 win over Swansea last November. Not only was it a seemingly cut and dry match between two sides predicted to fight relegation, it also landed on the same day as the North London derby. And the 2-0 score line would otherwise be nondescript except that it represents Sean Dyche’s sides biggest margin of victory this season. They finished the day seventh on the table, a spot behind Arsenal. Three months later, that is where they improbably remain.
In analyzing how a side with the third lowest wage bill in the Premier League so thoroughly outperforms their expectations, the “how” is just as interesting as the “what.” Eschewing the viralness of artful passing sequences and skilled dribbles, you could build a mental image of Burnley’s style on statistics alone without ever seeing the side play. To start, they’ve scored 21 goals in 27 matches this season, tied for the fewest with West Brom. They’ve also given up just 24 goals, putting them fourth behind United, City, and Chelsea, and tied with Tottenham. Only those four sides along with Liverpool and Arsenal have lost less matches than Burnley.
Dyche’s side lead the Premier League in headed clearances and blocked shots, the second being a key feature of their style. Their 6.1 blocks per match is 1.5 more shot blocks than second place Brighton, with their center back and defensive midfielder spine of James Tarkowski, Ben Mee and Jack Cork each in the top 10 for most individual block shots this season. In attack, Burnley are first in long balls and have been whistled for offsides the second most out of all teams. They have had the second fewest amount of touches and completed passes this season, averaging 44% possession per match. If you were to place adjectives for a team given those numbers, it would be range somewhere between tough, physical, disciplined, counter attacking, and boring.
The framework of an upstart side using a 4-4-2 formation to fell bigger sides with 1-0 wins and clean sheets makes for an easy comparison to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. Yet there are significant differences. The 46 year old Dyche focuses on baiting opposition attackers into taking inefficient, low percentage shots that are either blocked or saved. In playing a game of spatial efficiency on the field, they represent a defensive variation of the battle between three pointers and midrange jumpers in basketball. Burnely are a team of no-stats all-stars, featuring a player who was turned down by Leeds because he had a low rating in Football Manager. They play with two target strikers. Dyche’s ability to flip players around in the transfer market as evidenced by buying center back Michael Keane for $3 million then selling him to Everton for $35 million two years later earned its own description of “Dyche-ball.” He is the “Ginger Mourinho” whose most unique trait is a gruff voice supposedly a result of eating earthworms.
We’ve previously looked at the industrious methods by which Huddersfield, with the lowest wage bill in the league, battle relegation. The Terriers, lead by David Wagner, carry the torch of Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing with a side full of tempo and pressing in contrast to Burnley’s deep line. It would be foolish to make any grand claim of how an understaffed side should approach survival, but the point remains: Wagner’s side sit just one point above the relegation zone.
But he and Wagner have other similarities, including both being the same age and both on their second team managed in their professional careers. In contrast to the winding road of a Maurzio Sarri or Tite, Dyche’s background consists of a season at Watford in the Championship in 2011 before an ownership change lead to a Burnley move a year later. Brighton and Hove winger Liam Rosenoir speaks of the importance in the consistency and synergy between the board and Dyche play a significant role in the side’s success, especially in replacing players like Keane. As obvious as his words sound, Rosenoir writes about how much easier it is to sign players when a manager knows what he’s looking for and has the long-term stability to integrate new signings. Although with the record breaking money spent in the most recent winter transfer window, that sort of stability is increasingly difficult to establish for Premier League managers.
Steven Defour is an untraditional name to be written in any club’s history books, although the unorthodox approach is appropriate for Burnley. In 2016, the Belgium made history by becoming the highest transfer fee Burnley had ever paid for a player at $10.5 million. They broke that record last summer in adding target striker Chris Wood and Cork to strengthen their side, and still made money in the window through the Keane sale.
Defour, Wood and Cork symbolizes the physicality and graft that Dyche’s foundation, but criticisms of being boring and anti-football are inevitable. Burnley were named the most boring Premier League team. They are labeled as the “new Stoke.” Even supporters have turned on the long ball style, questioning how much further the side could evolve regardless of the success. Yet Dyche defended his long-ball style after a 1-1 draw against Liverpool at Anfield, saying he knows what is effective in winning matches. Most recently, Burnley are without a win in 10 matches, having only scored five goals in that time. The manager acknowledges that his style rests on getting the better of small margins, in edging games with a “slightly better quality of chance.” Yet despite this recent struggle, they’ve maintained their European position.
After the 2-0 win over Swansea, Dyche reminded us that his goal this season is to hit the 40 point mark, safe from relegation. They currently sit at 36 points, a point ahead of Leicester City in a battle for the final European place. Former Burnley players describe the season as “miraculous.” Dyche himself has been subject to rumors of moving to larger clubs, although there are trepidations. There is no evidence of how he could work with imaginative players who lacks defensive discipline, and many conclude that his best fit is his current side. We know Dyche and Burnley have a method to do more than just survive in the Premier League, but achieve success beyond imagination. But it is a singular, predictable style with seemingly no room for evolution. This makes Burnley their own biggest opponent as the next few seasons unfold, in how functional and willing they are to reduce the game into a few significant actions in order to achieve results.