Last season's overachievers Burnley sit bottom of the Premier League with a single point from five games. Should they lose to fifth-placed Bournemouth at home on Saturday, it would compound their worst start to a league campaign for 90 years, and the normally ebullient Sean Dyche admits he is at a loss to explain the fog that has descended on his players.
"The fog" is the manager's own description, not meant to reference the John Carpenter film, though Dyche has taken to watching horror movies of his own in the form of replays of matches with the sound turned down. "If you cut out all the noise you can see the patterns of the game," Dyche explains. "At Wolves last week, for example, we outran them but we didn't outsprint them. It's not enough just to work hard, you have to work smart. Your eyes don't lie, especially in the cold light of day watching a re-run of a defeat. You can see you are not a million miles away but you can also see you are not close enough to get a result."
Dyche is a manager whose buzzword last year was “clarity”. He likes a simple chain of command, easily understood, and a large part of last season’s success could be put down to the fact that Burnley operated as a predictable unit, limited in their style of play perhaps but still difficult to overcome because everyone stuck to their task and supported each other. If the same players are now operating in the dark, however metaphorically, what does he think has gone wrong?
"The fog is from outside," Dyche says, sounding more John Carpenterish than ever. "The last time we had it was in the build-up to the season after we went down. There was an oddness; the players still knew what they were doing but couldn't quite find the rhythm. It's not the case that the players have forgotten what they are supposed to be about – we still have a good squad here – but even good players can have spells when it is tough."
Element of fatigue
On reflection, Dyche feels "fog" might not have been an ideal choice of word. "I couldn't think of a better one," he says. "Hangover isn't quite right either. We are not suffering a reaction to finishing seventh in the league and nor do I want to use the matches we played in Europa League qualifiers as an excuse. There might have been an element of fatigue at times because of the travelling, and the disruption of playing on Thursdays and Sundays, but I don't think my players are too tired. At Wolves we just weren't good enough and that is what we need to correct."
Burnley have been hit by injuries since breaking into the top half of the table last season. They have a squad of sufficient depth to cover most eventualities, but since losing Steven Defour and Republic of Ireland international Robbie Brady, they have been deprived of the two players most likely to provide creativity from midfield or the spark of ingenuity needed to break down top-class opponents. Both are close to returning, though not on Saturday, and Burnley will go out against Bournemouth still attempting to take the lead in a game for the first time this season. That, together with the fact that two of their meagre three goals in the league this season have been scored by James Tarkowski, a centre-half, suggests something is misfiring up front.
Chris Wood has been generally preferred to the Ashley Barnes/Sam Vokes axis this season, at some cost to the side's attacking aggression, though despite the latter pairing starting at Wolves, none of the trio have yet registered a league goal. With Jon Walters loaned to Ipswich and Aaron Lennon predictably lacking impact in the final third, the suggestion is that Burnley have no one to make life uncomfortable for defenders, with the main goal threat coming from the rangy Tarkowski at setpieces.
Dyche does not wish to be seen to be making excuses. “We wanted more players in but it was very difficult financially,” he says. “But we’ve had that before – it’s not a new thing. We were under the same constraints last season and it went all right. The thing about this season, even if it is only five games old, is that we now seem to be underdogs again, but we’ve had that before too. I would prefer not to have the tag because it means things aren’t going well, but if you look at Burnley’s history I think we can cope.
“Apart from that period about 10 years before I was born when the club was a powerhouse, we have never been favourites for anything. There’s been no lack of effort from the players, though I will admit there have been games when we have not looked our old selves. We have to stay resolute and get back to performing as a collective.” – Guardian