Football has moved into an age where we romanticise possession-based football, dominating even the most determined of teams and forcing them to change with the times. When looking at the WhoScored metrics for Pass Accuracy, Possession, and Dribbles p90, Burnley are firmly rooted to the bottom of the table every season.
Even though we associate these statistics with goals and points, Burnley have remained in the topflight. They have consistently been stable in the Premier League. Manager Sean Dyche spoke to The FA about his view on his tactical decisions in the context of modern football, saying:
“If the so-called ‘Right way of playing’ is to have 500-700 passes a game and roll it out from the keeper, you better have some good players. If it is development football, I’m absolutely all for it, but if you’re asking me now as first-team manager, no matter how they come around you have to win games. I look at the group I’m working with, then I decide what strength they have, decide the weaknesses, then I formulate what I think is an appropriate way those players can work in order to win games.”
Dyche recognises that trying to play possession-based football cannot be done when you field weaker players than the opposition. While this sentiment feels obvious, it is a challenge that many teams in the Premier League are trying to conquer. Norwich are the best case-study of how you can linger at the bottom of the league despite maintaining the 9th most possession & 9th highest pass accuracy. Everton have also made conquering this challenge their long-term goal. 2015 was the last summer transfer window the club failed to spend more than £50 million, and in the last three seasons alone, Everton have spent over £370 million on players. Yet they have so far failed to match the performances of the top 6, and only placed as high as 7th, the same as Burnley’s highest finish.
This season Burnley sit one place below Arsenal in the Premier League, in 12th spot. While most fans know them as a tough defensively resolute side, “parking the bus” alone would never have been good enough to survive this long in the Premier League. Sean Dyche has instead decided upon a system which creates goals in such an effective way, that an argument can be made that Burnley have the smartest tactical and financial blueprint in the Premier League.
Despite Richarlison being worth over £45 million according to Transfermarkt, he has only managed a goal less than Burnley’s top scorer Chris Wood. Wood is a representation of the evolution of Dyche’s Burnley since 2015. This was when the club were relegated from the Premier League in their first season back, scoring the least goals that year. Danny Ing’s 11 league goal tally was not enough to keep them up. Statistics show us why, as Burnley averaged the most long-balls in the league that year, while 5ft 10 Danny Ings was winning less than one aerial duel per 90.
Fast forward to 2020 and Burnley now average the 2nd most shots inside the 6-yard box in the entire Premier League, second only to Manchester City. This is an incredible stat via WhoScored, as Burnley have spent next to nothing to achieve something City spent a billion pounds on since hiring Pep Guardiola who drives his team towards this aim.
Over 72% of Burnley’s attacks are focussed down the wings, and the club still completes the most long-balls in the Premier League. The difference now is that striker Chris Wood is winning nearly four aerial duels per 90, and his quality is shown by the fact that all his 11 goals have come from either a cross or a corner. The team is geared towards getting the ball close to the goal where they have Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes, two players who are dominant in the air and lethal in the finish. In fact, his 50% shot accuracy is superior to the 37.5% accuracy of none other than Sergio Aguero (WhoScored).
20-year-old Dwight McNeil is surprisingly one of the most crucial players, as he has completed the fourth-most minutes in the side. McNeil is vital in the attack, as he provides the most dribbles (4), the most key passes (1.5) and the most accurate crosses (1.8) in the entire Burnley squad per 90. He is tactically flexible as well, as McNeil can stretch the width of his team by hugging the touchline or push up to join the strikers in a narrow front 3. He attempts over six crosses per game, meaning Wood and Barnes get spoiled with service.
To stay competitive, every year, clubs spend millions on improving their squad. For a team trying to change philosophy though, the transfers cannot be failures, otherwise, the results will be dark. A stark reminder of this is the summer of 2015 when Newcastle spent £97 million on a litany of foreign talent. Even though players like Georginio Wijnaldum and Florian Thauvin are now regarded as star players across Europe they, along with five other big-money moves, were not enough to stop Newcastle being relegated that season.
Newcastle took a risk on a lot of players who had never played in the Premier League. Wijnaldum, Thauvin, Mitrovic, Henri Saviet and Chancel Mbemba were all playing their first-ever seasons in English football, yet were instantly made starters, and failed to perform. Burnley clearly recognise this mistake and instead opt to take a far safer strategy, shopping within England.
This means that the player is more likely to have a more significant impact upon the side when joining, as they will be more suited to the English physicality. Shopping for a forward from a foreign league like Florian Thauvin means the player may not adjust to the Premier League, as quickly as desired. As a club which recognises the superior quality amongst other sides, Burnley know they cannot risk buying players who will fail to help them and weaken the established attacking system.
The evidence for this strategy is clear. Just one player has signed for Burnley from a foreign league in the past four years. The rest have mostly been transferred from the lower English leagues, and it has been a great success. They bought Chris Wood from Leeds, and his proven finishing transitioned well from the Championship. They purchased Nick Pope from Charlton for a tiny £1 million fee in 2016, and now the 28-year-old is about to hit his prime and contend for the number 1 England jersey. Sean Dyche has spent just £150 million since 2012.
Dyche and Burnley will be called outdated in the modern game, but the truth is the opposite. Dyche is ahead of the curve. He continuously beats teams spending hundreds of millions of pounds more than Burnley because he has cultivated a system where the needs are cheap, and the product is being just as, if not more efficient and competitive than some of the other teams competing for the top 10 spots in the league.
Written by Alex Barker | Feature Image by Jan Kruger/Getty Images for Premier League
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