Sean Dyche – Burnley – Tactical Analysis (2020-21 Edition)

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Sean Dyche’s Burnley have managed to stay in the Premier League for five seasons in a row now, even reaching the Europa League in 2017-18. Despite that, many providing commentary over the game consistently pick the Clarets as favourites to go down every single season. In reality, Burnley never look in any danger of going down and this season appears to be another in which Sean Dyche’s men will steer clear of the drop. Dyche’s men play a gritty, unconventional brand of football, and their resilient 4-4-2 low-block has troubled even the best of teams and managers. Most recently, they became the first side to win at Anfield for over a thousand days. Here is an updated tactical analysis of Sean Dyche’s Burnley, their tried and tested 4-4-2 system and their compact, long-ball style of play in 2020-21.

Also be sure to check out Sean Dyche’s Burnley – 2019-20 Analysis. 

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-4-2

4-4-2 Burnley

Very few teams in the world have one consistent formation that they play every single match. Even the likes of Wolves and Sheffield United have had to adapt their standard systems this season due to a variety of unusual circumstances. Burnley on the other hand have had the most consistent formation in the league, playing 4-4-2 for all twenty-five matches they’ve played this season. At times it could be argued that the formation looks more like 4-4-1-1 with Jay Rodriguez or Ashley Barnes dropping deeper and Chris Wood remaining high. But this season the 4-4-2 has been perhaps more consistent than any of Burnley’s other seasons in the league under Dyche. While in the past a player like Jeff Hendrick might have played a more natural number ten role in behind the striker, Barnes and Rodriguez play right up alongside the big man. The 4-4-2 system offers Burnley many advantages when it comes to their style of play which we will discuss throughout this article. First, we start with the players that make this system and style what it is, as Sean Dyche continues to keep his squad small.

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Nick Pope has been one of the very best goalkeepers in the league this season, making a serious claim for a starting birth at this summer’s Euros. The 28-year old keeper has conceded just twenty-five goals in twenty-four matches, making ninety-one saves in the process. That currently gives him a saves per goal ratio of 3.64 – the best in the league. Aided by his impressive back-line, Pope has also kept nine clean sheets this season, a stat that seems highly abnormal for a team sitting in sixteenth place at this stage. The key men in that back-four include the excellent Ben Mee and James Tarkowski. The two rock-solid centre-backs epitomize everything Burnley are about and Dyche’s men don’t look the same when one of them miss out. Speaking of which, the one match in which Nick Pope missed out, Manchester City triumphed to a 5-0 win. The trio at the back are undoubtedly Burnley’s standout stars and have almost unequivocally been the side’s three best players this season. Right-back Matthew Lowton’s also had another positive season, as has Charlie Taylor, who’s more firmly edged Erik Pieters out of the side this time around. Pieters still has a decent number of minutes and matches to his name, and has played as a left-midfielder at times to accommodate for greater defensive stability in front of the back-four. Josh Brownhill’s quietly made a seamless transition into life in the Premier League and has looked like their best midfielder at times, playing either as a right-midfielder or in central midfield. Ashley Westwood and Jack Cork are the most common central midfield pairing that has kept Brownhill to a wider position in recent weeks, with Robbie Brady and Johann Berg Gudmundsson also great options down the wing. Dwight McNeil remains one of the side’s top attacking threats but hasn’t been as potent as last season when he attained two goals and six assists, double what he currently has in both categories this season. McNeil is still only twenty-one and as we’ll talk about, Burnley have relied on the left and his individual brilliance in attack a little bit less in 2020-21, opting for a slightly more balanced approach than 2019-20. 

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At the front of the attack, Ashley Barnes, Jay Rodriguez and Chris Wood compete for two positions up top. Wood is the side’s top scorer again this season with just four goals, a real let down from the fourteen he achieved last season. Barnes on three and Rodriguez scoring just one goal so far haven’t been too much of a help. Matej Vydra has also done well when he’s come into the side, but is still yet to score in the league. In actuality, Burnley’s scoring has been one of their biggest problems in 2020-21, stagnating their progress away from the bottom of the table. Wood led the team with fourteen goals last season, a ratio of 0.44 goals per game, compared to that being cut in half this season at 0.2 goals per game. The team as a whole have only scored eighteen goals in their twenty-five matches, 0.72 goals per game. Last season they fared much better, with a goals per game ratio of 1.13. As a result, this is exactly where we begin our tactical analysis.

