This was the game where everything clicked for Eddie Howe, possibly producing the best performance of the whole season and certainly of his time as manager. Burnley started with the side that had effectively won the game in the second half against Swansea, bringing in Chris Iwelumo for Nathan Delfouneso.
This meant a switch to 4-4-2, something that a lot has been made of in other post match analysis but with the fluidity Howe likes to play with I think this can be overstated. Out of possession Burnley defended in the same 4-4-1-1 shape they have done since January and going forward Eagles still looked to drift and link up with the other attacking players in central positions overlapped by the fullbacks. Rodriguez also regularly dropped in between the lines to pick up the ball between the Middlesbrough midfield and defence; meaning that at times, on the pitch it looked the same 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid we’ve played for the last few months.
So if 4-4-2 wasn’t the key catalyst for the magnificent performance, what was? Well, there were four key facets of Burnley’s play on Tuesday night that stood out: their movement, passing, pressing and the team shape. They’re all things that we’ve seen glimpses of improvement in over the last few months but this was the first game where they all came together. Rather than go through the game incident by incident as for previous games, I think it’ll be more interesting to focus on these four aspects individually in more detail.
Burnley like to promote themselves as a ‘good footballing side’ but for a lot of this season that hasn’t really been the case. We’ve consistently tried to play football but often the requisite movement just hasn’t been there and instead the ball has frequently gone desperately long to Iwelumo. Burnley’s best performances this season; Bolton, Hull and Barnsley at home and patches of Norwich away were all categorised by good movement and this game was no different.
This is where the change to more of a 4-4-2 did clearly help the side; not so much because of the formation itself but because of Rodriguez’ move to a more central position. The England U21 has been excellent playing as a wide positioned second striker all season but from the centre he was able to run the game through his intelligent movement and link play. Playing just off Iwelumo, Rodriguez was free to drop off the back four to receive the ball from midfield or drift into the channels to stretch the defence and he regularly picked the right movement for his team mates. This was in stark contrast to Delfouneso’s static performance at the weekend.
Eagles’ movement was also interesting. Mostly under Eddie Howe former Manchester United man has played in a free role behind a lone striker and has drifted looking for pockets of space between the lines and he’s still looked to do this from wide positions whenever he’s played there (including this game) but against Middlesbrough he’d clearly been told to look take on McMahon, Middlesbrough’s right back, whenever the opportunity arose. Eagles has had a difficult time of things recently but an improved performance against Swansea has clearly boosted his confidence and this became a bit of a one sided battle, particularly after Burnley took the lead and began to turn on the style. Often both Robson and Thomson tracked back to double or sometimes even triple up Eagles with McMahon but the winger regularly came out of these battles with the ball. A Chris Eagles on this kind of form will be a huge boost for the end of season run in.
Another interesting aspect of Burnley’s movement was down the right flank where Elliott, Mears and one of the midfield pair took turns to attack. Elliott did play often as a conventional winger down that side getting a number of dangerous crosses into the box from wide but it wasn’t unusual to see Elliott drop in at right back for Mears to get forward or to tuck into midfield to allow Cork or Marney to attack that area. This unpredictability allowed Burnley to cause Middlesbrough real problems down that side.
In recent games Burnley’s passing has been worryingly pedestrian and blinkered with the side tending to play slow and short in neat triangles concentrated largely in their own half or down one flank without ever really working the ball forward or using the full width of the pitch. This is mainly due to the lack of a player in midfield who’s comfortable either taking the ball short off the defence or spreading the play wide (especially out to Fox) but in this match however, Iwelumo’s physical presence combined with Rodriguez’ intelligent movement allowed the side to go more direct and work the ball forward quicker into the two strikers. In this respect Andre Bikey’s fantastic distribution from the back was a huge advantage and Michael Duff, often criticised for being anxious on the ball, looked much more comfortable playing the ball long and with two central targets to aim for.
Another impressive feature of Burnley’s passing was how large they made the pitch. In previous games teams have been able to defend narrowly and crowd out attacks knowing that Burnley lack the width to stretch them. In this game however, the Clarets did just that with Danny Fox able to find Wade Elliott with a succession of long cross field balls. This was a key factor in why Rodriguez had such a good game as he spent much of the game playing in the spaces left by this stretching of the Middlesbrough defence.
