If you just look at their shot numbers, you would think that Burnley were a very bad side, perhaps deserving of relegation. Were you to have their style of play described to you, you may also feel the same. On average, they are outshot by a large 8.4 shots and 2.4 shots on target per game, stats which are most readily comparable with Sunderland or Hull. Those two teams are are mired in a relegation battle while Burnley are looking like they’ll finish the season safely in mid-table, with a small chance at the top half. What’s the difference?
Essentially, Burnley play a well-drilled version of a typical counter-attacking 4-4-2, on both sides of the ball. Their defence has either been pretty good or pretty lucky, or more likely a bit of both – their opponents have converted just 7.8% of their shots (league average around 10%), and just 25% of their shots on target (league average around 33%). These are both the 2nd best rates in the league.
Data from Stratagem, counting men between the ball and the goal when a shot is struck, make Burnley stick out like a sore thumb and adds a layer to explain here. In Stratagem’s sample for this Premier League season, around 14% of shots have fewer than two defenders between the place the shot is taken and the goal, and another 14% has more than 4 defensive players. All the other shots (72%) fit between these two parameters and have two, three or four defenders between the shooter and the goal.
For Burnley, they’re rarely caught short, with only 9.3% of the chances they concede occurring when there are fewer than 2 players between shooter and the width of the goal. On the other side of things, they’ve packed the defence with 5 or more players on 19.38% of occasions. The closest team to them on this count is Manchester United, on 15.68%; Burnley are leading by a distance.
However, when this is divided up by the area that the chance is taken from, something strange happens. Though Burnley are still at the head of the pack for percentage of chances conceded in the danger zone with a packed defence, their lead is slashed. Sean Dyche’s side are packing the box against chances 10.14% of the time (nearly double the league average of just over 5%), but they’re closely followed by Sunderland on 9.09% and Southampton on 8.97%. It looks as though these are just teams who play a deep defensive line and have decent defensive coaches at the club.
Where Burnley stand out as truly bizarre are shots from the wide areas of the box, outside of the width of the six-yard box. On average, and probably to do with the angle these shots are taken at, the league has five or more men between shot and goal on 4.37% of occasions. The second highest rate belongs to Middlesbrough, on 8.33%.
Burnley’s figure is double that at 16.67%. Sixteen.
Similarly, in terms of getting caught short, Burnley are freaks again – getting only one or no men in place for a potential block just 1.67% of the time, far below the league average of 14.33%. The figures are just too wildly different to purely be chance, and while part of it may be due to the tight narrowness that the back four often takes when they move back towards their own box, this is a common enough feature of Premier League sides. Burnley may do it better than the rest – their wingers do work exceptionally hard, allowing the full-backs to keep narrow – but it seems like there’s likely something else at play here too. As we can see here, Burnley look like they’ve worked on blocking shots at training – or, to be more precise, they look like they’ve worked on taking deliberate actions to make the frame of the goal as small as possible to opponents.
(Video shows several examples of Burnley defenders moving within the line of the post as opponents shape to take shots)
The theory is that Burnley are positioning themselves in places which direct shots towards Heaton, with keeper and defenders deliberately working in tandem to make lives easier for themselves rather than trying to throw any body possible in front of the shot. If executed properly, this method could also cut down on the chance of deflections past the keeper while and gives Heaton more time to see the shot coming and react quickly.
The huge disparity between the 17% figure for Burnley and the rest of the league, who are hovering more than ten percentage points further down, heavily implies that something deliberate is happening. It could also be true that this may also be in play for more central shots, but that it isn’t quite being picked up in the data, and that this may be something not picked up in the expected goals data too.
The conversion rate for shots Burnley concede from this area is certainly low enough, at just 13.58%, with the league conceding at a rate of 18.53%, and it’s in this central area where Burnley’s overall defensive skew is coming from, as they concede at a roughly average rate from the wider areas of the box.
There are a couple of other features which are relevant too. Tom Heaton is obviously a good keeper who has a good understanding with his defence and is quick to move off his line to collect a loose ball when he has to. It may also be worth noting that Burnley’s back five combined, have played 95.53% of available league minutes this season. A level of understanding built from consistent game time can be a great benefit.
As well as being virtually ever-present, Burnley’s defence is also clearly well-drilled. While their frame-squeezing techniques are a feature, it goes wider than this, and the fact that they are 2nd in the league for the number of offsides played (2.7 per game) is an illustration. The teams they are behind or roughly level with here are Manchester United, Manchester City, and Arsenal, all sides who play a significantly higher line than they do.
While Burnley’s attack is converting shots at virtually a dead-on-average rate for both shots and shots on target (10.76% and 31.76%), they’re still ahead of expected goals. James wrote in a recent round-up that
‘…they are scoring from range at a rate over expectation higher than any team in the Premier League this decade. If I tell you Liverpool and Manchester City 2013-14 are ranked two and three in this list, it becomes clear what kind of attacking overperformance this is: spectacular and unsustainable’.
As if to spite him, Burnley got their next goal against Chelsea direct from a free-kick.
Closer to goal, perhaps Burnley are doing something a little more sustainable. Per Stratagem, Burnley are taking shots in the danger zone with fewer than two men between the shooter and the goal for 33.3% of the time, which is the third highest rate in the league, behind only Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. The volume isn’t high, but it looks like efficient counter-attacking.
They have an uncanny knack of picking up second balls and, after receiving them, finding a teammate under less pressure – both giving them room to breathe in attack and helping prevent giving the ball up and returning to the back foot again. There are probably other little things Burnley do to maximise their attacking chances, but one can only bear to watch so much of them for unpaid (or even, probably, paid) analysis.
When Sean Dyche goes on his rants for respect, he generally draws attention to the fact that he’s made his players work harder and run more, and they’re doing the same kind of things that in-fashion foreign managers like Klopp get their team to do. I think this is deflecting. For one, although running data aren’t publicly available for high-intensity analysis, if Burnley were running faster, harder, and longer than anyone else then I suspect it would have been brought up by now. For the other, Dyche seems like he has intelligently worked on techniques to coach the best out of a fairly run-of-the-mill 4-4-2 and fairly run-of-the-mill players. And while they have probably got a bit of unsustainability going their way on both sides of the ball, there is enough about their play this season to suggest that their style and methods are making a genuine impact.