Are Burnley realistic contenders for the top four?

Date published: Thursday 14th December 2017 9:25

We knew it had to go back to how it had always been. After Leicester’s title triumph in 2015/16, normal service depressingly resumed, and last year saw the return of the big six at the top of the table. Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United: the lowest of whom were six points clear of Everton in seventh and 23 points clear of eighth-placed Southampton.

We are nearly at the mid-point of the current season, and it’s the same old story again. Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, and…

Oh.

Burnley.

Gosh.

Less than two years on from Leicester winning the league title, we still refuse to believe such things are possible, but there they are. After finishing last season just six points above the relegation zone, Burnley are now level on points with both Tottenham and Liverpool, and a point ahead of Arsenal. They have beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and drawn away to both Spurs and Liverpool. The only sides to have beaten them have been Leicester, Arsenal, Manchester City and, weirdly, West Brom.

All but one of their nine wins has been by just a single goal (the exception being last month’s 2-0 defeat of Swansea), giving Burnley comfortable the lowest goals scored total in the top half (16); but then conversely, only Manchester City have beaten Burnley by more than a single goal, and the two Manchester clubs are the only sides to concede fewer than Burnley’s 12.

At first this seems in defiance of the statistics: Burnley concede the most shots per game of any side in the Premier League, absorbing pressure at a rate of 16.4 shots per game; no other side concedes more than 14.8. They also make the third-fewest tackles and rank only 13th for interceptions, and only three sides spend more time in their own third than Burnley. No side plays more long balls per game, yet 43.6% of them are inaccurate – again, more than anyone else in the Premier League. On the face of it, these are the statistics of a side in the bottom three, not a team challenging for Champions League qualification.

The key, however, is in their blocking. Burnley block an incredible 5.6 shots per game, which is 68% more than the league average and more than any other side. This excellent video, from February, helps show why: Dyche has drilled his defence to effectively funnel any opposition shots directly at the goalkeeper (Tom Heaton in this video, though Nick Pope has kept guard since coming on as a substitute in the 1-0 win against Crystal Palace in September). Burnley aren’t simply throwing bodies at everything and hoping for the best, but intelligently and purposefully limiting the opponent’s path to the goal. Clearly, it is working.

The other part of the puzzle Burnley have solved this year is their away form. Please indulge me in one last burst of rattling off statistics, for the difference is so stark as to be worth repeating.

Last season, Burnley picked up just one point less at home (33) than Manchester United, but on the road only Hull had a worse record than Burnley’s measly seven-point haul. This year, things are different. Burnley still have one of the best home records in the division –they’ve recorded one more point than Chelsea and as many as Liverpool – but crucially, they’re now one of the best away teams in the division, racking up 14 points in eight games: only Chelsea and Manchester City have a better record.

The point here is that though at first glance Burnley appear to have simply been incredibly lucky – that they operate in the fine margins and just simply happen to have won their 17 coin tosses more than half the time – a deeper look suggests that this may very well be sustainable. While this season’s other great early pretenders Watford have fallen away, Burnley have kept it up, winning five of their seven games since the beginning of November.

The question now becomes: at what point do we learn the Leicester lesson, and start finally believing that Champions League football is a real possibility for Dyche’s men?

Over the next five weeks, we will have our answer: the Clarets’ seven league games over that time include clashes with Spurs, Manchester United, Liverpool and, erm, Manchester United again. To keep up their current pace and maintain their Champions League challenge, Burnley will likely need to take five points from those four games and beat at least two of Brighton, Huddersfield and Crystal Palace in between. It is a big ask, but with the way things have gone for Burnley so far, it would be foolish to mistake the unlikely for the impossible.

Steven Chicken


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