Everton got back on track last weekend with a 4-2 victory over Leicester City. On Saturday they again play hosts, this time to Burnley. The Toffees have not lost a game at Goodison Park since December and carry the league’s third best home record.
Burnley rank 18th in the league in shots, shots on target, goals, and expected goals. So I feel okay in saying that Burnley probably have the 18th best attack in the league (aka 3rd worse). Stylistically they are your classic deep-lying, long-ball-playing, just-got-promoted, 4-4-2 English team. They pass the ball less accurately than every other team in the division and only Sunderland and West Brom have had less possession.
Burnley’s propensity for direct play is backed up by the numbers as well: no team plays a higher proportion of their passes long than Burnley do. On the field, this means you’ll see them focus their passing wide rather than through the middle, and you’ll see Tom Heaton hit a lot of goal kicks as high up the field as possible. Putting that together often looks something like this:
Burnley’s wingers and fullbacks do a lot of the heavy lifting in this setup and as such are required to work exceptionally hard.
The negatives of this approach are fairly obvious; for one, if you are unwilling and unable to penetrate your opponent through deep central areas, you will struggle to consistently create good chances. This is reflected in Burnley’s poor attacking numbers that I mentioned above, and also in the fact that Burnley have the worst shot quality (expected goals per shot) of any team in the league.
It also means that Burnley is quite passive in the midfield and their opponent’s third; rarely do they attempt a high press, and it is usually quite easy for opponents to ping the ball around at will and develop a stable buildup from the back.
With all that being said, Sean Dyche is doing something right. His setup as enabled Burnley to overachieve on defense. As you’d expect for a team that sits so deep and has so little of the ball, the Clarets allow a ton of shots—second most in the league. However, they’ve only allowed the ninth most goals. Some of this is luck, but there’s reason to believe that more is going on here.
Looking at basic stats, it jumps out that Burnley block a higher proportion of their opponents shots than any other Premier League side. That makes sense for a team that tends to bunker down in their own third. In February, Mark Thompson dug a little deeper on StatsBomb and found some really interesting stuff. Yes, the data backs up the claim that Burnley are very good at making sure that there are bodies between the shooter and the goal. But it’s not just that they’re very good, they are miles better than everyone else, especially when it comes to shots from wider areas of the box. Thompson writes,
The theory is that Burnley are positioning themselves in places which direct shots towards Heaton, with keeper and defenders deliberately working in tandem to make lives easier for themselves rather than trying to throw any body possible in front of the shot. If executed properly, this method could also cut down on the chance of deflections past the keeper while and gives Heaton more time to see the shot coming and react quickly.
Everton fans may recognize some clips in the video Thompson put together:
So, this is something to watch for on Saturday as Ross Barkley desperately flings balls at the net from 25 yards out. There may be a deliberate reason why Burnley are that frustrating to play against: they actually anticipate opponents’ shots and position themselves to offer less access to the goal. You have to admit this is good coaching from Dyche and his staff (if, indeed, the theory is to be believed): he’s taking shot-blocking from an act of desperation to a calculated strategic move.
Matching up with Everton
In October, Everton struggled at Turf Moor. They didn’t deal with Burnley’s direct game well, and it took until the second half to settle in to the match. In attack they moved the ball around comfortably between the midfield and defense, but Burnley did a fine job of removing the links to Romelu Lukaku:
As we’ve seen before, Rom gets a bit impatient when he doesn’t get the ball for a while and will often move deeper to become involved. One can understand the instinct, it plays into the hands of a team like Burnley. They won’t mind if Lukaku has the ball with eight players between him and the goal.
If Burnley bring their A-game, Everton will likely find it difficult to score. This is where the likes of Barkley, Tom Davies, and to a lesser extent Gareth Barry come into play. At some point this team will need to find a significant creative influence beyond Lukaku. There are hints (hints!) that maybe Mr. Barkley just might be starting to pick his head up a bit and see the world around him:
I’ve repeatedly said before that Everton are a near-lock for seventh place. I did not anticipate Arsenal’s dramatically bad recent form. As it stands, the Toffees might actually have a chance at sixth. Various projections disagree, but they have Everton slated to finish anywhere from 6 points, 3 points, and 1 point behind Arsenal. One analyst has Everton at a 28% chance to finish in either 5th or 6th. They could do this thing!
It still seems unlikely but either way they need to be beating the Burnleys of the world, especially at home.
Does anyone know who Everton face on the last day of the season??