How it all fell apart for Sean Dyche at Burnley – 2021-22 Tactical Analysis

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April 15, 2022 marks a sad day in football history – the day in which Sean Dyche was relieved from his duties as Burnley boss. The 50-year-old manager played a massive part in Burnley’s development as a football club, turning them into a Premier League staple with a unique brand of football. Whether you like that unique brand of football or not, there’s no denying that Sean Dyche provided something inherently intriguing to the Premier League, with a different style of play than any other team. So with that, as Burnley could now be doomed for relegation, we take an in-depth look at Sean Dyche’s tactics in his final season at the club, and how it all fell apart for the man who spent a decade at Turf Moor.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-4-2

Burnley and the 4-4-2 have become synonymous over the years, practically interchangeable terms in the thesaurus. Unfortunately for the Clarets, something hasn’t quite been clicking in front of goal the past few seasons, and their rigidness in the 4-4-2 hasn’t helped to change their fortunes around. Their identity, surrounding compact defensive structures and an adventurous long-passing game, can sometimes be overdone, almost as though they struggle to score goals in ways beyond scrappiness, crossing, and set-pieces. That philosophy makes sense within the personnel they have at their disposal, but it’s evident that Sean Dyche implemented a style of play at Burnley and then only recruited within that style. They lack the kind of mavericks of the Dwight McNeil mold that could theoretically change football matches, and their goal-scoring has suffered as a result.

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With that said, Sean Dyche’s recruitment over the years has been exceptional – such as the signings of shot stopping hero Nick Pope, and rock-solid centre-back James Tarkowski back in 2016. Those two players have been stalwarts for the club over the past few years, and remain two of the best in the Premier League in their position. Club captain Ben Mee has also been integral to the over-arching structures at hand, and the club have missed him dearly in the last month. Above all else, that could be the injury that turns out to be most damming to their relegation chances, as the triangle at the back between those three players is essentially what has kept the Clarets up over the past few seasons. Nathan Collins has entered the frame since Ben Mee’s injury against Leicester last month, and has not been able to be the same reliable figure. Often caught of position and too far away from Tarkowski, Collins has failed to adequately step up to the plate and has made several mistakes late on in matches. To his left, Charlie Taylor has been another stalwart, and can provide a genuine attacking threat on his day. The right-back position has been less clear cut for a change since January, with Connor Roberts and normal baton holder Matthew Lowton battling it out for a place.

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In midfield, Ashley Westwood and Josh Brownhill have formed a formidable partnership with solid balance. Westwood is an exceptional progressor, and as a long passing specialist, is instrumental to Burnley’s attacking play. Brownhill on the other hand will often hold a reserved and withdrawn position, readying himself to defend in transition and break up the play. To their left, Dwight McNeil provides the only major discrepancy between team playing style and individual playing style, which Burnley use to theoretically bring out the best in his exceptional crossing ability and out to in play. On the other side, Aaron Lennon’s held down a place like it’s 2011, and has genuinely played at times like it’s 2011 – using his electric pace to escape fullbacks down the wing.

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Maxwel Cornet can also provide a cutting edge from wide, and when deployed on the wing, will float towards the strikers to get on the end of knock-downs and link up closer to goal. The Ivorian remains the team’s top scorer this season with 7 goals. Only Everton, Wolves and Newcastle can claim a top scorer with fewer goals (6 each), and only Norwich have scored fewer than their 25 goals in the Premier League this season. That in part is down to the misfiring nature of Burnley’s strikers in their long-passing game – where they’re often asked to score difficult aerial chances. Jay Rodriguez, Matej Vydra, Wout Weghorst and Ashley Barnes have scored four goals between the four of them, as the now departed Chris Wood and injured defender Ben Mee remain the side’s second place scorers on three goals a piece. This is disastrous for a Premier League outfit, and requires so much out of the likes of Pope and Tarkowski to stop goals from going in at the other end. Both are extraordinary players and the Clarets have kept 7 clean sheets with their help. But perhaps the task is too tremendous for the pair of them, and it cannot be understated how big of a role Ben Mee’s injury may have played in Sean Dyche’s ultimate sacking.