A DIFFERENT BRAND OF FOOTBALL?

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At this point, long-ball passing is practically Burnley’s trademark. But this season it’s almost worked to their detriment rather than to their benefit. Burnley have become almost over-reliant on their verticality and long-ball passing, relying less and less on the individual talent of someone like Dwight McNeil to create chances in other ways. The Clarets have scored just ten goals from open play, the second worst record in the league. Without their six set-piece goals, Burnley would probably be in the relegation zone right now. They simply don’t have any other methods of scoring except through brute force and these sort of un-pretty goals in the eighteen yard box where it takes them a few tries and a few blocks before someone knocks the ball in. Only West Brom and Wolves have taken more shots from outside the box and no side has had a higher percentage of their shots come from headers. Although this is unique about Sean Dyche’s side, it’s also a serious problem for their ability to score goals and progress up the table. Burnley aren’t in any real danger this season, but that’s more through their stellar defensive performances than anything to do with their ability at the other end.

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This different brand of football is still effective for Burnley, but perhaps it needs a bit of tweaking. David Moyes’ West Ham play a similar long-ball passing game, but also counter-attack exceptionally well and look to play diagonal long passes into wide areas far more than the Clarets. They also have individuals with a bit of flair like Jesse Lingard and Pablo Fornals who can pull off something spectacular when required. Burnley don’t have any of that. Dyche’s side make seventy-seven long-passes per game, the most in the league by quite some distance despite keeping just 43% of the possession in their matches. Again, this has drawbacks and advantages. It allows Burnley to get up the pitch quickly and work themselves into shooting positions should their forwards be effective in winning their duels. In fact, they’ve won the most aerial duels per game this season just like any other, with 22.9 per game. But it also means Burnley turnover the ball more than any other team in the league, with a shockingly low pass accuracy of 71.4%. Someone like Ashley Westwood can be a neat and tidy footballer, but under Dyche is forced into a style where he’s constantly looking for either long diagonals or hopeful high balls onto the noggin of a striker. Therefore, although Burnley’s style of play sets them apart from other teams, sometimes it can be to their detriment rather than their benefit. 

defensive solidity

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Although Burnley have struggled in attack, they haven’t struggled by any means in defense. The Clarets have conceded just thirty goals this season in twenty-five games, with Pope himself conceding just twenty-five goals in his twenty-four matches. That’s right, the one match without Pope happened to be against Manchester City, and they conceded five.

As a unit, Burnley often defend with at least eight men + the goalkeeper behind the ball, if not all eleven players. In their two banks of four, the Clarets shift and slide with the play, remaining compact in their stubborn 4-4-2 system. According to WhoScored? they are yet to concede a goal from counter attacks. This means that Burnley take a very cautious approach when they do attack, being sure to set up with enough numbers in defense. It’s not exactly counterpressing – it’s more as though they lump it long before they have time to get a disadvantageous number of players forward. But their ability to defend against counter attacks is not just a product of their attack, but also a product of their stellar defense. Burnley are resolute and completely stable in their two banks of four, not diving into tackles unnecessarily and remaining very patient in their attempts to win the ball. As the pressure mounts on the opposition with an inability to find a way through Dyche’s side, the opposition are forced into long passes themselves, which Burnley are set up well to win. Interestingly enough, the Clarets have not only completed the most long balls per game in the league, but also have the second most long balls against per game. This is a product of how resolute they set-up in defense, constantly forcing their opposition to go long instead. 

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The Clarets have also only conceded five goals from set-pieces, again demonstrating their ability in the air and defensive prowess. When looking at their aerial duels, it takes until the eighteenth best player in the side to find a player who’s won less than one aerial duel per 90 minutes. Wood and Tarkowski sit at the top of that category with 5.2 and 4.4 respectively. Mee, Barnes, Brownhill, Rodriguez and Cork are some of the other most capable aerial duelers, making Burnley an absolute brick wall in defense. In terms of percentages, all five of the regular back-line members (Pieters included), are above 61% when it comes to wins in the air, with Tarkowski again at the top of the pile with 76%. This aerial presence benefits Burnley’s style of play greatly and contributes to their excellent defensive solidity. 

