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There’s Good Luck, There’s Bad Luck, and Then There’s Burnley

Under manager Sean Dyche, the club has outperformed its underlying statistics in each of the past four seasons. With the Clarets sitting in seventh place, is the bottom about to fall out? Or is Dyche actually a magician?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In early March, Burnley manager Sean Dyche welcomed a Sky Sports crew up to the club’s training facility on the grounds of Gawthorpe Hall, an Elizabethan country house in the northwest of England. Perhaps the interview was scheduled well in advance, back in the salad days of mid-November, when the club sat tied for sixth in the 20-team table. But at the time of the conversation, Burnley hadn’t won a game since December 12. The interviewer was (weirdly) Alastair Campbell, a prominent Burnley fan and former press secretary and strategist for Tony Blair, and he attempted to tiptoe around the issue: “You know, we’ve had this not-so-great run.”

“You can use the word ‘bad run,’ you know.” Dyche said. “I’m not scared of it.”

“I don’t think it’s that bad a run.”

“It’s bad enough results-wise. Not performance-wise, to be fair. But performances don’t get judged. Just results.”

Typically, that’d be an unspectacular statement. Any Premier League manager knows that in a low-event sport like soccer, “playing well” doesn’t always equate with winning — even if the majority of the daily media coverage still looks through the lens of the result. Except, over the past two seasons, Dyche hasn’t been the one getting smited by misfortune. Instead, he’s turned Burnley, who have won five in a row and currently sit in seventh place, into the masters of getting results no matter what their performances say.

Teams win games by scoring more goals than their opponent. Typically, if a team takes more shots than the other team, they will win. Better still: If they get more shots on target, per a study by the soccer consultancy 21st Club, they will win around 60 percent of the games they play. It’s the same thinking behind expected goals (xG), the stat that takes years of historical data and awards a conversion probability to every shot attempted in a match. To play well, then, is to create a larger sum of quality chances than your opponent.

By that definition, Burnley haven’t played well at all. They’ve conceded more shots than any team in the Premier League this year. They’ve allowed the 10th most expected goals, and they’ve created the second fewest. Given the historical conversion rates for the chances Dyche’s team has created and conceded in each game, they would, on average, be expected to come out with something around 35 points. Instead, they’ve got 52. That’s the biggest discrepancy in the league — one that lifts them from a relegation fight all the way up to a potential spot in next season’s Europa League.

In each of the past four seasons — three in the Premier League, one in the Championship — Dyche’s defense has given up fewer goals than expected. This year, they’ve allowed only 29 goals — third fewest in the league and nearly 17 fewer goals than their xG number. That wild discrepancy won’t persist, but multiple analysts who have worked with Premier League clubs told me that Burnley are, in fact, playing in a way that does fool the numbers at the margins.

“It’s actually pretty obvious once you know where to look,” said Chris Anderson, coauthor of The Numbers Game and a football industry strategy and investment consultant based in London. “It’s really about a couple of things: defending extremely well and as a group, maximizing the number of players between the shooter and the goalie, and plenty of players behind the goalkeeper on the regular.”

Just look at how deep the center backs drop on this attempt from Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero. Ben Mee is actually behind keeper Nick Pope when Aguero shoots:

Or take this chance from Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez from last weekend’s 2–1 Burnley win. It gets awarded 0.25 xG (meaning, it gets converted 25 percent of the time), but watch how the first defender puts pressure on the shot, and how his two covering defenders drop into the goal mouth. Although Mahrez makes a long run into the box, the ultimate positioning of Burnley’s defenders encourages Mahrez to try to force a shot through the legs of Kevin Long. If that doesn’t look like a 1-in-4 chance, it’s because it probably isn’t:

“The way it is designed is to put a player in a position that it is statistically, visually and from experience, harder to score from,” Dyche told Rory Smith of The New York Times. “Or to allow the team to defend more bravely, to step out of their positions to move towards the ball because they know they have cover. It is to make a chance less of a chance.”

Burnley play a cohesive, low-block style that goads opponents into taking long-range shots — think an NBA team clogging up the lane and openly conceding midrange jumpers. Despite giving up so many attempts, they’ve allowed the fourth-fewest big chances (defined by data company Opta as “a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score”) in the league. They lead the league in blocks and are second in clearances.

