Burnley are on course to achieve their highest league position in 44 years. Currently sat seventh in the Premier League table, they have quietly shaken up the division this season. What is most remarkable about their progress is that it has been achieved without spectacular spending.
Their squad is ranked 17th in a table based on Transfermarkt’s Premier League squad valuations. While this may not be a precise method of measurement, it does suggest that Sean Dyche’s side have performed well beyond expectations. Indeed, at the start of this season, bookmakers had them as second-favourites for relegation, behind only Huddersfield Town.
Burnley are able to thrive while spending modestly mainly because of consistent direction in the transfer market. During Dyche’s reign, they have tended to sign players who are in their mid-20s, have played in English football, and don’t come from one of the country’s traditional giants. This approach remains in place now, as seen by their latest targets.
Go to the Football Whispers homepage, and type ‘Burnley’ in the search bar. Scroll down to ‘Recent Whispers’ and you will find the top five rumours for players coming and going. At the time of writing, the top five rumoured to be joining were James McArthur, Joe Bryan, Craig Dawson, James Tavernier and Jozo Šimunović. Of this quintet, three are from England, and two from Scotland; their average age is exactly 26; and none of them play for top six Premier League sides.
In reality, Burnley don’t have a choice when it comes to competing with their top tier rivals financially. However, even if they could, there is a chance they still wouldn’t try to. “When you’re talking about the Premier League…you’ve got people who own the clubs who have hundreds and hundreds of millions. We haven’t,” Dyche said last May. “Even if we did have, I’m not sure the club believe in that.”
This quote is revealing. It indicates that Burnley’s transfer policy is deeply ingrained and relatively inelastic to any future increase in their financial power. This is perhaps because they have already figured out a way to progress without outlaying the huge sums thrown around by their competitors.
When it comes to signing players, Dyche and his colleagues understand precisely what they want, not only financially but in terms of personality. “We try and get the best players possible for what we are,” Dyche said during last summer’s window. “Are they open minded, do they want to continue improving as individuals? As much background as we can get on people is important for me. That’s a key focus.”
Thanks to the clarity of their transfer strategy, Burnley have been able to craft a similarly clear identity on the pitch. They are a brutally efficient side with a solid back four, a tall target man primed for winning long balls, and a sound structure for winning the second balls.
In a column for The Guardian earlier this season, Brighton & Hove Albion right-back Liam Rosenior wrote about his own personal encounter with this very identity, saying: “Playing a reserve game for Hull at Burnley’s training ground three years ago…what struck me was the fact that the reserve team were replicating Burnley’s style of play to the letter, with Dyche himself directing and shouting orders from the touchline.”
Evidently, Burnley’s philosophy is holistic, stretching from reserve team to boardroom, through the first team and the backroom staff, including those in charge of recruitment. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that when everyone is pulling in the same direction, good results come. Ideally, these results will be sustainable, too.
During Dyche’s time in charge, Burnley have signed 57 players. The average amount spent on a player during this period has been £1.9million. They do not compete financially with the Premier League’s top clubs, and so rarely sign players from top clubs. However, they do occasionally bring in players from said teams on a temporary basis. Of the seven loan signings made under Dyche, two came from Chelsea, and one each came from Liverpool, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur.
The age of these temporary additions generally ranges between 19 and 23, though the average age of all signings made by Burnley in the last six years is 25.9.
Plainly, they are much less willing to sign prospects on a permanent basis. This reflects a transfer policy based on teambuilding and continuity as opposed to the profit-motivated signing-to-sell seen in other clubs outside of the Premier League’s top six.
Young players tend to develop and then move on, sometimes for bigger things. This isn’t great for continuity. With this in mind, it’s worth noting that the average age of all players signed by Burnley in a single season has never dipped below 24, while the average age of this term’s signings is 28.3. Of them, 28-year-old Jack Cork, signed from Swansea City for £8.2million, has been the most successful, earning a first England cap last November for his good form.
Cork is the type of player Dyche wants in his team – hard-working, tactically intelligent, and likely to stick around for the longer term. His upside is minimal given he is at a stage of his career most would consider to be his prime, but he fits the club’s ethos in almost every way.
One aspect of Burnley’s transfer policy that has come under scrutiny at times is their focus on domestic talent. Of all the players signed by Dyche, 89.5 per cent arrived from English clubs. But this has nothing to do with politics; rather, it is simply the result of the club infrastructure.
The scope of Burnley’s scouting network has not always enabled them to scour talent from abroad as methodically as other sides.
“It’s the layers of information,” Dyche said last year. “Often these big clubs have got years on us, they’ve been monitoring players for years, they build up massive amounts of information. We’re just starting…to learn about the European markets.”
This change began in late 2014, when the club appointed Robbie Cooke as UK and International Scout. Within four months of his arrival, they brought in Norwegian midfielder Fredrik Ulvestad on a free transfer. The following season, they signed Belgian forward Jelle Vossen from Genk and German striker Rouwen Hennings from Karlsruhe. Then, last term, they added Belgian international Steven Defour from Anderlecht.
Cooke has since moved on, though his position has essentially been filled by Ian Butterworth. Aware that the price of domestic talent is often unreasonably inflated, Burnley are determined to continue growing their scouting capability. This is something Butterworth confirmed upon his arrival last June, saying: “[Burnley] want to branch out into Europe and get some players because those in England, it’s ridiculous the market values that you’re paying for.”
The area Burnley cover in their search for players is expanding, but it is unlikely that they will change their transfer policy entirely. They have operated efficiently within their means for years, to the point it has given them a competitive advantage of sorts. And, with a coherent identity on and off the pitch, there is reason to believe their progress can continue.