It’s safe to say Burnley won’t appear in Europe next year. Despite languishing 19th in the table, they’re also not sure bets for relegation because the Premier League has quite a few bad teams. A team like Burnley — I repeat: Burnley — finishing, say, 17th is not an obviously interesting story. That is where teams that are neither tremendously dysfunctional nor wholly out of their depths often finish in the Premier League.
Enter Sean Dyche. Footballing circles, especially those of the statistical persuasion, have spent the last few years getting dragged into debates about the manager’s team. During their stints in the Premier League, Dyche’s teams have been wont to outperform their underlying numbers. Could they being doing something advanced models don’t pick up on? Probably not, but inquisitive minds can’t leave it at that. And what if they did? Every win or setback for the team therefore becomes a referendum on the existence and nature of The Burnley Effect.
It’s not hard to understand how we get here. Debating the existence of magic is sexier than the tedium of squad construction. In all the talk about what this season’s relative fall from grace means for The Burnley Effect, though, more mundane explanations for the team’s indifferent performances have fallen by the wayside. Alternately hypotheses are not necessarily mutually exclusive with the existence of a Burnley Effect. Lots of things can be wrong with a team that maybe also does things expected goals models undervalue. Before debating Burnley’s supposedly magical defence and why it’s gone missing this season, we should probably work through the more obvious problems with this team.
Kieran Trippier, Michael Keane, and Danny Ings have all moved on to greener pastures. (Well, Liverpool loaned Ings out to Southampton, but still!) In some cases, replacements have been conjured out of thin air: James Tarkowski arriving for a pittance has made the loss of Keane tolerable. In other cases….
Some of this is economics. Burnley, as one of the Premier League’s less wealthy team, has chosen to invest in infrastructure instead of players. But that leaves them with a moderate talent drain and additions like Aaron Lennon, Steven Defour and Jack Cork, who are useful but don’t change the team’s talent situation. Burnley, in other words, has worked very hard not to get worse for the last five years. They’re in a situation where good coaching doesn’t preclude spending time around the bottom five of the Premier League.
Burnley has regularly fielded some of the 2018-19 Premier League’s oldest sides. (Along with Brighton and Watford, they account for all but one of the 25 oldest XIs this season.) Instead of mixing youngsters and veterans, the team gets to its average age of 29 by fielding a mass of players aged 28, 29, and 30. Its youth contingent is often just left-back Charlie Taylor (25) and striker Chris Wood (26).
The team’s profile suggests that many of its players are still useful but on the tail-end of their primes. A good coach can still get something out of such a team, but it’s hardly a surprise if players in this age range start experiencing marginal losses in physical ability. The uniform age of Burnley’s squad, moreover, means that downside risk is spread across the entire team. (Watford, on the other hand, fielded five players aged 27 or younger in its oldest squad, but they were playing alongside 34-year-old left back José Holebas and, in a position that ages differently, 35-year-old goalkeeper Ben Foster.) All of this can be related to the previous talent point, insofar as Burnley has sold its young performers and profited by bringing in older facsimiles. The deeper resemblance, though, is that it’s a picture of a team working very hard to not get worse.
This one isn’t complicated. Burnley have two goalkeepers and they also have Joe Hart. Joe Hart has not been a good goalkeeper for many years. But Burnley, due to injuries and their own decision to sign him, have started Joe Hart 14 times in the Premier League this season. In those matches he’s conceded 25 goals, which…yikes? This may not be unrelated to whatever the rest of the team is doing, but StatsBomb’s calculation of Goals Saved Against Average also suggests that Hart (-1.0%) has been slightly below par. By the same metric last season, Burnley goalkeepers Tom Heaton (9.8%) and Nick Pope (7.6%) were both much better. Before staging a referendum on the Burnley Effect, then, it’s worth remembering that starting Joe Hart — who is in fact and talent a third-string keeper at this point in his career — has been an issue.
The story of Burnley’s defence is complicated and nuanced. The same cannot be said for its attack. Nobody claims that Sean Dyche is an offensive wizard. Last season Burnley generated 0.95 expected goals per 90 minutes…and scored 0.95 goals per game. These were low totals achieved extremely inefficiently, but the goals came at the right time and the defence made them count, so they were just good enough. There was no indication that Burnley would get better at putting the ball in the net this season.
And they haven’t! Oooooooooooh boy have they not, in fact. Through 15 matches, Burnley are averaging a league-worst 0.75 expected goals per 90 minutes. Only Brighton are lower. Other teams in the relegation zone were faring better. Thus far, Burnley’s saving grace is that it has scored 14 goals against 11 expected goals. This sort of over-performance has been needed just to approximate last season’s paltry scoring level. The attack is bad, and it’s unlikely that it’ll continue to overperform its underlying numbers. Forwards Sam Vokes, Matej Vydra and Ashley Barnes all have goal totals that are between 150 and 200% of their expected goals totals, and none of them have the pedigree to suggest they’ll do better than expected goals in the long run. Chris Wood is the only forward who isn’t running hot right now. A slight uptick in form on his part, however, would hardly fix Burnley’s problems. This is a bad, inefficient attack — as it has been for quite some time.
It is likely not a mystery to Sean Dyche that his team is not an attacking powerhouse. His tactics reflect this. Throughout his tenure, the platonic ideal of a Burnley match has been one where his team takes the lead and then protects it, thereby obviating the need to score any other goals. Paradoxically, this strategy requires Burnley’s attacking players, who are few and not very good, to score first. Put otherwise: How often can a group generating a near to league-worst 0.75 expected goals per 90 minutes be expected to open scoring?
If your answer to that question was “you can barely expect Burnley to score in 90 minutes, never mind before any other team in a league where they have the worst attack,” you have spotted the issue with this year’s team.
Even with a less impressive defence, Sean Dyche’s tactics still depend on his team scoring first. They haven’t recorded a single point in the Premier League when opponents score first. All but two of their points have come from matches where they score first. The two stray points were nil-nil draws.
What’s gone wrong? Luck plays a part: Burnley converted some low-value shots early in games last season and has not done that much of late. This, however, is mainly a talent story. Burnley rarely takes an early lead — or any lead, for that matter — because that would require players capable of generating good chances. Burnley is generating 0.08 expected goals per shot, taking very few shots (8.5/90 minutes), and counting on bad attackers to make something of those chances. Of course they don’t take many leads. (Again, this is all happening while many of Burnley’s players — and the team as a whole — overperforms expected goals.)
Burnley’s attack was never good, but this year’s decline has made what was always a difficult balancing act nearly impossible. For good measure, having to chase games more often is unlikely to have done the defence any favours.
Even last year, which is held up as Peak Burnley, saw the team go winless for more than two months. This had a negligible on Burnley’s spot in the league standing because the team had enjoyed a good start to the season and other sides were in strange forms of disarray. It also helped that Burnley’s underlying numbers, while rarely great, were better. Still, it can be helpful to remember that Burnley has only produced a few good Premier League months in the Sean Dyche era. This context can help clarify our questions about this year’s team. Europa League Burnley isn’t coming back; the real question is if the team that does enough to not get relegated is still out there.