This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
Sean Dyche called it his most challenging year in management. Though a 17th-place finish hardly sounds spectacular, he had kept Burnley in the Premier League in a season that began with the club in limbo, and in which their biggest buy was Brighton’s sixth-choice central midfielder, Dale Stephens, for £750,000.
Funds were limited as the search for a new buyer continued, and even when American consortium ALK Capital completed a £170 million takeover in December, no signings followed in January. But if the concern was that this was a leveraged buyout, loading the club with debt, new chairman Alan Pace made the right noises. He was vocal in his support for Dyche and prioritised an extended contract for the manager, long admired by Crystal Palace.
Burnley have acquired four partner clubs across Britain, while Pace has sought to rebrand the Clarets themselves – the Premier League’s least glamorous constant in recent years.
“It’s our goal to make Burnley England’s favourite underdogs,” Pace has said, and while the tag is yet to catch on (if ever), wins away at Arsenal and Liverpool witnessed the unlikely overcoming of financial and footballing might. There’s far more pragmatism than romance in the story, but that’s the Burnley way.
The overdue investment that has begun with Stoke centre-back Nathan Collins was necessary simply to maintain the status quo. Burnley’s squad has never been young – only Palace were older last season – but it has shrunk in size. Failing to properly replace Jeff Hendrick and Aaron Lennon would scarcely be an issue elsewhere; it was at Turf Moor.
April’s defeat to Newcastle illustrated the resources chasm. With his side trailing, Steve Bruce summoned Allan Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson from the bench. Seven minutes later Newcastle led, and the only attacking options in Dyche’s reserve were Joel Mumbongo and Lewis Richardson, with 38 minutes of Premier League experience between them. Even if Dyche represents the great guarantee of safety, he has an ever-smaller core of high-class performers – and James Tarkowski is out of contract next summer.
Last season held significance. Bigger-spending big-city clubs such as Aston Villa, West Ham and Leeds accelerated past Burnley, who’d finished 10th in 2020. ALK may hope for a third top-half finish in five seasons, but the first aim remains: avoid the drop.
The five-point plan
1 End reliance on holy trinity at the back
Last season, Burnley played 25 games with Nick Pope (above), Ben Mee and James Tarkowski all in the side and collected 37 points: upper-mid-table form. With one or more of that trio absent, the Clarets took just two points from 13 matches. It shows the quality of Dyche’s premier guardians, but also the massive drop-off in their stand-ins – Bailey Peacock-Farrell (who has joined Sheffield Wednesday on loan) or Will Norris in goal, and Kevin Long in front. Newbies Collins and former Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey must change the perception they’re one injury away from relegation fodder.
2 Get the other strikers scoring
Chris Wood has hit double figures for Premier League goals in each of the previous four campaigns. Although Matej Vydra combined effectively with the New Zealander in spring, Ashley Barnes got the winner at Anfield and Jay Rodriguez is the joint-top scorer at Craven Cottage in 2021 going into the new season, Burnley’s three other frontmen netted only seven league goals between them, compared with 16 in 2019/20. Wood needs help.
3 Reap the rewards of Gudmundsson
Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s finest season was also the Clarets’: he was outstanding when they finished 7th in 2017/18, providing eight assists. Since then, the Icelander has had a stop-start time with injuries, and Burnley’s attacks have often leaned towards Dwight McNeil on the left. Keeping Gudmundsson fit and firing would help to address the imbalance.
4 Turn Turf Moor into a fortress again
Turf Moor is a famously tough place to go, right? Well, not really. Burnley ended the season without a home win in 11. The return of a crowd back to intimidate fancy-dan visitors may inspire a change in results.
5 Make more history
Under Dyche, Burnley have nabbed a first league win at Stamford Bridge since 1971, at Old Trafford since 1962, at Anfield since 1974 and at the Emirates Stadium for the first time ever. There can be drudgery, but he has given them landmark victories. Another would be nice.
FFT verdict: 15th
Another season treading water is ahead if the new owners don’t back Dyche in the transfer market.
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