Burnley: Is Turf Moor still a tough place to go?
Burnley's usually excellent home record has been non-existent in 2021, and Sean Dyche's side could be in danger
The mere mention of the ground can conjure visions of getting battered beneath a backdrop of the Pennines, facing a 4-4-2 formation that feels as traditional as the terraced houses surrounding it. And yet Turf Moor may now be the least difficult of the most difficult places to go.
Its reputation precedes it but Burnley are actually on their longest winless run at home in their history. They last claimed three points on home soil in January. Their only subsequent victory at Turf Moor was against Rochdale in the Carabao Cup and while Premier League fixture lists can be unforgiving, Burnley have hosted Brighton and Leeds twice each, plus Fulham, West Brom and Newcastle since Aston Villa were defeated eight months ago.
All of which suggests Saturday’s duel of the winless against Norwich is shaping up as both the least glamorous fixture of the campaign to date and one of the more important in Burnley’s Premier League existence. Defeat would plunge them into trouble.
As it is, their tally of two points from six games puts them one ahead of this stage last season. It can be overlooked, in the way that Burnley seem the division’s ignored constant. It feels less cause for panic as Sean Dyche has piloted regular slow starters to safety before. Burnley will be Burnley.
But are they still the same Burnley? They were a byword for a certain kind of relentlessness, a team with a mathematical formula for staying up. Yet this season they have dropped 10 points from winning positions, uncharacteristic carelessness from a team who have often defended defiantly.
Their path to 38 points usually tended to involve winning a high percentage of the winnable home games. Yet now they have six points from the last 39 available at Turf Moor. It scarcely mattered last season, thanks to a host of notable away triumphs. Burnley have a tendency to produce one defining victory on the road a season, but there were four: at the Emirates, Anfield, Goodison Park and Molineux. But it renders repeats harder: the pragmatic route to survival instead runs through Turf Moor.
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There are other reasons to wonder whether the Burnley of old remains, and not merely due to the exodus of a number of long-serving and well-respected figures behind the scenes. The incongruous presence of Maxwell Cornet may offer an injection of excitement and talent and his fine goal at Leicester represented a promising beginning, but he feels the least likely Dyche buy in a nine-year reign and this seems a curious marriage between opposites.
But in recreating a tried-and-tested strategy, the more pertinent questions may revolve around Dyche’s stalwarts. The reliance on Chris Wood, part of an elite group to reach double figures in each of the last four Premier League campaigns, has been exacerbated. Ashley Barnes retains a nuisance value but has less of a goal threat. He has struck three times in his last 35 league games, Jay Rodriguez one in 38 and Matej Vydra, though never such a logical Dyche player, three in 44. Each can cite a lack of creativity but Burnley’s goal tally dropped from 43 in 2019-20 to 33 last season; no one else has stayed up with under 35 in the last four seasons and it gives them little margin for error now.
Barnes and Rodriguez feel part of wider issues. Of the eight oldest starting 11s selected this season, six have been picked by Burnley. Last year, only Roy Hodgson’s geriatric Crystal Palace were older. Dyche was hindered by a lack of investment, particularly in 2020, but his team aged together. There have been belated signs of renewal and reinvention with the summer signings of Nathan Collins, Connor Roberts and Cornet, but if Dyche’s talismen like Ben Mee or Ashley Westwood, two more of the thirty-somethings, decline, it could come at a cost. Burnley’s brand of football is physically demanding and so far this season they have conceded eight goals after the 59th minute.
All of which could be a curiosity, an early-season quirk that will be ironed out or the sign of more serious problems. But with Brentford, Crystal Palace and Watford also due in Lancashire before Christmas, it is a defining period if an old Burnley team are to become the Burnley of old and if Turf Moor is again to prove a tough place to visit, or merely somewhere the victors claim was intimidating after they departed with the points.
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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.
By Conor Pope