Back in his playing days as a central defender, Dyche was famously fastidious about his own positioning. He would count off the number of steps between his own penalty box and the sideline before each game since there’s no universal field size. Upon taking the Burnley job in 2012, Dyche made his players study tape of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona teams — but not so they could learn how to pass their opponents to death. No, as Dyche told Smith, “only watching what they did off the ball.”

Of all the teams that avoided relegation from the Premier League last season, Burnley recorded the lowest overall revenue. This is the club’s first two-year run in the top flight of English soccer since 1974. Per Transfermarkt, only three teams — two promoted sides (Huddersfield and Brighton) and Bournemouth — have less valuable squads. So, given the lack of resources, it makes sense for Dyche to be so focused on defense. (Burnley have scored only 33 goals in 33 games.) After all, as Anderson discovered by analyzing Premier League data from 2000 to 2010 in The Numbers Game, not conceding a goal is more valuable than scoring one.

From a certain angle, Dyche and Burnley do look like a team yearning for a bygone era of English soccer, when everyone in the league was still British, long balls were the only ball, and the winner was supposed to be the side who, as the saying goes, got more stuck in. Dyche has publicly claimed that he’d be a more respected manager if he had a foreign accent. “I saw [Manchester City midfielder Samir] Nasri talking about the diet that Pep has brought in,” he said before last season. “He’s stopped pizza, he’s a genius already in my view.” In the interview with Sky Sports, he makes a joke about how no one wears black cleats anymore. A former teammate claimed Dyche used to eat worms during practice.

As for the team itself, a nonwhite player didn’t appear for Dyche’s side until mid-January. Other than Georges-Kévin N’Koudou and Steven Defour, everyone on the roster is either from the British Isles, Scandinavia, or New Zealand. Players aren’t allowed to wear pants, hats, or gloves at training. Headphones aren’t allowed on road trips, and if someone commits a minor infraction — i.e., wearing the wrong socks — he might be forced to dress up like Elvis and perform a song in front of the whole team.

For all of its uncomfortable reminders of Brexit and rigid masculinity, Dyche at least has a clear plan for the players he wants and how he wants them to play. In a Premier League season that’s been characterized by underachievement and instability — other than the top six and the three promoted teams, Dyche and Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe are the only managers not to be fired this season — Burnley stand out just because they’ve chosen to stick to something.

“In our game I see a shortsightedness and lack of forward planning when it comes to managerial appointments or dismissals, transfer spending and wages,” wrote Brighton fullback Liam Rosenior, who has a column at The Guardian. He continued: “None of these accusations can be levelled at Burnley, who have been building their football club from the bottom up on solid foundations, with an emphasis on budget and signing players with a similar mentality and pay packet. Not to mention giving a talented manager both time and autonomy to implement his ideas in the medium and long term. It is no coincidence they are at the upper echelons of our league.”

But having a plan, of course, isn’t the end — just a means to achieving it.

“I think we can attribute a little of Burnley’s success to them having some sort of plan, but only a little,” said Luis Usier, an analyst at 21st Club. “We have seen other clubs have plans in recent years, such as Swansea and Stoke and passing football, West Brom and Middlesbrough with defensive football, Southampton with attractive football and youth development, but all these teams eventually declined and were either relegated or very close to relegation. Burnley themselves weren’t that far from being relegated last season.”

Plus, all plans have to evolve as opponents and conditions adjust. Pope, Burnley’s keeper, is having a lights-out season, but he might never play this well again. And while the Dyche-ian style of play does lead to overachievement on the defensive end, the team is likely to see more shots end up in the back of their net next season. Things like expected goals or even just aggregate shots numbers can serve a simple, useful function, which Dyche alludes to in his chat with Campbell: They help a manager understand when his team is getting screwed by chance. The harder part, though, is the reality for Dyche and Burnley.

“From experience, clubs are usually very receptive to the idea that they have been unlucky, but less receptive to the idea that they’ve been lucky,” Usier said. “I think this is natural in all walks of life — people like to believe that they have the right process.”

Advanced stats via Understat.