“We’ve got to get back to being ‘us’. We’ve got to get back to the consistency of being ‘us’.” This may, disconcertingly, sound like bad dialogue from a fraught Hollyoaks relationship plotline, but it is in fact Sean Dyche’s latest verdict on Burnley.
Having lost 3-1 to Liverpool on Wednesday night, the Clarets are currently second-bottom of the Premier League and starting to look like serious relegation candidates. Dyche, speaking with the voice of a man who vapes a mixture of iron filings and nail polish remover on the daily, has been forced to do more than his fair share of soul-searching recently. That can’t be easy when you are possessed by the soul of an extremely gruff regional darts champion from the eighties.
Having finished an impressive 7th last term, top of the ‘best of the rest’ mini-league, Burnley have been on a drastic slide since the start of the season. Potentially hindered by six Europa League qualifiers which ended in the disappointment of a two-legged defeat to Olympiakos, Dyche’s side made a grim start to the league campaign and have seemed down on their luck ever since. Dyche has highlighted confidence as a major issue and, after the season lowlight that was their 2-0 defeat to Crystal Palace last weekend, said: “The performance, there was a bit of fear attached to it. The eye of the tiger we had last year – it was a collective unit – has softened quite obviously, and that can happen with tough results.”
Burnley have conceded 32 goals in 15 league games so far, giving them the second-worst defensive record in the Premier League. The only team to have conceded more is famously leaky Fulham, whose best performance of the season was probably their exultant 4-2 win against Burnley.
This time last season Burnley had shipped 12 goals and come the end of the campaign they had conceded 39 in total, only seven more than they have at present. Having once prided himself on his gritty defence and earthy football – so much so that he was alleged to pluck creepy crawlies from the ground and eat them in what might be interpreted as a sick visual metaphor for his philosophy on the game – Dyche’s towering palace of worms looks like it could come slithering down around him.
A ‘big marker’?
With Burnley wriggling in horror above the open mouth of relegation, the finger of blame is inevitably beginning to point towards their manager. There is an incipient ‘Dyche Out’ movement on Twitter, though it should be said that it seems to have been heavily infiltrated by mischievous Blackburn fans. In sharp contrast to last season – and as Dyche alluded to after the Palace defeat – Burnley have been squishy, paunchy and soft through the middle. There look to be structural problems with the side, which is never a good omen for the man in charge.
Despite losing to Liverpool, Dyche hailed Wednesday night’s performance as a “big marker” for the team. He praised their mentality and claimed they had shaken off the fear which held them back against Palace at the weekend. Burnley’s robust approach was greeted less enthusiastically by Jurgen Klopp, who blamed a leg injury to Joe Gomez on a pattern of aggressive off-the-feet tackling.
While the tackle on Gomez from Ben Mee seemed like an unfortunate follow-through more than anything, an improved mentality didn’t make up for Burnley’s defensive shortcomings. Though Dyche talked up the team’s improved shape and energy, they still conceded three goals with all the squishiness of a segmented, limbless body being ground to delicious paste beneath a ginger goatee.
Painfully slow reactions allowed James Milner to shape and shoot for Liverpool’s first goal. Burnley’s back four were outrun and outthought for Roberto Fimino’s second from a set piece, before the third goal from Xherdan Shaqiri – while it might be justified as an inevitable result of Burnley pushing forward for a late equaliser – came from a worryingly simple two-pass move which breezily bypassed the whole team.
Set up for a fall
There are doubtless many reasons for Burnley’s decline this season. The early distraction of the Europa League may have been the catalyst for their weak start domestically, not to mention the unaccustomed Thursday-Sunday schedule of fixtures and all the additional fatigue. That has fed the crisis of confidence which has culminated in them picking up only two wins in the league this season. That’s the neat and tidy narrative, anyway, though it doesn’t seem like a full explanation.
The bigger picture for Burnley is that they hugely overachieved last season. Masters at winning by a one-goal margin, Dyche started out with a side who were tipped for relegation and crafted them into the most effective spoilers in the Premier League. Dyche took Burnley’s underdog status to its logical conclusion, with his “minimum requirement is maximum effort” mantra the embodiment of their hard graft mentality. This time around, no longer liberated by a complete lack of expectation, Burnley inevitably face a different psychological challenge and Dyche seems to be struggling to communicate his philosophy as effectively.
Dyche operates with a relatively small core squad owing to Burnley’s limited finances and, not helped by long-term injuries to important players like Nick Pope, Steven Defour and Robbie Brady, has perhaps been overreliant on too few personnel this season. It is possible that Burnley have been ‘figured out’ to some extent, though he did make five changes to his starting line-up against Liverpool in an effort to freshen things up.
Nonetheless, having featured in glossy adverts and been talked up extensively as Burnley climbed to new heights last season, it’s possible that Dyche’s underdog mantra no longer rings as true as it once did. Now that Burnley really are in danger of relegation, Dyche will have to recapture that sleeves-rolled-up spirit. Where Burnley were once like the humble earthworm – tireless, tenacious and not afraid to get down and dirty – they have become soft and sluggish. The task now is to rediscover their inner earthworm without eating themselves in the process.
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