Cast your eye down the current relegation odds and you’ll see a club at sixth choice, averaging about 7/2 to go down. Now go to the left-hand column and find out who it is. None other than the team continuing its Europa League campaign in Turkey tomorrow, the Clarets of Burnley.
Europa League and a relegation candidate? Well, this is football. Just ask Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion, who went down last year despite starting the season at significantly higher odds. So what do the bookies have in mind?
Let’s look first at the summer transfers. So far there have been three arrivals. Centre-half Ben Gibson from Middlesbrough looks a good acquisition, even for a club joint-record ₤15m. With Ben Mee reportedly ready to renew his contract, Gibson will have to fight for a spot, but he’s certainly in that class. Matej Vydra, in from Derby County for a reported ₤11m, was leading scorer in the Championship last year, and offers pace and dribbling skill. He’ll also compete for a spot, possibly at support striker, possibly at number 10. The other new boy is Charles Joseph John Hart, former England #1, now reduced to low-cost insurance for Tom Heaton and Nick Pope.
It’s a decent window, until you look at the competition. Brighton have signed four potential starters (striker Florin Andone, midfielders Bernardo and Yves Bissouma, winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh), Fulham six (Alfie Mawson, Alexander Mitrovic, Calum Chambers on loan, André Schürrle on loan, midfielder Jean-Michael Seri, defender Maxime Le Marchand), Huddersfield four (Terence Kongolo, Ramadan Sobhi, fullback Erik Durm, and winger Adama Diakhaby), and we won’t even talk about Wolves.
Right now Burnley’s window looks closer to Cardiff’s, whose big acquisitions are two ₤10m signings from the Championship, attackers Josh Murphy and Bobby Reid.
It’s not that the Clarets haven’t tried. They worked hard to pry Jay Rodriguez and Craig Dawson from West Brom, but couldn’t meet the Baggies’ valuation, though Rodriguez is still a possibility. Mawson seemed a sure thing until Fulham gazumped them. A fee was agreed for Sam Clucas, but apparently his wage demands were too high.
There are likely other deals in the works—one rumour is Yannick Bolasie—but time is short and Burnley’s resources are limited, and the club’s intelligent financial approach means they’ll spend less than the competition. Gibson and Hart didn’t move the needle from 7/2, and Vydra won’t either. Rodriguez and/or Bolasie? I don’t know.
A related cause for concern is Europe. No, not the extra European matches, which will pump up the players and fans, but recruitment, more correctly the lack of it. Brighton and Huddersfield, to mention only two, rely heavily on continental scouting, where a sharp eye can get you a big bargain. Every other club in the league besides Spurs and Cardiff has made a European signing this summer. But although more than a year ago former QPR head scout Ian Butterworth was placed in charge of European recruitment, since then the Clarets have done nothing on that front. The other day they were linked with Le Havre defender Harold Moukoudi, but with Gibson and Mee in the fold that seems unlikely to go through.
In fact, Steven Defour, who came the year before Butterworth, is their one and only current player signed from a continental club. Even Johan Berg Gudmundsson had been at Charlton for two years before joining up. As useful players from France, Germany, Portugal, and the Netherlands swell the lower half of the league, Burnley seem to be limited to the local market.
Another question mark is injuries. Both Defour and Robbie Brady are coming back from serious knee surgery, and although they seem to be on pace to play early in the season, it’s hard to know when they’ll be fully fit. Along with Gudmundsson, they’re the best technical players in the side, and will almost certainly have to contribute for Burnley to thrive.
Still, Sean Dyche led the Clarets to seventh place last year, even with injuries, and a couple of solid additions should keep them in the league, right? Yes. But if you’ll permit me some statistics, last season Burnley were truly exceptional, and a close look suggests they’re vulnerable to a slide.
The key stat is opponents’ conversion rate. As we know, Burnley often sit back and allow plenty of shots, but position themselves to block as many as possible, relying on the keeper to save the rest. Last year opponents scored on only 6.9% of their shots.
That’s brilliant—in fact, too brilliant. In the last nine seasons, only two sides have posted a better number, and one of those was last year’s Manchester United, who spent a lot more money and had David De Gea in goal. A repeat of 6.9% will be difficult indeed, particularly since Nick Pope had such a superb season, with shot-stopping numbers second only to the peerless Spaniard. Pope’s out for several months with a shoulder injury, and Tom Heaton, although certainly capable of the necessary wizardry, is also coming back after a long layoff, and even in form might not match Pope’s stats. Although Hart may have to go straight between the sticks, until further notice he’s third best any way you slice it.
There’s not much margin for error here. If you allow a lot of shots, a small increase in opponents’ conversion rate will change your fortunes considerably. The previous season, Burnley finished at a strong 8.2%, third best in the league, and finished 16th, six points above the drop zone. They allowed 55 goals, fully 16 more than last year.
In fact, Burnley scored more goals in 2016/17 while finishing 16th than last year while finishing seventh. To ensure safety, they may need a boost in scoring power. Rodriguez would add depth, but he’s 29, and is he really better than Ashley Barnes, Chris Wood, and Sam Vokes? Vydra has the Championship chops, but that’s all so far. Even Bolasie is as yet no more than a highly erratic talent.
So it comes back to Sean Dyche and the system. Like Eddie Howe, Dyche has a very distinctive way of playing the game. Howe has posted clear survival numbers for three straight years—with mostly British and Irish players too—so it seems safe to conclude his system does the job. Dyche has done it twice, once spectacularly, and a third, particularly with limited financial resources, would be the clincher. Burnley supporters would bet the house on it, of course.
In fact, go back to the odds and you’ll see that Brighton, Fulham, and Huddersfield, all with significantly more active transfer windows, are shorter prices than Burnley for the drop. So are Watford, who have a direct line to European talent. That’s the respect Dyche has earned.
The Clarets made hash of the bookies last year, and there’s no reason they can’t do it again. Just about every neutral would be happy to see it, and you can put me emphatically in that category. I’m hungry for more Tarkowski tackling, Barnes banging, Cork controlling, and all the rest.
For that matter, I hope they smash Istanbul Başakşehir and go on to win the whole freaking Europa League, beating AC Mian, Villarreal, and Bayer Leverkusen along the way. Are sixth-choice and 7/2 a fair evaluation? You decide. Either way, fingers crossed that soon those are much higher numbers.