On 13 December last year, Burnley beat Stoke to briefly move into the Premier League’s top four. If they fail to beat Brighton this weekend, they will spend the same date of 2018 in the division’s bottom three.
It is a dramatic change in fortune for Sean Dyche’s side, who spent only one week in the bottom half of the table during the entirety of 2017-18 en route to securing a place in the Europa League by finishing seventh, their best performance since 1974.
With their European campaign over before September, the Clarets have won just two of 15 league games in 2018-19, with only Fulham – the team currently propping up the top-flight – having conceded more than their 32 goals.
So, just what has gone wrong at Turf Moor?
What’s the problem?
Burnley were beaten 3-1 by Liverpool in their 15th game of this season on Wednesday. They also lost the equivalent game of the last campaign, to Leicester at the King Power Stadium. However, as they had won four of the previous five, the damage wasn’t too great and they remained in seventh.
They then beat Watford and Stoke to climb into sixth, above Arsenal and level on points with Tottenham and Liverpool. They had won nine games out of 17. Since then, they have won seven out of 36.
The root of the problem initially appears obvious. In their first 15 games last season, Burnley scored 14 goals, exactly the same number as this season.
But, in their first 15 games last term, Burnley kept six clean sheets and conceded 12 times. In 15 this season, they have managed three clean sheets and conceded on average more than two goals a game.
|Burnley defence – 2017-18 v 2018-19|
|Goals conceded per game||1.03||2.07|
|Shots faced per game||15||21.3|
|Expected goals against per game||1.38||1.95|
They are also conceding possession in dangerous areas more often. The number of times per game an opponent wins the ball off the Clarets 40m or less from their goal and produces a shot has risen from 0.7 to 1.2.
In short, Burnley are facing better chances more often this season, so it should be little surprise they are conceding more often.
Victim of their own success?
Dyche has previously said Burnley were suffering from a “success hangover”.
The theory of ‘success hangover’ is that there is a natural regression after reaching a peak – which last season may well have represented for many of the Clarets’ players. Added to that, individual players have not performed to the same standards, exacerbated by the demands of Europe.
Goalkeeper Joe Hart said on Tuesday a European hangover could not be used as a reason why Burnley’s results are poor now.
However, Dyche feels the effects of that Europa League campaign, which started in July, ended in August, and included trips to Aberdeen, Istanbul and Athens and travel of more than 9,000 miles, was a contributing factor to Burnley getting just one point from their opening five games.
“We didn’t exactly have a flying start,” he said. “We have had to work our way back to get the number of points we have got.”
Burnley had a phenomenally well-drilled squad last season. Their defence in particular took up strategic positions aimed at reducing the size of their goal, making it easier for goalkeeper Nick Pope to keep all those clean sheets.
For the opening four league games, instead of having five full days to prepare, given the travel requirements around European games, the match itself and recovery time, this was reduced to one and a half.
Did they strengthen properly in the summer?
Dyche wanted to sign five or six players in the off-season, both to increase the quality and depth of his squad, which he did not believe was strong enough to cope with the twin demands of domestic and European competition.
In particular, he wanted a wide player to provide opportunities and exploit the aerial threat of strikers Chris Wood and Sam Vokes.
Sadly for Dyche, the wide player never came. Burnley signed three players: central defender Ben Gibson from Middlesbrough for a club record £15m, goalkeeper Joe Hart from Manchester City for £3.5m and striker Matej Vydra from Derby for an undisclosed fee.
Gibson is yet to play in the Premier League after having a hernia operation in September. Vydra – last season’s Championship top-scorer – has started three Premier League games and made a further four substitute appearances, coming on for the final seven minutes against Liverpool on Wednesday, scoring once.
Hart is an ever present in the league but his arrival is not without controversy as the former England keeper was signed when first-choice Nick Pope suffered a shoulder injury against Aberdeen in July and popular England international Tom Heaton was suffering from a minor calf strain.
In November, former Manchester City head of acquisition Mike Rigg was brought in as technical director to act as a buffer between Dyche and chairman Mike Garlick, who conducts the majority of Burnley’s transfer deals.
“It is a myth we don’t want to sign players,” said Dyche. “We are constantly looking. We don’t have masses of money so we have to be more detailed and tailor the market to your needs.
“We are behind other clubs. It takes financial input, it takes bodies. Mike Rigg is not going to do that overnight. Can he add to it? Yes. Can he add to it instantly? Let’s wait and see. That role is longer term.”
What happens now – and is Dyche under pressure?
With trips to Arsenal and Tottenham to follow, Saturday’s home game against Brighton has taken on huge significance.
If they do not win at the weekend, there is a chance the Clarets will be bottom of the table on Christmas Day. In the history of the Premier League, only four sides have avoided relegation from that position. The most recent was Swansea in 2017.
There have been some murmurings against Dyche from fans who feel, after introducing a more expansive style last season, mainly thanks to the midfield influences of Jack Cork and Steven Defour, Burnley have regressed this season, not only in their results but the manner in which they have been achieved.
The vast majority of fans remain solidly behind the manager though, as do the club, just as they did when Burnley were relegated from the top flight in 2015, bouncing straight back as champions 12 months later.
Appointed to replace Eddie Howe in October 2012, Dyche is the fourth longest serving manager in England. For the majority of that time, Burnley have been a success story.
“For five and a half years out of six, the fans have had a lot to enjoy,” he said. “We have hit a tough time and it is not fun.
“I love football, the bad stuff and the good stuff. But I am pretty secure in my thinking. When there is outside noise, it sometimes gets a bit cloudy. Our job is to clear the clouds.”