Burnley surprised many by avoiding the drop in 2016-17. Will Sean Dyche’s side be able to repeat the trick in 2017-18?
INS: Jack Cork (£7.74 million, Swansea), Jonathan Walters (£1.96 million, Stoke), Phil Bardsley (£750k, Stoke), Charlie Taylor (free, Leeds)
OUTS: Michael Keane (£24.23, Everton), George Boyd (free, Sheffield Wednesday), Michael Kightly (free, Southend United), Joey Barton (released), George Green (released), Paul Robinson (released)
THE STORY: Burnley defied the odds last season to steer clear of the relegation scrap, finishing six points above the drop zone, mostly thanks to one of the better home records in the Premier League. The Clarets managed to consistently bounce back from losses, and never suffered a losing streak longer than three games, tied for the best such record in the bottom half.
The high point of their season came in only the second match, when a victory against Liverpool set the tone for their performances at Turf Moor, but their consistency against fellow relegation candidates proved to be the difference, as the Clarets ensured they will play a second consecutive Premier League season for the first time in club history.
That’s a significant achievement for a club that have been relegated from the top flight twice in the past decade. Burnley finally have the foundation to push for something more; a mid-table finish and a decent run in the cups are reasonable goals, though improvement will be necessary.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is the away form. The Clarets didn’t win a game outside of Turf Moor until April, and picked up only seven points on their travels all season. They got away with it last term thanks to the ninth best home record in the league, but that balance is unlikely to be sustainable two seasons in a row.
There’s no simple solution to that problem, and there’s certainly a psychological element at play here, but Sean Dyche might consider a more adventurous approach. If Burnley are going to lose, they may as well take a few more risks while doing it. That won’t come naturally to Dyche, but he needs to try something, anything, different if his side’s terrible away form persists.
Burnley’s second biggest problem, not unrelated to the away form, is a lack of goals. They scored only 39 last season, the fewest of any team in the league not to get relegated. Sam Vokes led the side with 10, while Andre Gray managed nine in five fewer appearances. Those two clearly have the potential to be a dangerous partnership, but were perhaps held back by the team’s overall defensive focus.
Ashley Barnes was the only other play to score more than twice in the league, which might explain the signing of Jon Walters from Stoke, who’s proven himself capable of chipping in with goals from up front or out wide. He’s 33 now, but could be useful as a squad player, and will do whatever defensive work Dyche asks of him.
The other big signing of the summer is Swansea’s Jack Cork, an intelligent defensive midfielder who will also improve Burnley’s ability to move the ball from defense to attack. His extra technical quality could make a big difference to a team that averaged 42.7 percent possession last season.
The biggest personnel change, however, is the loss of Michael Keane to Everton. The center-back was superb last season, and a big part of the reason Burnley had the second best defensive record in the bottom half. He was sold for £24 million, and has yet to be replaced.
James Tarkowski is capable of coming in as a like for like replacement, which would leave over £10 million from the Keane sale to bring in a more attacking player, but it looks like the squad will remain largely the same, in both style and personnel, to what it was last season.
That may not be good enough. The Clarets did excellently to steer clear of the relegation battle last year, and they will be difficult to beat again this season, especially at home. But outside of newly promoted Brighton and Huddersfield, there aren’t any teams you’d expect them to be better than over the course of the season.
If they establish some momentum away from home, and Vokes and Gray get some support in the goalscoring department, that could change quickly, but at this point simply avoiding the drop would qualify as an excellent season for the Clarets.
KEY PLAYER: There are several players who will have a big role to play for Burnley next season. Vokes and Gray will need to get goals if the Clarets are going to stay up, especially if no one else contributes in that department for the second season running.
At the other end, Ben Mee will come under greater scrutiny after the departure of Keane. He was excellent last season, but much will depend on the partnership he forges with whomever ends up next to him, whether that’s Tarkowski or someone else. Tom Heaton, terrific in goal last season, will also have a big role to play in that transition.
In midfield, many will be hoping to see some improved performances from Steven Defour, who made only 21 league appearances last season, scoring one goal and adding three assists in a difficult first year in the Premier League. The Belgian has been linked with a move away from Turf Moor this summer, but has the quality to make a difference if he stays.
But the player who could make the biggest difference is Cork, who’s in his second stint at the club after spending time on loan there from 2009-11. He’s not the flashiest player, and isn’t going to record many goals or assists, but his ability to receive the ball from his defenders, turn and move it up the field could make a big difference in a side that typically eschews possession.
His ability to do that will depend on the freedom Dyche gives him, but as Burnley try to establish themselves as a mid-table side, the skill set he brings could prove very useful.
MANAGER: Dyche is the perfect manager for a team that wants to make it to the Premier League, if not the perfect manager for a team that wants to stay there. His basic approach this season will be the same as it’s always been, a defensive 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 and team that look to capitalize on set-pieces and the limited opportunities they get on the counter-attack.
There’s no shame in that, especially for a club of Burnley’s size, but there’s little evidence to suggest it’s a viable approach to Premier League stability if you’re not Tony Pulis. Then again, it worked for Dyche last season. Why change now?
For one thing, the league looks stronger than it did last year. Newcastle project to be one of the best promoted sides since the last time they got promoted, while the likes of Swansea, Watford and Crystal Palace have all improved in the managerial department since the beginning of last season. For another, while Burnley were certainly strong at the back last year, they rode their luck at times, not least in draws against Manchester United and Chelsea, and even that win against Liverpool.
Dyche would benefit from incorporating more stylistic variation into Burnley’s game. That’s much easier said than done, of course, and there’s even a question whether his players are capable of a more attacking style, but there’s a limit to how far this team can go sitting deep and hoping Vokes and Gray bail them out at the other end.
BEST CASE: The defense-first formula from 2016-17 works again, and the club cruise to a mid-table finish (plus a decent run in one of the cups).
WORST CASE: Keane is missed, Gray and Vokes can’t score the necessary goals and the club ultimately get relegated.