Number Two: Sean Dyche, Burnley

Words By Blair Newman Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 31, 2018
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N0.2: SEAN DYCHE (BURNLEY)

Win percentage: 3.5 Position change: 9 Position to value: 12 Knockout points: 0

Points: 24.5

The summer of 2017 saw two vital first team players leave Burnley. First their star central defender, Michael Keane, joined Everton in a £25 million deal. Then, Andre Gray, whose goals in 2015/16 had fired the club into the Premier League, joined Watford for a reported fee of around £18.5 million. These moves were, in the eyes of many, blows too sizeable even for Sean Dyche to handle.

Dyche had confirmed Burnley’s survival the season before, meaning the club could look forward to a second straight campaign of top-flight football for the first time since the mid-1970s. However, with his defence and attack depleted, the expectation was that his side would be relegated. Instead, Dyche selected James Tarkowski to replace Keane and brought in Chris Wood from Leeds United for a club-record fee of £15 million to succeed Gray up front. Having reinforced the team, he then led them to a first top-half finish in the Premier League era.

Financially, Burnley could not compete with most of their top tier rivals, so it was incumbent upon their manager to make the most out of what he had. Once again he did just that and then some; Tarkowski was one of the best players in the league in his position, while Wood fired in an impressive 10 goals in 24 league outings. Elsewhere, Tom Heaton’s long-term shoulder injury was covered for by Nick Pope, and Johann Berg Gudmundsson found the best form of his career on the wing.

This remarkable propensity for finding quality from within is related to the holistic nature of Dyche’s work with the club. Everything about the way Burnley behave, on and off the pitch, appears connected. So when one player leaves, another comes in. There is little-to-no turbulence, and the departed player is very quickly forgotten about.

Perhaps what makes it easier for new players to come into the side and thrive is that Dyche’s approach is clear and unwavering. In a time of great tactical change within the Premier League, he remains staunchly committed to a back four. Indeed, last season his Burnley were the only team in England’s top division to not once experiment with a three-man defensive line.

He went once again with a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 shape, with Jeff Hendrick often supporting Wood up front. The possession was pragmatic, with two central midfielders offering passes to the two centre-backs in build-up while the full-backs pushed on and allowed the wingers to come inside. Dyche’s side were more effective in retaining the ball than some made out, but they didn’t prioritise it – only three teams enjoyed less possession than they had and no team attempted more long balls per game.

They are somewhat of a throwback side in today’s Premier League in their directness and mastery of the second ball, and many who look purely at the underlying statistics were dumbfounded by the effectiveness of this approach last term. Burnley, quite literally, did better than expected in every possible way: their xG (Expected goals) was 32.77, but they scored 36 goals; their xGA (Expected goals against) was 52.16, but they conceded just 39 times.

Dyche’s tactics allowed his side to win games they simply were not supposed to, often by the narrowest of margins: of their 14 league wins, 12 came by a difference of just one goal. They should have dropped off, their luck should have ran out, opponents should have figured them out, and the underlying statistics should have caught up with them, but they didn’t. Burnley hung on until the end, finished seventh to achieve their best league finish since 1974, and qualified for the Europa League in the process.

Two of the players who went from squad to starting line-up, Pope and Tarkowski, made their debuts for England during the season. Another key player – indefatigable central midfielder Jack Cork – also made his senior international bow after a run of exceptional form. Their caps were recognition of the work Dyche has done with limited resources; he took players whose careers had been spent lingering between the bottom of the Premier League and the second tier and made them English national team material.

Whether Burnley can keep on trading blows with those with heftier budgets and more reputable players remains to be seen. But, in 2017/18, they established themselves as the best Premier League team outside of the ‘big six’. This accomplishment was built entirely on the tactical stability and good coaching of Dyche.

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