As the Premier League suspension continues, we are reviewing every Premier League club's 2019/20 season so far, and next up is Burnley's quietly impressive campaign...
There have been moments during the 2019/20 Premier League season when the mainstream analysis argued that Burnley were reaching the end of their time in the top flight. The theory suggested they were going stale under Sean Dyche, his eight-year project having been slowly undermined by a lack of investment.
But the real reason for that interpretation is the fickleness of the football industry, which runs on the sort of short-termism that makes Burnley's erratic results vulnerable to alarmist thinking. On three separate occasions this season the Clarets have lost three league games in a row.
Some have responded by assuming the worst, and yet when the league was suspended earlier this month Burnley were on course for a 51-point season - just three fewer than in 2017/18, when they finished seventh.
Though flying under the radar, it has been a quietly successful year for Dyche's team.
Season so far
Burnley's style of football is well documented, or at least the parody of it is. Dyche's 4-4-2 does include a lot of long balls forward for the knock down, a lot of battling for the second balls, and a lot of crosses from out wide, but there is more nuance than many people think. They have needed all of the manager's nous to battle through the rough patches this season.
From detailed analysis of opposition weaknesses to engaging a high press when playing non-'big six' sides, Burnley's approach is progressive and proactive. They, like so many unfashionable Premier League clubs, are largely only seen by the public in televised games against the elite clubs when a more defensive attitude is taken, hence the perception of negative, out-dated football.
This year has been defined by Dwight McNeil's rise to the fore, with his diagonal runs infield making Burnley's formation even narrower. The idea is to win the ball in central areas - either from a long ball or pressing the opposition - and then work it patiently out wide for a cross into the forwards.
At times in 2018/19, the strikers have badly struggled in front of goal, but if they were more clinical then McNeil would have shot Burnley into European contention. The winger ranks among the Premier League's top five players for xG chances created.
Aside from this tweak, it has been business as usual for the most part, securing narrow wins against bottom-half opponents and getting thumped by the big boys. However, when the hiatus struck Burnley were on a seven-game unbeaten run that included an impressive win at Old Trafford.
It's worth returning to McNeil, whose influence was only just getting the attention it deserved when play stopped. The 20-year-old, who started every league game, tops the Burnley charts for key passes (1.5 per game), dribbles completed (2.1 per game), crosses completed (1.8 per game), and assists (five).
His partnership on with left-back Charlie Taylor has been a joy to watch, as has the growing influence of Jay Rodriguez. On the pitch, a 2-0 win at Manchester United ended Burnley's abysmal run against the big teams (more on that later) and consolidated an upturn in form that has changed the narrative of their season.
Goals from Chris Wood and Rodriguez either side of half-time earned Burnley a well-deserved three points, their first at Old Trafford since 1962. The fans won't forget it anytime soon.
Buoyed by such good form, a month later the Clarets were unlucky to only draw 1-1 with Spurs in a performance that could mark a turning point. Burnley were aggressive, pressing high up the pitch and keeping Spurs under the cosh for long periods, amassing 21 shots.
Prior to these couple of games, Burnley's record against 'Big Six' opponents read: played eight lost eight, with an aggregate score of 25-5. All of these contests were lowlights, but special mention goes to a 5-0 loss at Tottenham in a game that actually made Jose Mourinho's team look coherent.
But it wasn't the worst performance of the season. They lost 3-0 at Sheffield United in November with 54% possession and failed to register a single shot on target. It was the third defeat in a row, plunging the club into a relegation battle and, after a lifeless performance, leading to the first tentative suggestions Dyche's powers were waning.
What they can achieve in 19/20
Such is the bizarre nature of the Premier League table this year Burnley are only five points behind Manchester United in fifth, which could yet be a Champions League place for next season. But it would be naïve to assume they can overhaul the large number of clubs ahead of them. Instead Burnley's realistic target is a top ten finish, priced at2.80 with Betfair Exchange.
A top six finish, at3.55, is unlikely to be achieved, and yet to finish seventh would equal the 2017/18 record nobody thought would happen again. It is within their grasp.
What next: Summer transfers & 2020/21
Dyche hasn't been able to implement the club's big-money signings in recent years - Josh Brownhill, signed for around £8 million from Bristol City, has barely featured - and that surely has to change soon. Burnley could do with a new central midfielder, yet the most pressing concern is how to replace McNeil.
The young winger will be in high demand and a club of Burnley's size won't be able to turn down a big offer. Get a new dribbler on the left, and complimenting him with a better goalscorer, would give Burnley a fighting chance of holding ground in the top ten.
Dyche's Burnley remain a unique club, one continually punching above their weight with a brand of football that is wrongly labelled old-fashioned - and wrongly perceived as dull. Direct football, when organised as well as theirs, can be great fun to watch; towering headers and aggressive tackling are entertaining when done right.
Their 2019/20 campaign has been a big success so far, in terms of points won, and, in the midst of a purple patch when the football was suspended, Burnley can look forward to a strong end to the campaign if things get back underway.