At the start of every season, Burnley are often seen as a favourite for relegation. Despite that, and despite their cast and crew (manager included) not being the most star-studded, they’ve continuously steered clear of relegation from the Premier League since their promotion in 2016. Since said promotion, Burnley have finished as high as 7th place in the table and even enjoyed a brief spell in the Europa League, despite never playing the most flashy brand of football. Sean Dyche and his team play a gritty, unconventional brand of football, and their resilient 4-4-2 low-block has troubled even the best of teams and managers. Perhaps more impressively in the current time, Burnley have gone 7 games unbeaten in the Premier League, allowing Sean Dyche to claim his second ever Manager of the Month Award in February 2020. Here is a Tactical Analysis of Sean Dyche’s 4-4-2 system and compact style of play with Burnley F.C.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-4-2
Although other formations like the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 reign supreme right now, the 4-4-2 remains the favoured choice of many teams who wish to remain compact and difficult to break down. That said, other than Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid, it would be hard to find anyone who has had more success using the 4-4-2 in the past three years than Sean Dyche and Burnley.
As commonly known, Sean Dyche uses a very consistent set of players for his starting eleven. However, there are only three players to have played every single minute so far in the league. It will probably come as a surprise to no one to learn that those three are the triangle at the back – goalkeeper Nick Pope, and centre-backs Ben Mee and James Tarkowski. Mee and Tarkowski are fantastic in the air (practically a pre-requisite to play for Burnley), while Nick Pope has made a strong case over the past few seasons to become England’s number 1 in the near future. Alongside the two rock-solid centre-backs, Burnley rotate their fullbacks between four key figureheads: Erik Pieters, Charlie Taylor, Matthew Lowton and the experienced Phil Bardsley. In fact, fullback is the only area on the pitch that Burnley don’t have a set first choice starter. Taylor’s made the most appearances out of the four of them with 17 matches, while Bardsley’s played the least with 14 matches. So it’s not as though any of them have a strong leg-up on any of the others. However, it goes without saying that Matthew Lowton has very different strengths than the robust Phil Bardsley. Burnley can therefore use the different strengths that their fullbacks offer in different ways in different games and they are particularly intentional with their fullback selections compared to other positions.
Ahead of the back-four, Jeff Hendrick often plays on the right wing. Given that the Irish international came to the club as a central midfielder, his role in the side often allows Burnley to maintain their balance while attacking down the left. Burnley favour their left side far more than the right, and it’s understandable why given that their rising star and top talent Dwight McNeil operates down that side. If Burnley lose possession on their left side, they have an extra body in the middle of the pitch, allowing their compact shape to take form. In between the two wingers, Jack Cork and Ashley Westwood have been the most prominent pairing. The front two meanwhile have most commonly been Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes, who epitomize the way Burnley attack. As a bit more of a peripheral figure, Jay Rodriguez will often come off the bench to try and make an impact in front of goal and has a very similar role in the side to the two regular frontmen.
Occasionally when Burnley want a different approach, they may change to a 4-4-1-1 system, most commonly with Hendrick playing as the ‘number 10’ behind Chris Wood. With Hendrick away from his position on the right, Aaron Lennon will operate on the wing instead. Lennon’s pace and exuberance allows their reliance on the left-side to decrease when the former Spurs man is in the lineup. With all that said, the Clarets never waiver away from their style of play and as long as Sean Dyche remains at the club, the 4-4-2 looks to remain their top choice for years to come.
A DIFFERENT BRAND OF FOOTBALL?Embed from Getty Images
Burnley are quite simply a team who love to defend. In their stubborn 4-4-2 system, they remain compact, sit back and defend in numbers. They have also been associated with a less elegant brand of football – one that includes long-balls and set-piece specialists. This is probably when you expect me to say, “But that’s not necessarily the case.” However, that is exactly the case, and it is what makes Burnley such a unique team to study.
