When asked about his opposite number this week, Antonio Conte was somewhat reluctant to dish out praise. Speaking ahead of his Chelsea side’s trip to the home of the team currently seventh in the Premier League, Conte was keen to caveat his acknowledgement of an opposing manager’s successes this term.
“If you start the season to fight to avoid the relegation zone it is more simple,” said Conte. “It is more simple because you have to avoid the last three places at the bottom and then you can stay between ten teams. You can play only for this target.”
Conte’s point was that, by comparison, he and his Chelsea side have it somewhat tougher: where other sides have avoiding relegation as their sole remit, they have greater scope for ‘success’; on the contrary, he and Chelsea hoped to win the league again this term, and anything less would constitute a form of failure.
None of this would be controversial until we consider the opposition to which Conte was referring. For Chelsea’s trip on Thursday evening to the side, just two places below them was not to, say, West Ham United, nor Southampton, nor Stoke City. Rather it was to Burnley and to the home of the side managed by Sean Dyche.
Keeping it simple
That is important to note. For while the former three clubs primarily set out to avoid relegation first and foremost (and, it must be said, two of them look likely to fall short of that goal), Burnley have far surpassed that this season.
Few expected Dyche’s side to get off to such a good start, whereby they won nine of their first 17 games, losing just four; even fewer expected them to maintain their lofty position into these latter stages of the season.
An 11-game winless run between Christmas and March had plenty suggesting they had regressed to their natural mean, and it is due to the league’s stratification that Burnley did not fall below eighth in that period, so far in front had their early season form put them. And just as a promising season threatened to flicker out, Dyche’s men turned it around. Ahead of the visit of Chelsea, they had won five on the bounce.
To suggest a side keeps it simple is often seen as something of a veiled insult, but in Burnley’s case, simplicity has been their friend. Dyche has kept faith in players he knows well and a system they like playing.
Little tweaks have occurred, the loss of Chris Wood to injury coincided with a reversion to one up top and that winless run, but mostly this has been a season-high on consistency and endeavour.
Throughout the side, Dyche has called upon reliable figures who, though they may not stand out individually, perform with a level of cohesion that few other Premier League sides can boast.
In Ben Mee and James Tarkowski, they possess a calming central defensive pairing, the latter being rewarded for his impressive showings this term with an England call-up. Behind them, Nick Pope has enjoyed the best season of his career in goal, and he too found himself the recipient of a phone call from Gareth Southgate last month.
Those three have been influential in Burnley conceding just 31 goals this term, the joint-third lowest in the division. Such defensive solidity became even more important during Wood’s lengthy mid-season layoff with a knee injury.
The Clarets have themselves scored just 34 goals, and Wood, signed for a club record £15m in the summer, has weighed in with nine of them. Five arrived during that recent winning streak.
From the top down
Wood’s signing marked a significant step for Burnley, given their frugality in the past. Ran by local businessmen, the club owes no external debts and is, in essence, a poster boy for clubs seeking to live within their means.
During their first foray into the top tier under Dyche three years ago, the decision was made that survival would constitute a bonus: Premier League status offered the club the opportunity to build carefully, spend their money wisely and not go for broke as so many other sides have.
That they remained true to their principles is now being rewarded in spades. Dyche took them down, with two wins and a draw in the final three games the only thing keeping them off the bottom.
But, as they had discussed the summer before, the club’s hierarchy reasoned that they could now come back all the stronger, kept faith with Dyche and promptly returned as champions immediately.
Moreover, just as the board kept their belief in Dyche, so he retained his in his players. A case in point is Ashley Barnes. Signed for around £1m from Brighton back in 2014, Barnes is hardly a prolific striker, but what he brings is energy and a willingness to lead from the front.
Despite suffering a cruciate ligament injury during that Championship-winning season, the club kept persisted with him. They have been rewarded with eight goals this term, surpassing the crucial six he managed last year.
After a 16th place finish then, now they appear to have made a step up that even the most optimistic of Turf Moor attendees couldn’t have dreamt of. They are well clear of Leicester City in eighth. Given Arsenal’s imminent preoccupation with the Europa League semifinals, Burnley can feasibly hope to pip them into sixth.
For Dyche, the plaudits will continue to roll in. Many are tipping him to win the Manager of the Year award and, though he will face competition from the likes of Pep Guardiola and Rafa Benitez, few can begrudge him it if he does win.
Some wonder whether his approach and style is simply a good fit at Turf Moor, and possibly won’t transfer so successfully elsewhere. Certainly, the underdog mentality and the emphasis on the fact this side contains no particular stars will have to be tweaked should he obtain a job higher up the pecking order.
Yet to suggest he is a one-trick pony would be unfair. After all, this is a side which won just one away game last year. That tally had been met by the first weekend of this season, against Chelsea, the champions, no less, and Dyche’s side now have the sixth best away record in the league.
Chelsea ran out winners on Thursday evening, Barnes’ equaliser being cancelled out by a Victor Moses winner. Burnley remain outside the elite, but will in all likelihood finish as ‘the best of the rest’.
The summer will see them hope to hold on to their manager, spend wisely once more, and look for incremental progress. It may even see them back in Europe for the first time in half a century. In a league where more than half the clubs spend much of their time worrying about relegation, Burnley’s tale is one worth celebrating.
Will Sean Dyche win manager of the year? Let us know in the comments section below.