Sean Dyche is not a man prone to panic. You can imagine him turning up to a burning building and insisting that the homeowner pops on the kettle and keeps warm in the road while he tackles the blaze.
In the battle against addressing Burnley’s 2018/19 malaise, Dyche can take solace in his recent history. He and they have been here before. He has always found a way.
But even Dyche must be getting a little unnerved by Burnley’s wretched form. Against Crystal Palace on Sunday, the home team managed 29 shots on goal and were rarely threatened defensively. That represented Palace’s highest number of shots in a league game since the beginning of last season – their previous high was 24. Results meant that Burnley fell to 19th in the table.
Thrill of the fight
Dyche’s explanation is that his team have entered a cycle of defeats that have become almost self-fulfilling. “The eye of the tiger we had last year – it was a collective unit – has softened quite obviously, and that can happen with tough results,” he said on Saturday evening.
Bad results leads to bad morale, and bad morale leads to more bad results. A team that thrives through their ‘us against the world’ mentality can fall away fast when the bubble is pricked.
Burnley have two distinct problems. The first is that starting the season so slowly is unfamiliar. Dyche was right to remark post-Palace that he has got his side out of similar slumps in form, but those have previously occurred towards the end of a long season. With a thin squad and a style that requires great physical commitment from the players, tailing off has been natural. Burnley’s early-season overperformance kept them safe.
This season, the Clarets have started slowly and there aren’t a whole host of reasons to have faith in them reversing their form when winter enters spring. Dyche’s team had a short summer break due to Europa League qualifying commitments, and had played nine competitive matches by the end of August – that’s 22% of the total they played in all competitions last season. The squad is hardly vastly increased: the two outfield summer signings – Ben Gibson and Matej Vydra – have played only three league games between them.
The other, more immediate issue is that Burnley are setting records for how poorly they are defending. Last season, Stoke allowed 579 shots, the worst in the Premier League. Continue at their current rate, and Burnley will allow 809.
Dyche’s team have always allowed a high number of shots, and were second only to the Potters last season. They managed that by pushing opposition teams out wide and forcing them to cross or attempt shots from long range. Only five teams conceded fewer goals from inside the penalty area last season, and Burnley ranked first for blocking shots.
But their central defenders and goalkeeper can’t cope with this onslaught. The save percentage is similar to last season and Burnley still lead the way for blocked shots, but allow the opposition to have chances at such a rate – 21.3 per match – that no goalkeeper in the world will keep you in contention. If that doesn’t change, Burnley will go down. It’s that simple.
One obvious cause is the lack of protection in central midfield. Burnley don’t have a single representative in a list of the top 30 midfielders ranked by tackles made this season, and even then it’s winger Aaron Lennon who has made the most.
Jack Cork has always been more of a passer than a fighter, but he made the most tackles of any Burnley player last season, averaging one every 57 minutes. This season, the one-time England international has averaged one every 115 minutes. They are in desperate need of a midfield terrier, an Idrissa Gueye or Lucas Torreira type to hustle, bustle and rustle opponents.
While insisting that Burnley will find their feet in the Premier League once more, Dyche has also been keen to point out that it’s an achievement for him and the club to even be here. Burnley are a Championship club by most measures, and it’s through Dyche’s inspiration that they have swam in the deep end when others with their budgets might have sunk.
But Dyche knows that it doesn’t work like that, no matter how harsh it seems. A manager must continue to strive for bigger and better to avoid being accused of running out of ideas. Sound ridiculous? Welcome to modern football and modern media.
With Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham still to play before 2019, improving Burnley’s defence represents the biggest challenge of Dyche’s time at Turf Moor. If January provides a window of opportunity to improve the squad, joining Burnley in the relegation zone is a tough sell.
The manager may have to find his masterplan in-house. It’s time for another dose of that Dycheian inspiration – Burnley’s Premier League future depends on it.