Before this weekend it was clear Burnley and Swansea City were going in opposite directions. By 5pm Saturday they had reached Mercury and Pluto. In a devastating display of technique and tactical nous, the Clarets had demolished the Swans at Turf Moor, and anyone watching was left with two questions:
a) How good, exactly, are Burnley FC?
b) Can Paul Clement stay in his job much longer?
Let’s look at Swansea first. Clement is known to be unhappy with the board’s summer work, leaving the side with 37 central midfielders and all-too-few attackers and defenders. But of course it’s up to the manager to make the most of it, and Swansea sit 19th in the table because that’s where they belong right now.
One of the conundrums is Renato Sanches, a player of undoubted talent and uncertain tactics and temperament, who wouldn’t have signed at all had it not been for Clement’s work at Bayern. On Saturday Clement tried something new, a 4-4-2 with Sanches on the left of midfield, the plan to have him come inside and run the show. That kind of system has worked with players like David Silva and Gylfi Sigurdsson.
It didn’t work here. Like every other time this season, Sanches seemed a fish out of water, or perhaps a fish trying desperately to find other members of the school. Every once in a while he looked like a real player, but he created only one chance for his teammates all game, which was two fewer than the number of wild shots he took from outside the area. I assume the side worked on this system in training, but the first day of training was exactly how it looked.
There’s worse. If you bring your left-sided midfielder into the middle, that leaves space for the opponent’s right-back to get forward. Now I like Matthew Lowton, and think he’s a bit underrated. But no one would mistake him for Cafú. Yet there he was, dominating the wing, overlapping as Johan Berg Gudmundsson came inside, getting in excellent crosses, two of which resulted in chances. Without any fuss, Burnley exploited the weakness.
Weakness, of course, is a synonym for the Swansea attack. Burnley are a tough defensive side, so it was never going to be easy. Still, the Clarets often sit back, so at least you’ll get shots. Swansea got 14 of them, not bad for a side averaging only eight per game to that point. How many of those 14 were on target? One. In second-half stoppage time. A weak header by Wilfried Bony, right at the keeper.
Bony’s name brings up the striker problem. The problem isn’t the striker – Tammy Abraham is pretty good – it’s finding a system and a player that can get him the ball in decent positions. Every game he seems more frustrated, trying to force the pace, making mistakes.
In the second half, Bony came on for Jordan Ayew, and was put in a withdrawn role in the hope of a decent combination with Abraham. They each created one chance for the other, which is encouraging. But both shots came from near the top of the area, and both missed badly. Any hope of more disappeared in the 82nd minute when Abraham left with back spasms.
So it’s just not working for Swansea City, and for Clement the clock is ticking.
But for Burnley – oh my goodness. At this point it’s most definitely working, and the only clock they have to worry about is the one in Farhad Moshiri’s office. (Although he seems to have Marco on his mind at the moment.) This might have been the Clarets’ best performance since promotion. They’ve won their share of games, but in my recall never bossed one like this.
The key was the midfield, where they had the extra man. More often it looked like three. Steven Defour, Jack Cork and Gudmundsson in particular were superb, with pass completion percentages of 87.1%, 81.1%, and 85.7% respectively. They played the ball through midfield and kept playing it that way. Ashley Barnes recorded only two open-play aerial duels between the 19th and 63rd minute. Skill and intelligent tactics, that’s all it takes.
By half-time, despite a some decent saves by Lukasz Fabianski, Burnley were two up and cruising. The first goal was a marvellous piece of work, better than anything the north London derby had to offer. Just watch Cork (Jack Cork, people!) glide effortlessly into the area after his pass to Barnes and head home the cross from Robbie Brady.
The second goal was just as beautiful in its way. Defour wins the ball, gets it to Jeff Hendrick in a heartbeat, and a few moments later Barnes lashes it in. I haven’t mentioned Hendrick yet – he had a good if not exceptional game – but he was involved in the build-up to both goals, and that pass to Barnes well deserved the A he got by his name.
The second half was simple: sit back and defend, something the Clarets do so well. To be honest, James Tarkowski and Ben Mee weren’t at their absolute best. Both were caught out a couple of times. But Swansea didn’t have the quality to take advantage. Nick Pope, who’s been looking every bit as good as Tom Heaton, didn’t even have to look as good as Claudio Bravo. And Burnley still got off six second-half shots, including a set-piece goal from Tarkowski, wrongly disallowed for offside.
So how high can Burnley finish? Before the season the bookies had them near even odds to get relegated. Now they’re odds-on to finish in the top half. I’m a stat guy, and can look at expected goals until the cows and assorted other farm animals come home – and the numbers say Burnley are overachieving, just like last year – but judging by Saturday’s performance, those odds make a lot of sense.
And how long will Paul Clement last? Last year he got Swansea over the line, ahead of Marco Silva no less – but only barely. And judging by Saturday’s performance, there’s small chance of a repeat. American owner Steve Kaplan was in attendance, and if things don’t change very quickly will come to the same conclusion.
So the most likely answers:
a) Top half.
b) Not long.
Or, basically, Mercury and Pluto.