Burnley have scored 9 goals from set-pieces this season, the 6th highest in the league. For a team that has accumulated the second lowest amount of possession this season, that’s particularly impressive. On the other end of the coin, they’ve achieved the best defensive record from set-pieces, conceding just 2 set-piece goals in league play. By comparison, Aston Villa have conceded 14 and Arsenal have conceded 12 from set-pieces, the two worst records in the league. The Clarets have also made more blocks than any team in the league and no centre-back pairing has been statistically better in terms of blocks or aerial duels won than Mee and Tarkowski. Burnley’s aerial prowess and defensive organization remains immensely impressive and something Sean Dyche and his staff clearly put hours of work into on the training ground.
LONG-BALL APPROACHEmbed from Getty Images
In terms of their possession statistics, only Newcastle (41%) have had less of the ball than Burnley (43%) this season. Meanwhile, only Sheffield United have attempted more long-balls this season than the Clarets, but the Blades have enjoyed more of the ball. No team in the league has completed fewer short passes per game than Sean Dyche’s men (259), while Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City have completed more than twice as many. Evidently, Burnley are not playing tiki taka, nor do they have anything close to a Xavi and Iniesta on the field. With the likes of Tarkowski and Mee at the back, they are also not playing like John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, attempting to pass their way out from the back. When the ball is in their end it is more likely because they are defending, rather than out of any desire to keep it there.
What’s perhaps more surprising about their play is that the long-balls don’t typically come from just the defenders, but the midfielders as well. Ashley Westwood was probably an archer in a former life and can pick out a pass to perfection. Behind only goalkeeper Nick Pope and captain Ben Mee, Westwood is the 3rd highest on his team for long-balls, with 2.9 completed and 7.3 attempted per game. The long-balls can come from anyone on the team and the only player to have a statistic even noteworthy in that regard is Nick Pope, who likes to hoof it long on his goal kicks. The British keeper has attempted 24 long balls per game in the league this season, completing 7.4 of them. It is worth noting however that many other goalkeepers in the league have similar statistics and Pope is not an anomaly by any means in this regard nor is he even in the top five. That said, if Pope was to become England’s #1, the long-ball approach may be something in his game that he would need to adapt.
SLOPPY OR FORWARD-THINKING?
A final point worth mentioning here is that not a single Burnley player has a pass completion rate over 80%. This further highlights their shared long-ball approach and that the longer passes don’t just come from the centre-backs and goalkeeper, but the rest of the team as well. It also points to the fact that Burnley rarely look to go backwards or sideways and have a strong desire to go forwards at every opportunity; opting for a vertical approach to their play. The two forwards for example – Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes – have completed 62% and 55% of their passes respectively. Although this is shocking, it does suggest that they often opt for more difficult passes rather than the safe option. These are after all, Premier League footballers. It’s not as though they can’t pass the ball. In contrast, the two most accurate passers on the team, Dwight McNeil and Ashley Westwood, have only completed 78% of their passes this season. Despite those low numbers, Burnley sit in 10th place in the Premier League table, just 4 points away from the top six. So it’s not pretty, but their verticality and forward-thinking nature certainly remains effective in helping the Clarets win matches.
DEFENSIVE PROWESSEmbed from Getty Images
As already mentioned, Burnley adopt a defensive approach to their brand of football and that has been a marquee to their success since they were reinstated in the Premier League for the 2016-17 season. Unsurprisingly, they defend narrowly and compact in a low-block. But that low-block has a particularly interesting feature, where Barnes and Wood remain detached from the other nine on the pitch. This allows Burnley to have outlets for their long-ball passes should they win the ball. It also proves very effective in their opposition wasting opportunities, by thinking they have the space and time to shoot from distance. Burnley force their opposition into the most shots from outside the 18-yard box in the Premier League, with 43% of their shots against coming from deep. Simultaneously, they also concede the fewest shots from inside the six-yard box (5%), alongside Wolves. This is evidently as a result of their low-block and narrow defensive organization. But the fact that they concede so many of their shots from deep is also a very intentional plan. The fact that Wood and Barnes remain high and unlikely to press the opposition lower on the pitch, provides the opposition with a false sense of security regarding long-shots. But as everyone knows, shots from outside the eighteen-yard box are unlikelier to find the back of the net than shots inside the eighteen-yard box. So this is a well thought-out plan that is clearly effective in helping the Clarets concede fewer goals.Embed from Getty Images
Importantly, Tarkowski and Mee also seem to be masters of strategically positioning themselves in the way of shots. Not in the way where they love to throw their bodies in the way. But in the sense that they protect the wider areas of the goal, allowing Pope to face more shots in the centre of his goal where he a) has a clearer sight of the ball and b) is likelier to save those shots. Jack Cork and Ashley Westwood may also do this with longer shots if they are not actively pressing the player in trying to block them higher up.
