Despite finishing a respectable 16th upon their return to the Premier League last season, a full six points clear of the relegation zone, Burnley were tipped to battle the drop this term.
With meagre resources and having sold key players Michael Keane and Andre Gray, to Everton and Watford respectively, the Clarets were expected to regress, leapfrogged, it was suggested, by those who’d finished below them in 2017/18 and scrapping for survival with the three clubs coming up from the Championship.
But with just five games of the league campaign remaining, Burnley, incredibly, are seventh, on course for a place in next season’s Europa League and owning a legitimate chance of unseating Arsenal in sixth (the Turf Moor club sit just two points behind the Gunners).
Given their financial means, their constant underdog status and the comparative individual strength of their squad, what Bunley have achieved his season is nothing short of incredible. And that’s why Sean Dyche must considered a strong contender for the Manager of the Year award.
Burnley have continuously upset the odds this season, and they’ve done so in a way that has confounded analytics.
On the face of it, the Clarets have ceded too much possession, in areas too dangerous, and allow opponents to aim for goal far too often to have been as successful as they have.
For example, no team in the Premier League this season has faced more shots than Burnley (15.3 per game), they rank 17th for average possession per game (45 per cent), have the worst pass accuracy in the division (70 per cent) and are 15th when it comes to shots per game (ten).
Only basement clubs West Bromwich Albion (351.1) and Stoke City (341.6) have attempted fewer passes per game than Burnley (352.4) this season, and only five sides average fewer key passes per outing (7.3).
Delving deeper into the statistics, the expected goals (xG) metric, which uses historical shot data to apply a value to every chance based on the likelihood of it leading to a goal, paints a sorry picture, too.
Only Stoke (25.8) have a lower total xG for the campaign than Dyche’s men (28.1), whose actual goals scored isn’t especially healthy either, ranking 15th with 33.
Defensively, Burnley’s expected goals against (xGA) of 45.35 is slightly stronger, but still only ranks them 11th.
Yet here they are, in seventh place and on the brink of European qualification. Most who have crunched Burnley’s numbers throughout the season have predicted that the Lancashire club’s results would eventually level off, coming somewhat back in line with their statistical performance – that their luck would run out, essentially.
But it hasn’t. And nine months into the season the sample size of their over-performance is large enough to suggest something other than simply luck is at play, that Burnley are doing things the analytics don’t necessarily account for or properly reward.
On a macro level, Burnley have been incredibly efficient. Offensively, they don’t do a great deal, hence their low shots and goals averages, but they do enough. And they do it at the right times, with 12 of their 14 wins coming by just one goal.
Drilling deeper into the details of Dyche’s system, it appears the Clarets’ defensive philosophy is not necessarily to prevent the opposition from shooting altogether, but rather limit opportunities allowed to sub-optimum (from the attacking side’s point of view) areas, and focus of getting bodies between ball and goal.
They have also benefitted from goalkeeper Nick Pope, whose break in the team came as a result if an injury to first-choice Tom Heaton, being one of the best in the league in his position this term.
Using the post-shot xG (xG2) metric, which isolates the xG only of shots that hit the target, factoring in placement when judging their quality, we can glean a clear picture of a goalkeeper’s effectiveness when it comes to shot stopping.
As the Three Minute Myths video at the top of the page explains, only Manchester United’s David de Gea, a PFA Player of the Year nominee, has prevented more goals than Pope this season when measured against the xG2 he has faced.
What Dyche has done is implement an effective yet deceptively esoteric and detailed way of playing that has galvanised the group of players at his disposal. Results breed confidence, and confidence is powerful thing in football.
Through his tactical methods and man-management, his faith in his close-knit group of charges unwavering, Dyche has made Burnley so much more than the sum of their parts.
Having guided Manchester City to the title with ease, set to rack up multiple records along the way, Pep Guardiola is understandably the favourite to be named Manager of the Year. And, in truth, the difference between their respective remits means he and Dyche’s jobs bear little resemblance – there should almost be two managerial gongs on offer: one to recognise stewardship of an elite side; another for overachievement with more-humble means.
There can be only one Manager of the Year, though, and no one, not even Guardiola himself, could argue with it being Sean Dyche.