Premier League

Burnley Breaking New Ground With Old-School Methods

 • by Ryan Baldi
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They left it late, but Ashley Barnes’ 89th-minute winner against Stoke City on Tuesday night sent Turf Moor into raptures and Burnley into the Premier League’s top four.

Their stay in the Champions League qualification places is unlikely to last long, not least because the most established top contenders they leapfrogged with that win over the Potters would go back ahead of the Clarets with a win the very next night. But, fleeting as their top-four dalliance may be, Burnley deserve he credit for their metric rise up the English top-flight table.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for developing sides to crack the Premier League’s upper echelon. The money, and therefore the power, lies with those who occupied the top six positions last term – Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United – and the financial gap is only widening.

Even since Leicester’s miraculous title triumph less than two years ago, the landscape has changed: the big six have circled their wagons, investing heavily in coaching, scouting and playing additions to ensure the kind of underperformance that allowed the Foxes to triumph is unlikely to be seen again.

Since then, the Manchester clubs in particular have spent exorbitantly in an effort to form a breakaway duopoly, bringing in the game’s two most famous and successful managers, while shattering records in the transfer market.

Below them, the game’s brightest coaches are being backed by ever-increasing transfer budgets to ensure they are not among the unlucky two to miss out on Champions League qualification each year.

Everton, who spent £140million over the summer in an attempt to bridge the widening gap, are becoming a case study into the difficulties of achieving that goal. Their struggles stand as a warning to any side contemplating a speculate-to-accumulate approach to cracking the top six, their expensively acquired wings ill-equipped to fly toward the sun.

But Burnley are showing the old way still works. The outliers in a division where success and spending correlate distinctly, the Clarets are making strides through putting faith in their manager, spending wisely and planning carefully – an approach most thought to be archaic, a set of virtues that seemed long lost.

Their rise up the table has defied many of the iron-cast conventions of the richest league in world football. While those around them splashed the cash over the summer, regardless of whether survival, consolidation or something more exciting was the aim, Burnley turned a profit in the transfer market, one of only four sides in the Premier League to do so.

What’s more, of those four clubs (Tottenham, Swansea City and Stoke being the other three), only the struggling Swans, rooted to the bottom of the table at time of writing, returned a greater net profit than the Clarets’ £15.2million.

Yet, there they are, comfortably in the top half of the table. The departures of key players Michael Keane and Andre Gray, either through the identification of adequate replacements either already within the squad (James Tarkowski) or from lower down the football ladder (Chris Wood, a club-record £15million signing from Leeds United) haven’t had the detrimental effect anticipated.

More than simply a triumph of smartly replacing players who’ve been sold, though, Burnley’s recent success is about trust in the system, as opposed to a reliance on individuals.

That’s largely why they have done so well despite a comparatively low spend on wages. More so even than transfer expenditure, a club’s wage bill is often used as a benchmark against which expectations are gauged, with the Premier League table tending to pretty accurately depict where a team’s salary costs rank.

Burnley’s estimated total wage bill of £29.1million is less than third of Tottenham’s, and a round a sixth of Liverpool and Arsenal‘s – all sides the Clarets leaprfogged after defeating Stoke.

Dyche’s men further defy logic on the pitch, too. Many of the metrics used to analyse a team’s performance point towards Burnley occupying a false position. And while they are unlikely to remain in the top four, the statistics suggest they should be much further down the table.

Burnley’s rise has been build on a solid defensive foundation that has seen them concede just 12 goals from 17 games this season. Yet, in terms of expected goals (xG), a model which applies a value to every shot taken based on the likelihood of it being scored, the quality of chances they have conceded have a total xG value of 21.96.

They also face more shots than any other team in the league (16.4 per game). However, no side in the top flight is better at putting bodies in the way of the shots they face, blocking 5.6 efforts per game on average.

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The defensive system Dyche has devised contradicts such analysis because, rather than focusing on denying shooting opportunities, it is predicated on allowing the opposition to shoot, but only on Burnley’s terms: from unfavourable angles and with as many defenders between ball and goal as possible. Recognising he has a unit of players willing to put their bodies on the line for the cause, Dyche has created a style with makes this their biggest asset.

They are proving uniquely efficient in attack, too. With 16 goals scored against an xG of 10.84, only champions Chelsea are outperforming their expected goals by a greater margin, evidence of Burnley’s clinical finishing, and how they make the most of the chances they create.

As they keep winning, the sample size of data keeps growing. The longer Burnley confound the analytics, the more the analytical models appear not to apply to them.

Deservedly, much of the credit for Burnley’s unlikely rise is being directed towards Dyche. The former Watford boss, who took the reins at Turf Moor in 2012, has done a remarkable job of not only shattering expectations, but also simultaneously creating a sustainable model for future success.

In a rare act of loyalty from both club and manager, Dyche remained in post after Burnley’s relegation in 2016; he’d been the man to take them up the year before, and he was the best man to repeat that feat, which is exactly what he did, at the first time of asking.

Last term, Burnley consolidated their Premier League status with a 16th-place finish, and their current position has fans wondering whether they can look forward to European football next season.

For his part, Dyche has attempted to quell any such talk, but after the Stoke win he seemed to admit something special might be afoot: “Football is about realities but also about dreams.”