Burnley

Assessing where Burnley must strengthen to shock Europe

 • by James Piercy
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It’s an interesting aspect of Burnley’s brilliant season that despite Sean Dyche’s side remarkable overachievement there seems to be few vultures circling his squad.

The Clarets have all but qualified for the Europa League and could still even finish above Arsenal in sixth. This after a summer where they lost their supposed best player in Michael Keane and saw their second-best player injured a month into the season.

Yet, despite vacancies at Arsenal and potentially Everton and Leicester City, everything points towards Dyche remaining to lead his squad into Europe while, James Tarkowski aside, transfer talk around his key players has been quiet.

It will need to stay that way too as negotiating the Thursday-Sunday fixture drain plus travel of the Europa League will be taxing. But also because next season represents a fantastic opportunity for Burnley to further establish themselves as ‘the best of the rest’.

With further managerial upheaval expected at Goodison Park and the King Power Stadium, Newcastle United reluctant spenders and previous top-ten candidates Southampton and West Ham in danger of being Championship sides next term, who else is there to challenge the Clarets? 

So given the additional requirements and expectations placed on Burnley for 2018/19, we analyse just where Dyche might need to strengthen this summer…

Goalkeeper

Nick Pope’s brilliant campaign has ensured that not only do Burnley effectively have two No1 goalkeepers but that everybody has forgotten just how good Tom Heaton is.

Pope’s 11 clean sheets, 3.3 saves per 90 minutes – sixth-highest in the Premier League – and error-free 33 appearances has put him firmly in the conversation to go to Russia 2018 and even start for England when their tournament kicks off on June 18.

The 26-year-old does the basics very well and his unfussy consistency is endemic of what Burnley stand for as a team.

He does, however, need to improve his distribution as he leads Premier League goalkeepers for inaccurate long passes per 90 with 19.5 and rarely plays it to his defence with just 2.0 short passes per 90.

His pass accuracy of 39.2 per cent is a little scattergun but then that’s what Dyche wants his goalkeepers to do.

Heaton’s untimely shoulder injury was off the back of a fine 2016/17 campaign where he established himself in the England set-up, but having lost his Burnley place to Pope his participation at the World Cup looks extremely unlikely.

However, Heaton led the Premier League for saves last season with 141, 4.0 per 90, and managed ten clean sheets – his passing accuracy of 41 per cent was marginally more efficient than Pope’s this term.

He may well feel after this season that his career would be better served elsewhere, which would pose Dyche a dilemma. While should Pope impress for England, his stock will only soar, albeit with those distribution concerns.

But for now it’s a largely worry-free area for Dyche moving forward.

Defence

Tarkowski has seamlessly stepped into the boots of Keane and alongside the underrated Ben Mee has improved Burnley’s defence.

They’re conceding an average 0.88 goals per game this term against 1.44 last season while opposition teams are averaging 14.9 shots per game compared to 17.7 in 2016/17 and only four sides this season have conceded fewer goals in open play.

The dramatic difference between their 32 goals conceded and their expected goals conceded (xGA) of 47.85 – the 15.85 positive differential being the highest in the Premier League with only Manchester United’s 14.18 anywhere near it – can be explained in-part by Pope but also how much pressure they exert on the ball whenever it’s anywhere near their penalty area.

Burnley unsurprisingly lead the top-flight in shots blocked per game (5.1) and crosses blocked (3.5) and are second overall for clearances (31.5). No defensive unit scrambles quite like the Clarets back-four.

Only two outfield players – Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Jack Cork – have played more Premier League minutes than Mee and Tarkowski, whose importance is obvious.

The difficultly for Dyche is when one of them is injured or if Tarkowski, who at 25 is three years Mee’s junior and a far more appealing and financially-sensible transfer target, is sold.

Kevin Long has proved a more-than-able deputy, starting 14 Premier League matches at centre-back and his individual defensive numbers are among the best at the club – 8.3 clearances per 90 (first overall), 5.1 headers won (second), 0.9 shots blocked (third), 2.1 tackles per 90 (fifth), 1.3 interceptions (eighth).

The apparent ease at which he has stepped into top-flight football after only ever existing as a bit-part player or on loan in the Football League is astounding, but also testament to Dyche’s system.

But navigating 45 plus games with three centre-backs is a risky proposition and even if Tarkowski stays at Turf Moor, a fourth body needs to come in.  

At full-back, it’s been Matthew Lowton and Phil Bardsley on the right and Stephen Ward and Charlie Taylor on the left. All four have been typically solid and given little reason for concern over their individual role in the team.

However, whether it’s due to the defensive-first mindset or their own inability, neither offers much in an attacking sense.

Lowton has three assists – the second-most at the club – but is level with Ward for key passes per 90 with 0.6, a figure which is outside the top 40 of Premier League players in their position who have made five or more appearances. Bardsley and Taylor (0.4) are even further down.

Taylor leads the way for dribbles per 90 with a modest 0.7, with Lowton 0.4 and Ward and Bardsley on 0.2. While in terms of crosses per 90 it’s Lowton 0.6, followed by Taylor, Ward and Bardsley all on 0.5.

