Last time the world looked in on Burnley FC, they were managed by the country’s leading dinosaur, Sean Dyche. They were posting a ridiculous home record, an equally ridiculous away record, playing Jurassic football, surviving against all the odds, and loving every minute of it. But if you happened to be watching them at Everton yesterday, you might have noticed an unfamiliar side in claret and blue. After a slightly shaky start, they were flying rather than plodding, in the process outplaying a side that had spent rather a bit of money in the summer. They were also gliding to a well-deserved victory. On the road. Putting them in sixth place.
It was the coming out party for the All New Evolved, Well Actually Not Quite, Burnley. They had dropped a few hints earlier: a win at Chelsea (OK, first week, those things happen), a draw at Spurs where they managed only two fewer shots on target than their opponents (hmm…). Yes, they were still catching a few breaks: Crystal Palace/cow’s a**e/banjo; Liverpool being Liverpool. But there was something undefinably different about this year’s model. At Goodison Park we saw it steadily and saw it whole.
A few stats, if that’s okay. Last year the Clarets finished with 42.7% possession; this year it’s up to 44.0%. That includes away matches against Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool. Last year they finished with a 67.8% pass-completion rate; this year it’s up to 71%. Again: Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool. Last year they sent 25.3% of their passes long; that’s down to 23.6%. In other words, they’re playing a little more of what we sometimes call football.
There’s a difference in defence as well as attack. Tackles are down from 16.7 to 13.4, interceptions from 14.7 to 10.6, fouls from 11.5 to 9.0. There seems to be less need to play aggressively to counteract overall weaknesses in the side. They’re more confident in their play.
On Sunday, you could see something was up by the starting line-ups. Which team started in a 4-4-2? Everton. Burnley were playing five midfielders and only one striker, practically anathema before this season. Last year Dyche had experimented with five in midfield for a few games, then dashed back to the safety of 4-4-2 as soon as he could. But in seven games so far, Burnley have started two strikers only once, against Palace. And that was among the least convincing of their performances.
The switch from 4-4-2 has been a huge boon for their most technically gifted midfielder, Steven Defour. Last year his talent was evident, but he simply didn’t fit in a 4-4-2. Now he can sit deep comfortably and use his passing abilities to build attacks through midfield. He’s also worked very hard on improving his defence. His tackles are down along with the rest of the side, but his interceptions per 90 minutes have jumped from 2.6 to 3.2 even as the team has seen a significant drop. He’s just a good two-way player.
The arrival of Chris Wood from Leeds to play the lone frontman has also had a significant effect. When he signed, I assumed he was just another Turf Moor homage to the days of George Beel. But he’s much more than a mere revival act. He combines Ashley Barnes’ movement with Sam Vokes’ skills, and while that won’t win you the Ballon d’Or, it makes for a perfectly serviceable Premier League number nine. Big Dunc was on the touchline at Goodison on Sunday, and may very well have nodded his head once or twice.
Elsewhere in the side, the big news is central defender James Tarkowski. He gets a paragraph in the Team of the Week, and how he deserves it. Virtually untried before this season, he’s settled into Michael Keane’s spot with astonishing rapidity. He knows what to do and does it without any fuss. While Keane now seems exposed in a less forgiving system, Tarkowski fits Burnley like Formby fit Lancashire.
Two other new regulars deserve mention. Jack Cork fills the Jack Cork role with his usual competence, and has played every minute of every game. He does the simple things, rarely standing out one way or the other. Then there’s Nick Pope, who has taken over from the injured Tom Heaton. When it became clear Heaton would be gone for some time, plenty of people said “that’s it for Burnley.” But at the moment he’s done everything required, throwing in a couple of special saves as well. He also knows how to put the ball on Wood’s head, because this is still Burnley, of course.
But in the 21st minute at Goodison, the Clarets showed exactly what they’re now made of. If you haven’t seen the video, check it out. It’s a lovely team goal, with aesthetically pleasing contributions from Robbie Brady, Stephen Ward, Wood, Scott Arfield and Jeff Hendrick. Note that only one of those is new to the side. But they’ve never combined quite like that. I suspect we’ll see a few more beauties in the 31 games to come.
Ironically, once they had the lead, Burnley didn’t see the need to play much pretty football. They wound up with less possession, a lower pass-completion percentage, and a higher percentage of long balls than their average. But this remains a (slightly) different Burnley, and their versatility means they’re more likely to stay up than anyone thought, especially me.
They won’t finish in sixth place. They won’t even finish in the top half. But they’ll entertain just a tiny bit more than they did before, and maybe win a few more admirers on the way. Make sure you get a good look as the season goes on. Hopefully they’ll ease their way to survival the way they eased to victory at Goodison Park. And smiling at the finish will still be Sean Dyche, the dinosaur who evolved into a bird. Well, an emu anyway.