BURNLEY’S LONG PASSING – FRUITFUL OR REDUNDANT?

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When you think of Burnley under Sean Dyche, it’s hard not to immediately imagine a player hoofing a long pass up to a big striker. But Burnley can show glimpses of short passing genius in specific moments, and can even at times play like Barcelona (not an overstatement). It’s important to note that the vast majority of the time, they choose not to play the simple and safe passes around the pitch, preferring a quicker route to goal. Being a centre-back in the 1990s, Sean Dyche played in a long-passing 4-4-2 system, and has adopted that motto with the Clarets through and through. The rigidness of the system and the speed at which they lump the ball forward means that even in attack, the shape rarely changes away from 4-4-2. The centre-forwards are tasked with knocking long passes down to the midfielders behind them or their striking partner, allowing for subsequent switches of play to the wide areas, for subsequent crosses into the box.

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Fullbacks can show moments of brilliance from wide, but rarely venture forward, and even the central midfielders support Burnley’s rest defense more often than contributing to the attack. That means Burnley usually only attack with four players in the mix. Two of those threats are asked to hold the width out wide for switches of play, and the other two are asked to narrow together to aid the long passing game and the subsequent flick-on’s or knock downs that result. The consequence is a lack of numbers in dangerous attacking areas, with zero operators in half-spaces, or crucially, in between the lines to disrupt the opposition’s defensive structures.

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Even despite their compact defensive structures and 4-4-2 low-block, Burnley would truthfully be nothing under Sean Dyche without the aerial threat of their forwards, and the long-passing ability of the players in behind. Wout Weghorst and Jay Rodriguez make themselves an utter nuisance to opposition defenders, and chase everything down in the wide areas if the long-ball isn’t into their path. Meanwhile, James Tarkowski stands out as a particularly sound progressor, even if the the amount of times he’s asked to be adventurous rather than simplistic with his passing brings his numbers down (61% of long passes completed). Westwood can also pick out fantastic switches of play to keep the team ticking and creating out wide, but the fact that he’s completed just 47% of his long passes this season speaks for itself in Burnley’s attacking motto. Nick Pope meanwhile has attempted more long passes than any other Premier League player this season, where Burnley use his range on both goal kicks and recycles of play. Of those 719 long passes he’s attempted, he’s completed just 298, which is almost 100 less than the league’s top long passer – Aymeric Laporte (397 out of 448 – 88.6%). Unsurprisingly, the stats then align at the other end of the pitch, where Wout Weghorst has won an abysmal 34.5% of his aerial duels this season, and Jay Rodriguez reaches only slightly better at 43.3%. Chris Wood remains the only striker in the team to win over 50% of his aerial duels, highlighting just how much of a coup it was for Newcastle to steal him away from the Clarets.

It’s not as though Burnley suck at passing long and should never adopt this approach ever again, but instead that they’ve become over-reliant on long passes as a method within their attack – even turning a top archer like Ashley Westwood into a below 50% player.

DEFENSIVE SOLIDITY

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Similarly to their long-passing game and consistency in the 4-4-2, a compact low-block has also become synonymous with Sean Dyche’s Burnley. Once again, there is evidence to suggest Burnley can deploy a style contrary to that ideology, and genuinely have one of the best high presses in the league (when they want to). The forwards will start high on goal-kicks, pressuring immediately and quickly to force the opposition into the same kind of long passes that the Clarets know and love. Opposition sides attempt more long passes against the Clarets than any other team, which in part is down to their pressure in a 4-4-2 high-block.

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But it’s true. Overarchingly, Burnley deploy a mid to low-block in their 4-4-2, preferring to win the ball back closer to their own goal. Central midfielders may track opposition fullback and wing combinations by situating themselves deeper or wider, but that’s about the only change you may witness to line height and structure within their 4-4-2. The centre-backs don’t tend to step out of line to track runners in deep, instead communicating to the central midfielders ahead of them. They wait for the moment when alarm bells need to be ringing at their highest point, and then charge out in numbers to throw their bodies in the way and block shots. No one has completed more blocks in the Premier League this season than James Tarkowski (81) and Charlie Taylor (76), with the team vice-captain sitting far ahead of second-place Grant Hanley on blocked shots (58 to 42). For context, that equates to an outrageous 2.07 shots blocked per 90 by Tarkowski.

