Premier League

Breaking down Burnley's bumpy start to the season

 • by Mark Thompson
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Something is up with Burnley.

Their stats last season never looked good, but there was always a sprinkling of Sean Dyche magic that helped the Clarets perform above expectations.

Yet after a seventh-place finish last season, they sit 19th in the early Premier League table and have lost three of their opening four top flight games.

So, quite simply, has the magic gone?

Back to life, back to reality

You might be sat thinking ‘Burnley got lucky last year, this year they’re getting their karmic comeuppance’. And on the defensive side of things, you might be right.

In 2017/18 Burnley conceded 55.95 expected goals according Football Whispers statistics, and that’s not even including penalties or direct free-kicks.

Taking out penalties and direct free-kicks, they conceded just 35.

In 2018/19, their expected goals conceded have been 9.87, and they’ve conceded… nine. So Burnley’s defence has come back to Earth.

However, coming back to expected goals, things haven’t happened in attack. This season, the Clarets have created chances worth 4.8 expected goals, but scored just three.

But why?

Let’s tackle the defensive side first.

Last year, there was a fairly significant gap between two different expected goals models.

The expected goals metric takes into account all shots, but there’s also a ‘post-shot’ expected goals model, where shot placement is incorporated – and, because of this, all blocked or off-target shots have a value of zero.

In 2017/18 the quality of chances they conceded dropped by nearly six goals when you factor in shot placement, by far the biggest reduction in the league.

This season there’s virtually no difference. The drop is from 9.87 to 9.43 expected goals.

So it’s not Joe Hart’s fault?

The fact there’s less of a drop implies Burnley, as a whole team, are not defending with the same diligence as last season.

Whether that’s getting players behind the ball or putting pressure on the shooter, we don’t have data on. The midfield hasn’t looked as solid as it used to, which makes Jack Cork’s change in persona radar very interesting.

The Football Whispers persona radar looks at how a team or person plays stylistically, and you can see how Cork’s role has changed this season.

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Is he taking on more of an attacking role with a central midfield partner taking on more of a defensive duty? Not really.

Last season, Cork was relatively defensively minded despite being alongside either Ashley Westwood or Steven Defour, whose persona radars were also heavily characterised by defensive work.

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Cork’s change may be because of a more porous midfield, and part of a larger change that means whatever magic Burnley were conjuring last season isn’t there any longer.

Tellingly there’s been a significant drop in the amount of dogged defending from the Clarets so far this season.

Burnley’s overall persona for 2018/19 (green) looks very different to the formula used in the past two years.

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So while Joe Hart might not be producing a Nick Pope or Tom Heaton type of season, where they hugely perform their expected goals against, it doesn’t mean that all of the defensive problems that the team are having are on him.

Beware big chances

Burnley are conceding more expected goals per game this season than last in a big way: 2.46 a match up from 1.47.

Even worse for the Clarets is that this increase seems to be coming from good-quality chances.

Statisticians will tell you that a few high-quality chances outweighs a bunch of lesser quality shots in the long-run. Unfortunately for Burnley, they’re conceding way more good-quality chances this season than last.

Burnley's leaky ship

2017/182018/19
Chances worth 0.33+ xG conceded per game0.882.75
Chances worth 0.5+ xG conceded per game0.471.25

So, the Clarets are conceding more high-quality chances and a stylistic change in midfield might be making them more porous. Oh, and their goalkeeper is no longer saving a magical amount of shots. Problem solved?

The ‘Stoke City’ problem?

Not exactly. The defence isn’t the whole story.

Burnley aren’t a possession-based side, yet they’re not really a direct side anymore either.

They’re mid-table for the amount of possession sequences where they string five or more passes together and ditto for possession sequences of fifteen passes or more.

This suggests they’re more willing to put their foot on the ball and settle into possession, rather than going quick and direct.

But have they hit the Stoke City-branded glass ceiling of route one football teams?

Maybe. But they’re also suffering from a lack of scoring the first goal. Burnley’s modus operandi last season was netting the opener and protecting the lead, something that a strong and structured defensive team can do fairly comfortably.

This term, they haven’t led for a single minute in the league, and conceded after three minutes against Watford and after four against Fulham. In both they equalised but it meant that they were always chasing the game.

And on top of all that, there’s the extra games they’ve played in their Europa League run, something that every team outside of the big guns seem to struggle with.

As with any early-season narrative, it seems the things affecting Burnley are partly statistical quirks but also genuine problems.

Now they’re out of Europe, they may be able to recapture something of their past self but it’s no certainty that they will.

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