The Premier League Show: Is Burnley away form down to luck, or a structure and a plan?

The Premier League Show - Burnley

Take a quick glance at the statistics behind Burnley's start to the season and you will probably wonder how on earth they are in seventh place in the Premier League, just two points off the top four.

The Clarets' success has been built on some stunning results on the road, where they remain unbeaten after visits to Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton that have seen them pick up eight points so far - one more than they managed in the whole of the 2016-17 campaign.

Yet Sean Dyche's side have faced more shots (107) in those four away matches than any other top-division team in Europe's big five leagues, and they have managed only 33 themselves - ranking them 85th out of the 98 teams in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1.

Their passing and possession stats leave them near the bottom of that table too, they have made more clearances than any other team, and both of their away wins were by a one-goal margin.

Burnley away from home in 2017-18 (and ranking in Europe's top five leagues)
Premier LeaguePer game
Shots faced26.8 (98/98)
Clearances43.8 (1/98)
Possession33.9% (98/98)
Passes291 (97/98)
Passes in opposition half181.5 (90/98)
Shots on goal8.3 (85/98)

On the face of it, it would appear Burnley have just been riding their luck as they prepare to face free-scoring league leaders Manchester City at Etihad Stadium on Saturday.

Delve a little deeper, however, and more numbers emerge that give a fuller picture of the strategies that are working so well in their defence and attack.

Pat Nevin, who watched them win at Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park while commentating for BBC Radio 5 live, adds his view on why using largely the same approach as last season is now bringing increased rewards.

And Gabby Logan visited the club's Barnfield training complex for this week's Premier League Show to ask Clarets centre-back pairing Ben Mee and James Tarkowski for some insight into their improvement, and how they will get ready for City.

'You have to be willing to take a ball in the stomach or the face'

James Tarkowski stops Everton striker Oumar Niasse from shooting
Three Burnley players are in the top four for the most blocks in the Premier League this season - Tarkowski (16, 1st), Mee (15, 2nd) and central midfielder Jack Cork (12, 4th). The Clarets have made 61 blocks in total, including 43 away - the next highest team for blocks on the road are Leicester with 25. Tarkowski has made the most clearances (77), Mee has made the most headed clearances (55)

There are no statistics that show bravery, but it is clearly a characteristic that Dyche rates highly in his players, who top the table when it comes to blocking shots - and do that to 40% of the ones they face away from home.

"One of his pet hates is if you turn your back on the ball," explained Mee. "You see a lot of goals go in off people who do that, and the gaffer expects you to stand there and take the pain."

Europe's top five leagues in 2017-18 - % of shots faced in away games to
Be blockedBe from outside areaHit the target
1. Burnley (43/107) 40.2%1. Caen (23/42) 54.8%98. Alaves (9/62) 14.5%
2. Watford (13/34) 38.2%2. Inter Milan (30/55) 54.5%97. Sevilla (9/55) 16.4%
3. Sevilla (20/55) 36.4%3. Roma (27/50) 54%96. Swansea (17/80) 21.3%
4. Southampton (17/47) 36.2%4. Burnley (57/107) 53.3%95. Angers (15/69) 21.7%
5. Chievo (27/76) 35.5%5. Bologna (31/59) 52.5%94. Inter Milan (12/55) 21.8%
6. Brighton (22/62) 35.5%6. Leganes (24/46) 52.2%93. Burnley (24/107) 22.4%

His defensive partner agrees. "It is definitely something he has brought out in me," added Tarkowski, who has come into the team this season after Michael Keane left for Everton in July.

"Just to be willing to take the ball in the stomach or the face or wherever, and if it stops a goal then it all counts."

That is part of the reason why, although Burnley might face an awful lot of shots when they play away, relatively few of them hit the target.

This season, only 22% of opposition shots have forced a save from either Tom Heaton or Nick Pope in Burnley's away games, well below the normal numbers for most of the clubs they have faced, and the sixth-best figures in Europe.

% of all home PL shots to hit the target in 2017-18 (apart from v Burnley)
Team% Shots on target
*Combined total of all four teams v Burnley =24/107 = 22%
Liverpool28/60 = 47%
Chelsea13/35 = 37%
Tottenham20/62 = 32%
Everton8/33 = 24%

The fact Burnley are facing a lot of shots but not conceding a lot of goals has something to do with where other teams are shooting from too - 53% of the shots they face come from outside the area, another statistic that puts them in the top six in Europe, and a sign that often there is no way through their defence.

"There is nothing lucky about that part of Burnley's game," said Nevin. "That is down to their team structure being so clear and defined and also pretty simple.

"It does not change very much either. The same back four has started every Premier League match this season, and you can tell - they look so settled.

Burnley XI v Everton
Burnley usually line up in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Seven of their players have started every Premier League game this season - midfielders Jack Cork, Steven Defour and Robbie Brady and defenders Stephen Ward, Ben Mee, James Tarkowski and Matthew Lowton

"They are incredibly hard to break down because, positionally, they all know where they need to be and also where their team-mates are.

"They know the opposition are going to have possession and pressure, and get within shooting distance too. But as a unit, which includes their midfield, they are ready for that and in the right place when it happens."

Dyche upgrades means they are clinical up front too

Chris Wood scores Burnley's equaliser against Tottenham at Wembley
Summer signing Chris Wood had three shots for Burnley against Tottenham at Wembley in August - two were on target, and one was a goal. He has scored three league goals in total this season, earning his side four points in the process (his winner against Crystal Palace earned Burnley two points, because they would have got one for a draw)

If more detailed statistics suggest that Burnley might actually have one of the best defences in Europe, rather than one that ranks amongst the worst - then what about their attack?