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With an all-out defensive approach, space can often be sought ahead of the compact structures, as players take aim from range. This has been a particular problem for the Clarets on set-pieces, where all eleven players situate either inside the box or within the wall, leaving players unmarked at the top of the box for second-balls. Nick Pope’s shot stopping and Tarkowski’s blocking ability are both second to none, but anything can happen in a congested area. Perhaps most damming, Burnley haven’t waivered away from this approach despite their lack of success at marking players left outside the initial set-piece situation.

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Similarly, they have a massive problem defending the wide areas. In their narrow structure, space is always available out wide, and this is where Burnley intend on guiding play. If the opposition can change the point of the attack quickly enough and advance down the wide areas, space may become available in the half-spaces for overloads.

This has become all the more apparent without Ben Mee, with the gaps between the less experienced Collins and his fullback – usually stepping out to pressure the play immediately – being cruelly exposed. All ends up, if the entire team can’t shift across quickly enough, holes can be created, and deadly attackers will take advantage.

pope’s underrated sweeping

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In defensive transitions, Burnley usually have a sound rest defense in place. But when they attack their own-set-pieces, they will naturally place some of their best defenders (like Mee and Tarkowski) far forward. This puts the pressure on the likes of Brownhill to break up the play, and Burnley are no stranger to a tactical foul. Fortunately for Burnley, they are generally solid at immediately pressuring the situation to allow everyone else to recover position and team shape, and crucially, Nick Pope is an underrated sweeper keeper. Impressively, the 29-year-old has made more defensive actions outside of his penalty area than any other keeper in the league (45) – including Liverpool’s Alisson (44). The average distance of his actions away from goal also exceed expectations, as the only keeper to accumulate an average distance in yards outside the penalty area this season (18.3).

Essentially, this season Nick Pope has showcased that you can be an exceptional shot stopper and a sweeper keeper all at the same time, without anyone even knowing it. On the eye test, you might assume Nick Pope is more similar to David De Gea in staying rooted to the spot and rarely ever venturing out. But as it turns out, the exact opposite is true. His sweeping ability massively helps his team in transitional moments, particularly on those set-piece routines when they throw everything and the kitchen sink into the window to attack.

Being an anomalous unicorn from a magical land, Pope has conceded just 1.36 times per 90 this season, and helped his team to a defensive record that would put the Clarets closer to the top half of the table (West Ham and Man United have conceded just 2 less than Burnley’s 44 goals against). Without another integral piece to that puzzle in Ben Mee, Pope and Tarkowski have had more work to do to keep opposition sides at bay, and Sean Dyche’s team conceded 14 goals in the 5 and a half matches since his injury. In disastrous circumstances, the Clarets then lost to bottom of the table Norwich, and the Burnley board pulled the plug on Sean Dyche’s ten year spell in charge.

CONCLUSION

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With just eight matches remaining, Burnley now have a mammoth task to stay in the division and will be sweating over the fitness of their captain as the team struggle to re-find solidity. Sean Dyche’s unfortunate sacking could prove to be a costly error from the Burnley board, even despite the team’s lack of fervidity and connection in the attacking half with him in charge. If the Clarets are to survive this season, James Tarkowski and Nick Pope will need to pull off defensive and goalkeeping masterclasses for the team, particularly if Mee can’t find fitness in time. It will be a fight to the finish line for the club, and the prospect of dragging Everton back into the relegation race may be too far out of sight now that Sean Dyche has departed.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of how it all desperately fell apart for Sean Dyche at Burnley in 2021-22, after ten years in charge. Be sure to check out more of our Manager & Team Analyses, Premier League related articles, and don’t forget to follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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