After consolidating their Premier League status with a 16th-placed finish last season, Burnley became the surprise package of the first half of the current campaign. They threatened to break up the division’s established top six, and briefly cracked the Champions League qualification spots.
The Clarets still occupy a lofty seventh position in the table, but, without a win since mid-December, their standing now speaks more to the inadequacies of those below rather than any endorsement of the Lancashire side’s own performances.
When Burnley were flying high earlier in the season – they lost just four times in their first 17 league games – Sean Dyche’s men were confounding statistical analysts. Their underlying numbers were those of a relegation-battling side, not a team on the cusp of European qualification.
Those who claimed the Clarets’ rise was powered by sheer good luck instead of any great tactical plan, were scoffed at. They were derided as cold number-crunchers, unable to see both the beauty of an emerging underdog tale and the nuanced, numbers-dyeing methods that had brought it to bear.
Now, though, it seems fears Burnley’s luck would eventually run out have been given credence. The Turf Moor side are struggling desperately, with their results matching their key performance statistics.
At the time of their last victory, a 1-0 home win over Stoke City on December 12, according to understat.com, Burnley ranked bottom of the league for expected goals (xG), and 17th for expected points (xPTS) – a model which analyses the xG and expected goals against (xGA) metrics for each game and applies a points score accordingly.
Yet their last-gasp win over the Potters temporarily took Burnley into the top four.
To suggest the Clarets’ climb up the table was all down to luck would be to unfairly discredit the work Dyche and his team have done.
It has been suggested some of the tactics the Clarets employ aren’t conducive to producing favourable deeper statistics – such as their method of defending not by preventing shots, but rather by ensuring any shots allowed are taken from unfavourable angles, with defenders between ball and goal – and, ultimately, points on the board is the only stat that matters.
But, the greater the sample size, the more results begin to fall in line with what the numbers have been telling us. That appears to be the case with Burnley; their performance statistics have remained consistent, but their over-performance against them has proven unsustainable.
In their run of 11 league games without a win (six draws and five defeats), Burnley have only netted just six times. While they were far from free-scoring during their purple patch, with 16 goals from the first 17 fixtures of the season, they found the net more regularly.
Their defensive record has still been fairly strong through this difficult spell, with 17 goals conceded in their 11 winless games. This, too, though, is a regression from their record of just nine goals shipped in the first 17 matches – although they have played Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City during this period.
With their total of 25 goals conceded this term, the Clarets boast the fourth-sternest backline in the Premier League. No team in the English top flight has enjoyed a greater differential between their total xGA and their actual number of goals conceded than Burnley this season.
The fact that, despite their increase in goals conceded per game of late, the Lancashire side are still able to outperform their xGA numbers does seem to point towards Dyche doing things not accounted for by the model, but their blunt attack is more concerning.
With just six points collected from the last 33 on offer, Burnley are exhibiting relegation form. Although they are still seventh, their grip on the position is slipping – with ten games remaining of the 2017/18 season, only six points separate them from the 12th-placed Brighton & Hove Albion.
Put forward as a contender for the then-vacant post at Everton and even named as a potential future England boss when the going was good earlier in the season, Dyche is now tasked with arresting his side’s dramatic slide.
As Burnley’s results plummet towards the mean of their underlying statistics, he must find a happy medium, a sustainable level of over-performance.