Ken Early: Dyche’s fading star tracks decline of endurance game

Burnley no longer ‘tough to play against’ or any of the things people used ascribe to them

The news on Friday morning that Burnley had sacked Sean Dyche came as a surprise. After nine and a half years, Dyche was practically synonymous with Burnley; he was the longest-serving manager in the Premier League at the time of his sacking.

Who, you wondered, do Burnley’s owners expect is going to do better with Dyche’s squad? And yet, whoever it is, they couldn’t do much worse than Dyche himself had been doing in recent months. It’s been clear for a while now that Burnley are no longer “tough to play against”, “hard to beat”, or any of the other things people used to say about them. Their old defiance has ebbed away.

When they beat Everton two weeks ago, Dyche gloated that he had told his players at half-time: “I don’t think these know how to win a game, lads”. It sounded strange coming from a manager whose team had just secured their fourth win of the season – in April. Burnley promptly lost the next match to Norwich, and Burnley’s board seem to have concluded that it was now more risky to persevere with Dyche than to fire him.

Where did it all go wrong? The January sale of Chris Wood to then-relegation rivals Newcastle looked a dubious move at the time, and in hindsight seems an obvious mistake. But it might also be worth asking: how could Burnley have been so reliant on a striker who scored just 3 goals in 21 matches for them this season and who has gone on to score twice in 12 games for his new club?

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The basic problem is that Dyche’s Burnley never evolved. If they get relegated they will go back down to the Championship playing much the same game as they were playing six years ago when promoted. Dyche had a very particular vision of the sort of approach that makes sense for a club like Burnley and he stuck to it doggedly, doubling down year on year. After six seasons in the world’s most globalised league, Burnley’s squad is still based on British, Irish and Scandinavian players, like a Premier League team from 30 years ago – because Dyche believed these players were more likely to be culturally in tune with his desired ethos of no-nonsense grafting. His team fetishised strength and stubbornness, personified in the image of Dyche standing on the sideline in shirt and tie, seemingly impervious to the blizzard whipping around him.

Attritional game

In attack, Burnley always played an attritional game of volume and percentages rather than creativity and precision. With some justification, Dyche pointed to budgetary constraints, but it was also a question of emphasis. In 2020-21, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds showed how it was possible to score a lot more goals on a tight budget than Burnley had ever managed. Nobody would ever have expected Dyche to encourage the sort of all-out commitment to storming forward runs Bielsa demands of his players; the Burnley manager’s reputation was always built on pragmatism, around the idea that he knew how to get the best out of the resources at his disposal. Yet when Wout Weghorst arrived to replace Chris Wood, Burnley seemed to keep playing as though nothing had changed, even though the Dutchman, while exceptionally tall, is not aerially dominant in the same way as Wood. Weghorst had averaged a goal every two games in the Bundesliga, but managed only one in 12 matches under Dyche.

The general consensus is that Dyche will be back in the Premier League before long; surely his record of punching above his weight will eventually prove irresistible to a club in need of an experienced leader. But you wonder whether Dyche’s commitment to the traditional values of British football might not be such a great asset in a Premier League – and increasingly a Championship – where most of the clubs are owned by foreign investors who have no attachment to those traditional values.

The upwardly-mobile British coaches of the moment – Graham Potter, Eddie Howe, Brendan Rodgers – have more in common with their European contemporaries than their British forebears. The new owners all want to use data somehow to gain an edge, they all want to emulate Liverpool – or if that’s too ambitious, maybe Brighton or Brentford. These are the fashionable models. Nobody is talking about wanting to “do a Burnley”.

Has the sun truly set on all that once made the game great? One consoling note for Dyche in a bad week was the sentimental outpouring of admiration for Atletico Madrid after their chaotic defeat to Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-final. The enduring popularity of Diego Simeone proves that Dyche-types can still prosper at the highest level.

Paranoid realism

Like Dyche, Simeone sets himself against the prevailing culture, he is contemptuous of “progressive” fads and philosophies, he sees himself as serving an older, eternal order of strength, suffering, and sacrifice. The Simeone way – what you might call the school of paranoid realism – is a fanatical cult of victory at all costs and by any means necessary. And Wednesday night showed that if you sell this image hard enough, you don’t actually have to win or even look like you have the faintest hope of winning.

The really interesting question about Simeone – the one all sacked coaches would like to understand – is how he manages to hold on to his heroic reputation despite the stifling, self-defeating negativity of his teams. Notice that Simeone commits absolutely to his self-appointed role as the dark lord of anti-football. He takes this image very seriously. You will not hear him engaging in press-room jocularities about eating worms, or bantering about the latest episode of Bridgerton. If Dyche ever wants to be hero-worshipped like Simeone, it’s time to abandon all attempts to be relatable, lean all the way in, and be the purest, dourest, meanest Dyche he can be.