It seemed the days of British managers upsetting the Premier League’s elite were lost in a 2000s tangle of jokey chain emails, apathetic rhyming couplets by Noel Gallagher, and beards from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There has been few minnows vastly overachieving since George Burley’s Ipswich Town and Steve Coppell’s Reading; and even when an upstart as English as Leicester City – representing the home of Walker’s crisps, Gary Lineker, and Kasabian – dilly-dinged, dilly-donged, and finished atop the country’s game in 2016, it was orchestrated by an affable Italian named Claudio Ranieri.
Then Sean Dyche came along; a grounded, worm-slurping Kettering native who looks like he’d be equally comfortable cracking gags and flogging jacket potatoes from a roadside van as he is in the dugout. His popularity means his shortcomings are rarely discussed, so Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat to Manchester United lures praise for Burnley’s disciplined defending and wherewithal to carve out the same amount of shots as its illustrious visitor. An improbable route in next season’s Europa League is still, just about, within reach.
What is impressive about Burnley under Dyche are the transformations he’s overseen at Turf Moor. Lessons were learned in the club’s one-season Premier League stay in 2015-16, encouraging Dyche to part with a club-record fee for Andre Gray and ween out those who weren’t up to scratch, like Jason Shackell and Ross Wallace. The Clarets returned as champions, emerging as an unashamedly resolute outfit that hoofed service to the big men.
This season Burnley has been less agricultural. Steven Defour was underused in his first season in England, but is now one of the best users of the ball in the league. Out of midfielders who’ve appeared in over half of their team’s games, Defour is robbed of the ball fewer times than anyone else per 90 minutes, and makes fewer unsuccessful touches than every Manchester City midfielder. The Belgian is often involved in simple yet effective passing triangles with Jack Cork – who should travel with England for the World Cup – and together they have helped establish a more possession-conscious outlook, rather than just lacing long balls.
However, Burnley’s simplistic approach isn’t aesthetically pleasing enough for a big-six team, nor is it conducive to long-term success, as evidenced in the current run of eight matches across all competitions without a win. According to statistics by understat, Dyche’s side has been lucky. Burnley has conceded almost 12 fewer goals than expected when considering the ease of the chances it’s granted opponents this season. These findings, along with the modest offerings up top, result in Burnley being the third-worst team in the league using these numbers – 10 places lower than its real standing of eighth and in the relegation zone.
There is also Dyche’s approach to transfer business that would require revision for it to be rewarded with patience and appreciation by the support of a top-level club. When one of a club’s biggest names leaves, the automatic retort by a giant is to purchase somebody who could fill or even improve that void. For there to be no response, just as Dyche did when he simply plugged James Tarkowski into the gap left by Michael Keane‘s sale to Everton, would constitute a crisis at a Champions League-chasing club. Tarkowski has done well, but Dyche wouldn’t be allowed to disregard like-for-like changes in a more prestigious post.
When money is splurged is on a player, followers of City, United, and others seriously pursuing silverware want to see him slotted in the first team at the earliest opportunity. Jose Mourinho’s tentativeness in deploying Henrikh Mkhitaryan last season was roundly criticised, but Dyche is arguably even more hesitant with fresh signings. In the last campaign, Defour’s starting opportunities were restricted following a new club-record switch from Anderlecht, and even Robbie Brady wasn’t a nailed-on starter when he moved for yet another record – this time £13 million – from Norwich City in January 2017. This season, Charlie Taylor didn’t start a match until December, and it could’ve been much later if fellow left-back Stephen Ward didn’t suffer a serious knee injury. Fellow summer nab Nahki Wells is still awaiting his first professional start for the Clarets.
For a club of Burnley’s modest standing, Dyche’s achievements are heartening. Despite sitting in a rather picaresque corner of Lancashire, Burnley is often overlooked – hated neighbour Blackburn was preferred for Beatles lyrics, warehouse raves during the Madchester era, and even had a Premier League champion in 1995 – and unfashionable. It’s a perfect union between club and manager and, considering Dyche’s approach is one that befits an outfit with humble ambitions, the popular boss should be wary of seeking pastures new.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)
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