Their number of shots per away game is low - even lower than last season in fact - but Nevin thinks quality counts for far more than quantity here - when it comes down to personnel and also how clear-cut the opportunity is.

A higher percentage of Burnley's shots in away games have come from inside the area than any other team in Europe - 84.9% - and the players taking them are making them count far more often than they did last season.

Burnley away from home in 2017-18 (and ranking in Europe's top five leagues)
% of shots inside area28/33 = 84.9% (1/98)
% of shots outside the area5/33 = 15.1% (98/98)
Shooting accuracy50% (=23/98)
Shot conversion rate18.2% (8/98)

"You could spend a lot of time saying their improvement in form is just down to their defence but of course it is not," Nevin said. "It comes down to a slow but sure upgrade of creativity, while keeping the understanding they have got in their team.

"When I watched them, the biggest thing that came across is that they know exactly what they want to do, they know exactly how they want to do it and they have got exactly the right individuals to carry that out.

Burnley away in the Premier League
2016-17Per game2017-18
4.7Average shots4.1
1.5Average shots on target1.8
41.8%Shooting accuracy50%
9.7%Shot conversion rate18.2%
0.68Average goals1.5

"For example, Robbie Brady's creativity is fantastic, and up there with the very best in the Premier League. He does not create as many chances as some players because Burnley do not spend as much time up the field but the key thing here is that, when he gets the opportunities, the ball is delivered into the right places.

"The amount of possession they have makes absolutely no difference to them because with their structure and organisation, they have got that belief that they can hold out - but they also believe they will get a few good chances to score themselves.

"They have shown they've got the quality to take one of them too, because they are scoring some brilliant goals, like Stephen Ward's against Chelsea and Jeff Hendrick against Everton."

Burnley goal
Burnley's winner at Everton saw them play 24 passes before Jeff Hendrick (13) met a pull-back by Stephen Ward (23) to find the net

Away form - from abysmal to awesome, but not overnight

Burnley only took the lead once in their first 12 away matches last season - in a 2-1 defeat at Spurs on 18 December - and their first away win came at the 18th attempt, against Crystal Palace on 29 April.

But their improvement has not been as sudden as it might seem.

On their early trips following their promotion, they suffered several heavy defeats - in four of their first six away matches in 2016-17, they conceded three goals or more and did not score in five of them.

From the turn of the year until the end of last season, however, they lost only one game by more than one goal and began to grasp the knack of nicking a goal, then a point - then more.

Burnley away in the Premier League
DatePWDLFAPTS
13 Aug - 31 Dec 201680172181
01 Jan - 8 Apr 201780357123
9 Apr - 01 Oct 2017732213611

"There was a time last season when we were not playing that badly, but we still had nothing to show for it," says Tarkowski, who feels confidence and experience are the biggest factor in his side's recent upturn in away form.

"Now, after the good results we have had, when we go to places like the Etihad, we go there expecting to do well and get something. We are definitely not scared of going anywhere."

That lack of fear is mainly down to Dyche, according to Mee.

"Us having the right mentality is a massive thing for him," he explained. "One of the things he says to us when we play the top teams is that we have to focus, but it is just another game - and what is the worst that can happen?"

An attention to detail, that does not rely on luck

Burnley manager Sean Dyche
A state of mind - there is evidence of Dyche's ethos on the walls of Burnley's training base

Everything Dyche does is designed to give his side the best chance of winning, and he goes the extra mile when they are away from Turf Moor - as Nevin observed before the Everton match on 1 October.

"I watched him walk purposely from the half-way line to the corner of the penalty area, clearly counting his steps, and then he turned and did the same from the 18-yard line to the touchline," Nevin explained.

"He was working out the dimensions of the whole pitch, because of how that might tire his players out and mean a slightly different selection late in the game - it can make a big difference.

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Do big pitches lead to late goals?

"You cannot always take it as read that the pitch size is what the club says it is, so he actually went out and measured it himself - I wanted to stand up and applaud him, and that was before the match.

"I asked the Burnley stats team, and he does it before every away match. That shows you the level of preparation that Dyche puts into games, and it is another reason I am not putting their form down to luck, although it obviously always helps to have some.

"Yes, they have enjoyed a bit of good fortune - look at how Chelsea ended up with nine men against them on the opening day of the season.

"But when fate is on your side you have to use it, and they have done that absolutely brilliantly so far.

"The fact that they are only winning games by the odd goal suggests to me it will not carry on all season but they are certainly giving themselves the best possible chance."

Playing Man City - 'our toughest challenge yet'

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Guardiola hails 'best performance' of City reign

Burnley's next road trip is a short hop down the M66 to Etihad Stadium for what Manchester-born Tarkowski, a boyhood United fan, describes as "probably our toughest challenge yet".

The former Oldham and Brentford defender said: "We sort of embrace these occasions - going to big stadiums, and playing against some of the best players around - and so far we have come out on top."

Mee, another Mancunian who began his career at City, added: "We will work as hard as we can like we always do and see what happens but I don't think anyone expects us to go there and get anything. We have got nothing to lose."

Nevin agrees - and he does not think a defeat will knock Burnley out of their stride either, no matter how heavy.

"Nobody has given them a hammering yet and although this game might be different that will have nothing to do with them, and everything to do with City being extraordinary," he said.

"Whatever happens on Saturday, I think they will get over it.

"I do not see it as a test for where Burnley are at because City are so far above everyone else that I would honestly not worry about it - it is a shot to nothing, if you like, and I am willing to bet that Dyche feels the same way."

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