In the middle Cork and Marney kept their passing short and sensible, keeping the ball well and rotating play effectively. With Burnley playing more directly and utilising the full width of the pitch, there was much less pressure on the pair to play-make from deeper positions, something they’ve looked increasingly uncomfortable and ineffective doing. Once the pair grew in confidence with the team playing well, their passing became more adventurous looking to make long diagonal passes out to the wide players, further helping to stretch Middlesbrough and create space for Rodriguez and Eagles.
Howe has completely changed the way Burnley play without the ball and it’s taken a long time for this to develop but without the ball, the Clarets were hugely impressive against Middlesbrough.
Under Laws, Burnley’s defensive set up revolved around keeping a tight team shape with the side rarely operating with a full press. The thinking behind this was probably the lack of pace at the back (high pressing demands a high defensive line) and the immobility of Graham Alexander and Chris Iwelumo. However, there was a clear contradiction here between aspiring to play fluid passing football but with a strict shape and a deep defensive line that resulted in poor movement, large gaps between the defence, midfield and attack; and a vulnerability to deal with quick counter attacks occurring in the time between the team losing the ball and regaining their shape (the 0-4 defeat to Reading at Turf Moor is a perfect example of this where the Royals exploited the fullbacks being caught high up the pitch).
Howe’s Burnley however, have looked to press as high up the pitch as possible to regain the ball quickly. This intention is something that was noticeable very early on, and was hinted at by the apparent marginalising of Alexander and Iwelumo with younger legs brought in to replace them in Bartley and Austin. Completely changing a defensive set up mid-season though takes time and until this week the team had mainly been pressing tentatively in ones or twos but on Wednesday the whole team pressed incredibly well and aggressively as a whole unit. There are two main advantages to Burnley playing this way: firstly, it allows us to win the ball back quickly before the opposition has chance to exploit the positional fluidity that Howe likes to play with. Secondly, it allows us to win the ball back higher up the pitch in dangerous positions. This is particularly important for us as we’ve struggled to play the ball out from deep all season (without going long) and thus winning the ball high allows our attacking players to get on the ball and hurt the opposition.
However, it isn’t a perfect setup and problems still remain. We’re still playing a high line with central defenders who are very uncomfortable being turned. The 5-1 away defeat to West Ham in the FA Cup was a stark reminder of this fact where Charlton Cole continually looked to get in behind the Burnley defence and on Saturday, Borini for Swansea did exactly the same for his goal. Against better teams than Middlesbrough with more pace, this will be a worry. Howe has previously tried to solve this problem with loan signing of Shane Duffy from Everton but for whatever reason, that signing did not work out and so, for the rest of the season, this remains a huge gamble.
If that initial burst of pressing fails however, it’s still important that the team regains its defensive shape and this was another aspect of Burnley’s performance against Middlesbrough that was impressive. Laws was a particularly rigid manager in terms of shape. By, this I mean that when Burnley lost the ball he expected anyone out of their position to get into it as fast as possible. This could mean that Burnley needed both Fox and Mears to get back from the attacking winger positions into fullback, Eagles to get from the edge of the box to left midfield and Elliott to get from the right wing, to central midfield. This takes time and is another reason why Laws’ Burnley were so vulnerable on the break.
Howe’s Burnley by contrast have a clear defensive shape (4-4-1-1) and the team falls in to it wherever they may be relatively on the pitch. For example, it wasn’t unusual to see Iwelumo defending on the left wing, Rodriguez in central midfield, Wade Elliott at right back and Chris Eagles picking up a central defender. This allows Burnley to regain their shape quicker so the side is more difficult to play through. The obvious weakness is that Wade Elliott isn’t a natural fullback nor is Iwelumo a left winger but once in shape it’s easier for the players to get back into their own positions – it slows the attacking team down, makes them work much harder and makes Burnley more solid. Good teams will exploit this by hitting the ball out quickly to their left winger and isolating Wade one on one but those good sides would have exploited the space much more easily anyway.
Again this is something that we’ve seen slowly improving over recent weeks finally coming to fruition on Tuesday night. It takes the whole team to work hard together and be switched on as a unit so it’s no surprise that we did this much better with the side full of confidence.
This game was very encouraging indeed. My one criticism would be that it’s taken Howe far too long to get to this point and it may have come too late for us to realistically gain promotion this season but it does suggest that the manager will get things for right next season. For now, let’s just see if we can match this performance against Derby County on Saturday and as Stan used to say: crack on from there.