As attention turns to domestic football once again, this weekend sees the Premier League’s rock bottom side, West Bromwich Albion, face a difficult clash as they take on seventh-placed Burnley at The Hawthorns.
The Saturday afternoon encounter promises to be a yet another tough test for Jonny Evans and Ahmed Hegazi, the duo at the heart of Alan Pardew’s overworked and under-protected four-man defence.
Indeed, despite being an almost insurmountable ten points from safety, the Baggies rank 14th in terms of goals conceded and only eight goalkeepers in the division have kept more than Ben Foster’s tally of ten clean sheets thus far.
That record is due in no small part to the unit ahead of him, who undoubtedly retain many of the principles instilled during Tony Pulis’ two-year stint at the club. There has certainly been some fine defending from the Albion duo, who average just 2.8 tackles between them per 90 minutes, instead preferring to read the play and anticipate their opponents next move.
They have made an average of 3.6 interceptions and 11.9 clearances per outing, the latter perhaps highlighting the desperate environment they find themselves in. Evans in particular has been lauded for his play, with a number of top clubs believed to be interested in signing the former Manchester United man should Albion fail to avoid the drop.
It has been widely reported that his current contract – which expires in June 2019 and pays the Northern Ireland international £45,000 per week – contains a buyout fee of just £3million if the club are eventually relegated. That has sparked rumours of Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Celtic expressing their desire to move for him, while both Arsenal and Manchester City failed with bids to sign him during the January transfer window.
For all the good play seen from Evans and Hegazi this term however, there is a case to be made that their next opponents have been even better. Only Manchester City (20), United (23) and Tottenham (25) have allowed fewer goals than Burnley’s current tally of 26, and they have not conceded more than one goal in any of their last eight matches.
That includes meetings against both Manchester clubs, with the form of Ben Mee and James Tarkowski central to that effort. The defensive duo have averaged more tackles (2.9) and clearances (14.6) than their West Brom counterparts, but make fewer interceptions (2.7) per 90 minutes.
Another area in which they outshine Saturday’s rivals is in terms of discipline. Evans and Hegazi have committed 1.7 fouls per game and collected ten yellow cards, while the Burnley pair combine for just 1.2 offences per 90 minutes and have been booked eight times altogether. That allows them to concede fewer free kicks in dangerous areas, their attention to detail in the middle of Burnley’s back four a major factor in that excellent defensive record.
Tarkowski has been singled out for his superb form, resulting in him making his full England debut on Tuesday night against Italy and his manager – who looked on as the 25-year-old slotted into an unfamiliar role in a three-man defence – expects him to improve even further still as a result.
“There's more to come from him, I believe, both for us and England possibly and I think he's a very good player,” Sean Dyche told reporters this week.
“I was really pleased. I don't think it's easy anyway to play for England. I don't think it's easy to play for England on your debut at home. I don't think it's easy to play in a back three and I don't think it's easy to play on the left of a three.
“When you add all of that in, with the new group etc I thought he did very good. Nice and calm, played steady, organised when he needed to be. He did the basics very well and just kept his simplicity.”
That has been a hallmark of Burnley’s play all season, and they have been rewarded for their solid displays at the back with international recognition and the club’s lofty league position. Evans and Hegazi have toiled away selflessly for West Brom and cannot say the same, making for an intriguing head-to-head battle this coming weekend.