EMPHASIS ON DWIGHT MCNEILEmbed from Getty Images
Another interesting feature of Burnley’s play is their emphasis on rising star Dwight McNeil. The wing wizard had his breakthrough season last year and has now firmly established himself in Sean Dyche’s plans. He is one of four Burnley players to play every single match this season and only Chris Wood has contributed to more goals than the 20-year old for the Clarets in 2019-20. Further, Burnley attack down the left side 42% of the time, the joint third highest in the league. What’s more is that no team in the Premier League attacks down the right-side less than Burnley (31%). Dyche’s emphasis on attacking down the left-side with Dwight McNeil has led the British winger to achieve the most take-on’s (61), chances created (43), assists (5) and the best pass completion rate (78.1%) of anyone in their roster. It is also worth noting here that Charlie Taylor (the left back) has attempted and completed more crosses and take-on’s than Matthew Lowton (the right back) and Jeff Hendrick (right wing). The emphasis on the left-side therefore sometimes gives Burnley a bit of a lopsided shape. They don’t stretch the field in attack, looking to switch play from left to right. Instead, they look to either go direct to their forwards or over to the left side where McNeil can do his damage. A frequent combination will be Westwood (RCM), the player with the most passes attempted and completed on the team, looking to find McNeil on the left wing, where the Brit will then go on to whip in a ball for the big men up top.
THE BIG MEN UP TOPEmbed from Getty Images
Not unlike Tarkowski and Mee, forwards Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood are particularly good in the air. Wood and Barnes stand at 6’2 and 6’1 respectively, so they are by no means giants. But it seems as though they almost prefer to play with the ball in the air than on the ground sometimes. Although they both lose more than they win, they’ve won the 13th and 15th most aerial duels per game in the league. It’s not as though they are Andy Caroll and Troy Deeney, but this is a massive feature of their play and headed goals are a regular occurrence for both players. The likes of the aforementioned Deeney and Carroll often get involved in aerial duels for the purposes of knocking down the ball for other players and bringing them into the game. Chris Wood on the other hand gets involved in aerial duels for the purpose of scoring goals and creating chances. No player has scored more headed goals this season than Chris Wood’s five. The New Zealander also led the league in headed goals last campaign with six, tied with Aleksandar Mitrovic and Sadio Mane. The only player who is perhaps more impressive when it comes to headed goals in the Premier League is Virgil Van Dijk, who has scored all four of his goals this season with his head. Barnes meanwhile is yet to score with his head this season and is more likely to score with right-footed volleys or one-time finishes on the ground. But even though Barnes’ numbers are lower in that regard, the ability for both players to play in the air is an integral feature to Burnley’s style of play.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Burnley have achieved years of success in the Premier League, despite never playing the most flashy brand of football. They lead the league in blocks, while conceding the fewest goals from set-pieces, highlighting their stellar defensive prowess. Their long-ball approach and reliance on headed goals may not be the most elegant in the Premier League, but it has been an effective strategy for Sean Dyche’s team over the past four seasons, keeping them well and truly within the top flight.
So there it is! Our tactical analysis of Sean Dyche’s Burnley. Be sure to check out more Tactical Analyses and share on Twitter @mastermindsite what manager and team you would like to see next. Thanks for reading and see you soon.
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