Sean Dyche is one of the more divisive managers in the Premier League today. Unlike many of his peers, who are pilloried or lauded depending upon the style and results associated with their football, he stands alone as both hero and villain.
There are so many reasons to like what he has done. He has taken Burnley, a team that previously tended to settle in and around the lower reaches of the Championship, into exciting new terrain.
This progress has been achieved sustainably over five years in which Dyche has shown total loyalty to the club and has spent modestly – his net spend during this time period is just over £30million, which pales in comparison to the five-year spends of most managers in the English top flight. And, more importantly, he has spent well.
Many of his signings have gone on to bigger and better things. Tom Heaton, brought in on a free transfer from Bristol City, now has three England caps to his name; Jack Cork, signed for just over £8million in the summer, has since made his senior national team debut.
Michael Keane, now seen as one of the country’s best centre-backs, joined Burnley for £2.3million in 2015 and left for over ten times that amount. Many scoffed when Andre Gray signed not long after Keane for around £11million, but he was moved on for a fee of over £18million two years later.
DYCHE AND THE LONG BALL STIGMA
Burnley have gone from strength to strength in recent seasons, while the cast of players to have benefitted individually from working with Dyche grows by the year. Yet, in spite of all this, he has also become something of a caricature.
This feat is largely down to his persistent railing against the influence of foreign managers in the Premier League, which has increased significantly over the last three decades. “They’re a bit more snazzy,” he remarked of his foreign peers last August.
Here is where many find themselves shaking their heads and disagreeing with Dyche. His man management and results may be positive, but his self-perpetuating ‘us versus them’ argument is reductive, negative and old.
This only serves to hold him back when major Premier League vacancies, such as Everton’s, come up, though it doesn’t help that he has conflated these views with his own brand of football.
Mention of the words ‘long’ and ‘ball’ in the same sentence can lead to a small frisson of consternation. Long ball football is widely seen as an unwanted relic of English football’s past: unimaginative, overly physical, risk-free, ugly, and, most jarringly, ineffective.
However, the stigma surrounding the long ball can in some cases be unfair. Firstly, it can only be one aspect of a style, considering it exists only in the attacking and attacking transition phases, which are two of four major phases – the other two being defence and defensive transition. Secondly, not all long balls are the same. A long ball could be the panicked clearance of an under-pressure centre-back, but it could also be the calculated pass of an intelligent team.
Anyone who managed to see through the brutal irony of the whole affair will have gained real insight into the potential value of direct play when England were knocked out by Iceland at Euro 2016. Many of Iceland’s attacks were built upon co-ordinated long balls to target man Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, whose flick-ons and knock-downs led to chances.
Dyche’s views on foreign managers belong in the 1990s, and even then they would have been off the mark, but his tactics remain relevant, and occasionally effective, in today’s game. So, is it fair to label him a long ball manager?
DYCHE’S FOOTBALL: A MORE COMPLETE VIEW
There is more than enough evidence to suggest that long balls are a defining part of Dyche’s attacking style. In his recent analysis of Premier League kick-off routines, Michael Cox revealed that Burnley were one of two teams to hit a long ball out of play at the earliest available opportunity, the other team being Leicester City.
Directness in this particular sub-section of the game is fairly common, as Cox found out, but for Burnley a similar approach is taken throughout the entirety of a match. They play more long balls per game (77) than any other team in English football’s top tier. That statistic in itself does not offer a clear enough picture, however, as it doesn’t come with much context.
Perhaps a better way to measure the directness of Premier League possession games is to count how many long balls each team plays per short pass. This at least gives a slightly broader view of the types of pass teams tend to play. However, in this respect, Burnley’s directness is only further emphasised.
Dyche’s side play one long pass for every 3.5 short passes. The nearest team to them is West Bromwich Albion, up until recently managed by Tony Pulis, who play one long ball for every 3.6 short passes. Leicester are third in this particular league table with one per 4.2 short passes. The Premier League average is one long ball per 5.9 short passes.
Burnley’s attacks are, evidently, based around long balls. But to put them and West Brom – who are currently just outside the relegation zone – in the same boat would be wrong.
The Clarets’ attacking strategy is a cohesive one: they possess two of the most consistently successful target men in the division in Sam Vokes and Chris Wood, while their midfield are keenly aware of the runs they need to make off said target men while the ball is in the air.
Whoever is chosen to lead the line rarely finds himself isolated, and the support provided allows the second ball to be won cleanly.
This type of possession allows Burnley to bypass opposition pressure and progress up the field quickly, with less risk of giving the ball away close to goal through poor quality build-up among the defenders. And they do this while targeting dangerous areas; Pep Guardiola referenced this in October, saying: “They deserve a lot of credit…They are masters at attacking the channel.”
It’s fair to say that Dyche’s attacking style consistent predominantly of ‘long ball football’ to use a generic term, though his tactics also include an organised defensive game.
His Burnley defend in an aggressively man-oriented manner – not the relentless but at times kamikaze approach popularised and romanticised by Marcelo Bielsa and Gian Piero Gasperini in France and Italy, but something slightly looser.
His strikers are active and defend from the front, and there is an impressive intensity to the team’s closing down that comes from being in constant close proximity to the opposition, as well as an emphasis on pressing in midfield to stultify opposition build-up. They are, in short, very difficult to play through.
Dyche may struggle to connect with the wider footballing populace for as long as he rallies against some invisible dark force he perceives to be conspiring against him. However, his tactics are sound. His attacking style may look slightly out of place in today’s Premier League, but it works.