lONG-BALL PASSING 

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As noted, no team in the league have completed more long-passes per game this season than Burnley (77). This is an intentional method to their attack in which they look to get up the field quickly, use their aerial prowess and play what Jose Mourinho would probably mock for being 1960s football. Although that may be harsh, it’s almost unequivocal that Burnley are a bit of a standalone in the Premier League with their unique style of play and Sean Dyche’s overall resistance to modern trends. There are still quite a few teams in Spain and Germany that play a long-ball, aerially dominant game (Eibar, Osasuna, Getafe, Freiburg, Mainz, etc.). But no other team in the Premier League deploys these tactics to anywhere near Burnley’s level. Newcastle, West Brom and Sheffield United are poor in possession too, but it’s much less intentional. Nick Pope leads the league in long ball passes and long balls per game of anyone to make five+ appearances, with 9.1 completed per game. Ashley Westwood is the next leader with 4.1 per game, demonstrating that a lot of these passes come from midfield areas. Going against that right away, Tarkowski and Mee are the next two highest, with 3.6 per game each. Dwight McNeil is again a bit of an anomaly in the side given his evident individual quality, and even he still completes 1.7 long passes per game. Midfielders and defenders are specifically recruited into the club with this ability in mind, while forwards are recruited into the club with their aerial presence at the forefront. 

Going along with this approach, Burnley have made the most headed passes in the league, meaning they knock down a lot of long-balls to their teammates. That number is significant by almost one hundred more (total) than the next highest team in that regard – Southampton. With their reliance on the noggin, it’s also unsurprising (but simultaneously peculiar) that no other team have made fewer right-footed passes. The amount of high passes they make also exceeds their next highest competitor by more than four hundred, which is again Southampton who also make a lot of high, risky passes.

Also going along with this long-ball methodology, the Clarets attack through the middle more than any other team in the league other than counter-attack heavy Tottenham. This is down to a desire to play in the forwards as early as possible in their attacking moves. But the variety of the long-ball passing game means that they don’t just play it into the forwards and hope the big men will knock it down. They still utilize the wide areas quite a bit and deliver a high number of crosses relative to their possession (nineteen per game), a lot of which come from corner kicks. Those crosses may come from Westwood and McNeil in particular, two of the more capable delivers, while the fullbacks also often advance into positions to deliver the ball into the box. As we’ve mentioned, Burnley have almost become over-reliant on this approach and it hasn’t helped them create chances this season to the extent that they would have liked. It’s also a bit of a downside for Nick Pope, who doesn’t fit into Gareth Southgate’s plans to the same level as Jordan Pickford, due to the Everton man’s ability playing out from the back. Pope simply doesn’t do that for Burnley and never really tries to, and this is probably the only reason why Southgate has persisted with Pickford.  

SLOPPY OR FORWARD-THINKING? 
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A final point worth mentioning here is that no other team in the Premier League has accumulated a worse passing percentage than Burnley (71.4%). Every other team can claim at least a few progressive passers with a better pass completion rate than Burnley’s top man in that regard (of the regulars), Dwight McNeil. The 21-year old has completed 80% of his passes, acting as one of the team’s more conservative progressors of the ball. There isn’t a player in the side that makes a high number of backwards or sideways passes. They simply look to go forward at nearly every opportunity and this is one of the key reasons for their lack of possession and their lack of pass accuracy. Barnes has improved his passing accuracy this season by almost eight percent, going from 54% last season to 62% this campaign. Pope has also increased from 38% last season to 46% this season. Almost all of Burnley’s players have increased in this regard and it’s unclear whether this is as a result of getting better at the long-ball game, or getting better at the short-passing game. But it’s an important note – that despite their lack of goals, they have actually improved some aspects of their passing game this season, even if it remains very, very low. 

CONCLUding thoughts

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Burnley aren’t the prettiest team in the league to watch, but they can be very effective. They play, to almost their detriment this season, a unique brand of football at one end of the extreme in the possession debate. The Clarets generally like to have the ball, but never seem to truly succeed with it due to their long-ball approach that often results in losses of possession and fewer goals this season. Luckily, they have one of the most resolute defensive structures in the league, led by Sean Dyche’s organization in the 4-4-2 and the individual organization and quality of players like James Tarkowski, Ben Mee and Nick Pope. Although we have been perhaps a little critical of Burnley’s play this season, they don’t appear to be in any danger of relegation this season, and that is ultimately what the club cares most about as they continue to develop their footballing brand. 


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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-> What’s Gone Wrong at Sheffield United – Tactical Analysis (2020-21)
Scott Parker – Fulham – Tactical Analysis (2020-21)
-> Sean Dyche – Burnley – Tactical Analysis (2019-20 Edition)

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