We continue our Premier League team previews with Burnley, who Alex Keble believes will struggle to get another top ten finish...
"The next couple of months of the transfer window could prove decisive. If James Tarkowski and Dwight McNeil were to leave, Burnley could be in trouble."
Burnley are expected to complete another satisfactory mid-table finish in 2020/21, their fifth consecutive season in the Premier League, with Sean Dyche as ever finding a way to build year on year at Turf Moor. It is worth noting that despite coming 10th last season, they recorded the same points tally (54) as in their 2017/18 Europa League qualifying campaign.
But mid-table obscurity is always more precarious than it seems, and Burnley would not be the first supposedly safe Premier League club to suddenly drop into the bottom three. It only takes a slight drop in performance level, then motivation, for the narrative to shift and a club of Burnley's stature to become embroiled in a fight for survival.
And so the next couple of months of the transfer window could prove decisive. If James Tarkowski and Dwight McNeil were to leave, Burnley could be in trouble.
State of play
Few Premier League clubs can match Burnley for stability and consistency. Dyche, who has been their manager since 2012, continues to play an aggressive, robust 4-4-2 that is often mischaracterised as a throwback to a more brutish British football of the past. Instead, Burnley are closer to the modern Atletico Madrid when at their best, combining a furiously compact midblock with targeted pressing.
There are certainly more long balls and crosses than a Diego Simeone side, but most of the tactical work is intelligent and modern. That's why Burnley are never found out, and why they can generally rely on solid defensive foundations to grind out points and keep them away from the relegation zone. It is by far the most likely outcome for the 2020/21 season. They are rightly 1/10 to finish outside the top ten, and 9/2 to finish in the top ten.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Ben Mee and James Tarkowski form a superb centre-back partnership that makes Burnley so difficult to play against; the team concede a lot of shots, which isn't surprising given their lack of technical quality in midfield and the amount of possession conceded to the opposition, but they make the second most blocks in the division (behind Aston Villa). Those centre-backs work incredibly hard to secure typical 1-0 wins.
The other key strength is up front, where Chris Wood, Ashley Barnes, and Jay Rodriguez rotate to great effect, getting on the end of crosses or exchanging passes with one another via towering headers - a direct consequence of Burnley repeating set moves again and again. They know exactly where to find each other.
Burnley continue to struggle to upgrade in central midfield, however, and since there is no room in Dyche's system for a more graceful, roaming playmaker they are not going to develop into a free-scoring team anytime soon. This becomes a notable weakness when confidence dips, as in their relegation battle in 2018/19 and the first half of 2019/20.
Holding onto Tarkowski, McNeil, and Nick Pope is the biggest priority this summer. They've already lost Jeff Hendrick, who started 22 league games last season, to Newcastle United, and with the pandemic hitting clubs of Burnley's size particularly hard it is possible they will be forced to let go of some star players.
Not many new faces will be arriving. Burnley have been linked with a few Championship players, namely Nottingham Forest's Matty Cash and QPR's Bright Osayi-Samuel, but even these two are probably too costly. Burnley spend around £9 million per year on players, which gets you very little in the current market.
What supporters expect
Another top-ten finish would be deemed a huge success, and Burnley fans are pragmatic enough to be satisfied simply with avoiding the stress of a relegation battle. Their expectations would obviously shift if the club lost Tarkowski and McNeil, however, and indeed the huge financial ramifications of Covid-19 means Burnley just need to stay afloat in the Premier League for another year (they are trading at 4/15.0 in the Relegation market).
Look out for...
Josh Brownhill making a mark: Signed for £9 million in January from Bristol City, midfielder Josh Brownhill struggled to make much of an impact and ended up starting just nine league games for the club. Given that the 24-year-old can play on the right and centre of midfield, he will need to step up now that Hendrick has left for Newcastle.
Dyche has a history of spending poorly, wasting a club-record £15 million on Ben Gibson, £11 million on Matej Vydra, and £5 million on Nahki Wells. It is beginning to look like a serious flaw of Dyche's that will damage his post-Burnley career. He needs Brownhill to come good.