Monday, 14 March 2011

Burnley 0 Millwall 3: Tactics report

This was the game where Howe’s halo finally slipped, if only slightly, with Burnley still well positioned in spite of this defeat going into the season run in.  The game largely centred around Burnley’s attempts to break down Millwall’s shape, so it makes sense to look at their set up first.

Millwall lined up in a strict, narrow and compact 4-4-2.  In defence they compressed the space extremely well and were disciplined in their shape keeping two rigid banks of four. Going forward it was ugly stuff with the ball hit long at every opportunity and the team pressing well as a unit for the second ball. Having probably anticipated this, Howe changed what had been a successful formula over recent games and opted for an orthodox 4-4-2 with Eagles and Wallace playing as conventional wingers (see below).

No doubt Howe had identified that width in the final third would be vital given Millwall’s strict shape but Burnley struggled to get the ball out wide to either Wallace or Eagles in the opening period. The main reason for this was that the Claret’s movement was almost universally poor, with Marney, in particular, very static and looking reluctant to show for the short ball from the defence. This resulted in a lot of long balls, particularly from Carlisle who looked uncomfortable in possession. This played into Millwall’s hands; the Lion’s centre backs were hugely dominant with the ball in the air and their central midfield pairing of Mkandawire and Trotter out fought Cork and Marney who struggled in what increasingly became a scrappy battle for second balls in the centre of the pitch.

Conceding defeat, halfway through the first half Howe reverted back to 4-4-1-1 with Wallace switching to the right, Rodriguez dropping out to the left and Eagles taking up a central position behind Delfouneso. This gave Burnley a numerical advantage in the middle meaning that they were finally able to get hold of the ball with Wallace in particular looking a threat but width remained at a premium. The fullbacks got up well but Cork and Marney were too slow and disinclined to spread the play out wide meaning that Millwall found it easy to crowd out attacks. This had been a regular problem under Brian Laws but both Cork and Marney had looked to have improved this side of their play in recent games under Howe with the Burnley boss speaking often about ‘making the pitch big’ in post match interviews but given the collective intensity of Millwall’s pressing they struggled for the time and space to do so.  This problem was further compounded by Eagles’ inability to find any space between the compact lines of Millwall’s defence with the playmaker looking frustrated.

Burnley started the second half much better with Fox and Wallace instantly looking to switch the ball quickly from flank to flank but it was Millwall who got the goal through a set piece on 52 minutes and Burnley’s play deteriorated sharply once again.  Howe made another roll of the dice soon after with Iwelumo coming on for the struggling Eagles and Elliott for the isolated Delfouneso. This meant switching back to an orthodox 4-4-2 but with Iwelumo on the pitch Burnley were set up to play much more directly. The idea would have been for Iwelumo to give Burnley a platform in the final third to work the ball out wide from and then back in for the Scot who has been so deadly this season from crosses but even the power of Iwelumo wasn’t enough to unsettle Ward and goalscorer Robinson who were imperious and Burnley began to look short of ideas.

Given Millwall’s resolute performance and Burnley’s increasing desperation another Lion’s set piece effectively ended the game with 20 minutes still left to play. Burnley pushed forward late on and as the game became stretched Elliott finally managed to create a few disappointing crossing opportunities but with Burnley committing so many men forward a Millwall third looked likely and the Lions got it on 87 minutes through Townsend on the break.

This was as much an excellent defensive away performance from Millwall as it was a poor one from Burnley.  It might not have been a pretty sight for either the neutral or for Burnley fans but credit must go to Kenny Jackett for posing a question to which Eddie Howe and Burnley had no answers. Burnley’s movement and build up play was poor throughout and the Clarets lost key battles in midfield and in the Millwall final third.  Hopefully Howe will have learned some important things about his team from this game with Burnley still in a very good position to push on.  This match marked Howe’s first 10 league games in charge and putting this result in perspective: 6 wins, 2 draws and 2 defeats (including 7 away games) is a magnificent start for the new manager.


Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Nathan Delfouneso: what we can expect

With Burnley suffering somewhat of an injury crisis upfront following injuries to Martin Paterson, Steven Thompson, Charlie Austin and Wes Fletcher; Eddie Howe has acted decisively and impressively in signing the highly rated Aston Villa and England U21 striker Nathan Delfouneso on loan for the remainder of the 2010/11 season. BMGH briefly looks at what fans can expect from the young Villain during the Clarets promotion push.