Dyche ultimately doesn’t demand huge attacking influence from his full-backs but to make a step up, on a domestic and/or European level, he either needs to encourage it or find defenders more capable and consistent in the final third. Providing, of course, they have the necessary defensive attributes.

Midfield

Cork has been on the field for every single one of Burnley’s 3,240 Premier League minutes and that consistency and continuity in selection has been mirrored in his performances.

Steven Defour was alongside the 28-year-old in the engine room but the Belgian suffered a knee injury in February and Ashley Westwood has occupied that role since, with Jeff Hendrick traditionally stationed in a more attacking central position.

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Defour is the only individual within that quartet who looks likely to leave with Marcel Brands, the reported incoming technical director at Goodison Park, a long-standing admirer of the 29-year-old. But given Brands is yet to even be appointed, there is considerable conjecture over that particularly link.

So, assuming they all stay, Dyche has an established midfield core who all know their roles and have incrementally improved with each top-flight season under their belts. But it’s difficult assessing Burnley’s central midfield by normal metrics and they’re all so unremarkable.

In passing, Westwood ranks highest with 48.4 per 90 at an accuracy of 80.4 per cent; figures which place him 54th among Premier League central midfielders.

In a creative sense, Hendrick averages 1.0 key passes per 90 with two assists; 53rd and joint-86th for players in his position.

Even defensively, Cork’s 1.6 tackles per 90 and Defour’s 2.1 interceptions are 66th and 16th in overall league ranking.

However, it’s impossible to consider this as a critique given how effective they’re been as a unit and Dyche will want to maintain this solidity taking his side into Europe.

It’s an area that could be significantly weakened if injuries count against them, Defour’s knee – his third serious injury for Burnley – should be a concern, but Dyche may get away with the same four, especially as he has the versatile Gudmundsson capable of stepping in for sporadic games.

The Iceland international has been Dyche’s go-to guy on the right-back with Gudmundsson excelling in his second season at the club.

His eight assists – the same number as Mesut Ozil and Riyad Mahrez – and 2.0 key passes per 90 make him the club’s most creative player, with the majority of that via his set-piece expertise.

Injury has denied Robbie Brady what was proving the most productive season of his career but the Republic of Ireland international should return for the next campaign to occupy the left-flank.

Aaron Lennon still has two years on his contract but hasn’t provided much of a threat – 0.7 key passes and zero successful dribbles – in his 12 league outings while Scott Arfield is joining Rangers when his contract expires this summer.

That leaves probably the biggest hole in Dyche’s squad as he needs at least two wide players, to increase competition for places but also in the event of an injury to Gudmundsson which would dramatically decrease Burnley’s attacking threat.

Attack 

Chris Wood became Burnley’s record transfer when he signed last summer for £15m from Leeds and the powerful New Zealand forward has overall been a success.

Nine goals in 19 starts – one every 174 minutes – is a fine return for a team who don’t do a great deal of attacking and the Clarets are yet to lose when he’s been on the scoresheet.

Where he could enhance his game is in the air as, for a 6ft 3ins striker, he’s averaging 4.6 aerial duels won per 90 against 5.9 lost for an overall 43.8 per cent. Compared that with team-mate Sam Vokes, who’s one inch shorter but has 9.9 won and 5.6 lost for an efficiency of 63.8, albeit with 12 less starts than Wood.

Burnley are the Premier League’s most consistent long passers with 81 per game and if Wood can add another 10 per cent to his aerial wins it should make considerable difference.

Wood’s hold-up play can also be a little erratic as his 3.3 unsuccessful touches per 90 places him joint-fourth among strikers in the top-flight and 1.9 times dispossessed in 19th overall, while his 60.7 per cent pass success doesn’t scream ball retention.

But, like so many of Burnley’s players, it just exemplifies Dyche’s high-impact football.

Ashley Barnes is another who’s been a real success story, scoring a career-high nine league goals – one every 237 minutes – including six in his last nine games.

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Barnes can also operate from the left-flank, although his 0.7 key passes and zero assists haven’t offered much creativity.

Vokes has averaged just 31.5 minutes per Premier League appearances and has been introduced off the bench 21 times, mainly to give Wood a breather. While that is a frustrating role to play his return of one goal and one assist in his last 21 games may give Dyche reason to consider an upgrade.

But then the Welshman is such a selfless player in fitting with his manager’s ethos, it would seem unfair and maybe a little rash to cast him aside.

However, given summer arrivals Nahki Wells and Jonathan Walters have made just seven and three substitute appearances, respectively, mainly due to Barnes exceeding expectations, there is space for at least one more forward.

Burnley have overperformed in terms of their 35 goals scored against 31.39 xG, a statistic which isn’t far from being the difference between seventh and eighth.

Wood could and should improve in his second season while Vokes and Wells have been underused but even factoring all that in, with European football to consider, one more striker wouldn’t go amiss.

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