In English football, perception is almost as important as reality. Certain ideas become cliches and accepted narratives – such as Stoke proving a difficult place to go for visiting sides or that Pep Guardiola’s teams are incapable of defending – even though they strictly aren’t true. These tricks of the mind tend to stick like chewing gum on tar and prove very hard to shake off.
Sean Dyche is keenly aware of his own reputation and how he is interpreted by the football fraternity at large. This was evident in many of his post-match press conferences as he frequently rebuked the idea that his teams were conservative, and when he downplayed the work of the Premier League’s trendy continental coaches in an interview with the Times last October.
“What have (Guardiola, Conte, Klopp, Pochettino) really done? They’ve come in and said ‘we’re going to run harder’. It’s not rocket science.”
It would be easy to accuse the Burnley manager of having a chip on his shoulder but his comments also betrayed some insecurity over how he is perceived. Other managers from the older brigade of British football such as Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis aren’t just comfortable with their reputation as long-ball merchants, they embrace it. “All this tiki taki football is all a load of bollocks sometimes,” as Allardyce once so eloquently put it.
Pulis proudly flaunts the fact that he’s never been relegated as a player or manager, wearing it as a badge of honour. Accumulating points is the only objective and once the 40 point mark is attained, the job is done.
The problem with that approach is that it has a ceiling. Last season, West Brom side reached the magical number after 26 matches, the quickest a Pulis side had ever managed to do so. At that stage they were eight in the league table and primed to challenge for a Europa League place.
They would lose nine of their last 12 games though and finished mid-table, hardly a disaster for a club of the Baggies’ stature but disappointing considering how well they were going. That hangover carried into the early months of this season – with West Brom winless since August – and Pulis was sacked on Monday.
Supporters grew restless and made their dissatisfaction known to the club’s new investors. Ultimately football is a results business, but when results are stripped away there has to be more to fall back on. There was no track record of nurturing young talent or ingenious recruitment and the football provided sparse entertainment. It’s why there was never any real doubt that Bournemouth would stick by Eddie Howe despite poor form: fans and the board have witnessed the evidence of a wider legacy than simply tallying up points by any means necessary.
Dyche was lumped in with the ‘Proper Football Men’ types in Burnley’s first year back in the top flight, in part due to his comments but also because of the physical, direct style in which they played. That was made abundantly clear in the statistics, Burnley attempted more long balls than any team in the league and averaged 30 more long balls per game than Manchester City. They retained top division status, but earned only 7 of their 40 points away from home.
As Dyche himself pointed out regularly, Burnley don’t possess the financial clout of other clubs so he had to work within those parameters. In the summer they sold Michael Keane and Andre Gray, both of whom were key players in their survival battle, and made a profit on transfer activity. Despite that, they’ve taken leaps forward stylistically and results wise.
Dyche won’t compromise on defensive organisation, but is gradually evolving as a coach. Burnley are a far more ascetically pleasing side this season. The addition of Jack Cork in midfield beside childhood friends Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady has helped them keep the ball better and demonstrate more invention in attacking areas. Hendrick’s winner against Everton was the conclusion of a 25 pass move while they opened up Swansea at will on Saturday.
Alongside the increased variety and quality of their play is the substance: Burnley sit seventh in the Premier League table, behind Arsenal and Liverpool on goal difference only. They’ve travelled to Chelsea, Liverpool, City and Tottenham and almost surpassed their points total in away matches during the entirety of last season. It is remarkable given their transfer outlay and wage structure, and no doubt reflects well on Dyche. They are on course to reach 40 points by New Year’s Day and Dyche has referenced that as the first aim.
The real challenge then is avoiding the Pulis syndrome. Considering the dominance of the top 6 and the travails of Everton, the title of ‘best of the rest’ is up for grabs. Do so and he will only enhance his reputation. Dyche is an ambitious man, but to escape the category of his predecessors, he must grass this opportunity to deliver where they failed.