Any reservations about Eddie’s inexperience in the transfer market have been completely shattered by this signing. The Aston Villa supporters and players young player of the year for the past two seasons and the golden boot winner at the 2009 U19 European Championships (England finished as runners up) – Nathan Delfouneso is some prospect. He’s tall (6 ft 1 in), strong, quick, skillfull and good in the air – the indentikit modern centre forward; and despite his inexperience, he’s well equipped to make an impact at Championship level over the coming months.   If we look at Aston Villa’s 3-2 win over Blackpool from earlier in the season, we can see in more detail how Delfouneso might fit into the Burnley system.

This was only one of two matches that Delfouneso has started this season with the more experienced Agbonlahor, Carew, Heskey and more recently Darren Bent generally preferred ahead of the 20 year old striker in the starting line up. In this game, Villa played a very similar system (as they have for the majority of the season) to the one which Eddie Howe seems to have settled on recently for Burnley with Ashley Young playing off a central striker in a fluid 4-4-1-1, often with inverted wingers.  With that and the claret and blue shirts – Delfouneso will hopefully settle into Burnley’s system pretty quickly – a huge boost at the business end of a promotion chasing campaign and a factor I’d be surprised if Howe hadn’t already calculated on.

The player’s Guardian chalkboards for the game illustrate how Delfouneso possesses the versatility required to play that lone striker role.

The above shows Delfouneso’s passing v Blackpool, revealing that for the 64 minutes he was on the pitch, the striker mainly looked to move into the channels to link up with Downing and Albrighton. This is largely how Martin Paterson has interpreted the lone striker role for Burnley, although most often in a 4-3-3 under Owen Coyle. This movement has been something that Burnley have sorely missed season due to Paterson’s continued injury problems and so Delfouneso will be a welcome addition in this regard, providing another dimension to the Claret’s attack.

However, unlike Paterson, the young striker also offers a presence in the air. The chalkboard above reveals how he faired in arial battles during the Blackpool encounter (left = won, right = lost), winning around half of the headers he challenged for. This is a respectable ratio considering that the majority of headers lost are around the centre circle, hinting that these were from goal kicks where the advantage largely lies with the opposition centre backs.

Finally, this is Delfouneso’s goal which shows another string to Delfouneso’s bow – the abiltity to pick up the ball in the middle of the pitch and run at the goal, in this instance to devastating effect.

This really is a very exciting and encouraging signing for Burnley. Delfouneso is very highly rated throughout the game as a future England international and he ticks all the boxes in terms of the type of player he is and what Burnley are missing at the moment. Welcome to Burnley Nathan.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Burnley 1 Crystal Palace 0: Tactics Report

Burnley lined up as shown in what now seems to be Howe’s preferred 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid system. Without the ball Burnley dropped into the archetypal two solid banks of four leaving Iwelumo and Eagles forward but in possession the positioning was much more fluid with both wide players looking to come inside to link up with the strikers, both full backs attacking the space on the overlap very positively and Eagles wandering from flank to flank as a central winger looking for space.

Crystal Palace’s went with an interesting, possibly Villarreal inspired, 4-2-2-2 where the two wide men Darren Ambrose and Neil Danns looked to play very centrally between the lines, however the fullbacks rarely got forward enough to provide the necessary width for that shape to be effective and it was easy for Burnley to defend narrowly and congest the play in the middle restricting Palace to only 3 shots on goal throughout the entire game.

In the first half Burnley hugely dominated in terms of possession. The movement of the forward players was excellent and with Palace’s midfield struggling to pick them up, Cork and Marney had time and space to orchestrate from the middle of the pitch rotating the play patiently and retaining possession wonderfully well.  Even with Palace getting back into the game in the second half, Burnley still managed 61% possession for the 90 minutes which just goes to show how well Burnley kept the ball in the first half.

However, despite seeing so much of the ball the Clarets struggled to work too many clear cut chances with Jay Rodriguez’ outstanding strike in the first few minutes coming from outside the box and the only other real chance coming from a point blank Jack Cork header midway through the half.  The stats hint at this with Burnley managing only 4 out of 13 shots on target and this was mainly down to Crystal Palace’s organised defending (particularly the marking of Eagles) and the patient tempo of Burnley’s passing. It was dazzling to watch from an aesthetic point of view but more direct balls from wide positions in the direction of Iwelumo on occasion may have proven more fruitful.

In the second half Burnley’s forward movement lacked quite the same intent of the first; meaning that Crystal Palace could close down Cork and Marney much more effectively and as a result Burnley’s passing disintegrated and the second half became a more scrappy and disjointed affair.  As is becoming common for Howe though, he made an early change in the second half recognising the change in the flow of the game and bringing on Elliott for Iwelumo, which meant Rodriguez moving up front as the lone striker and Wallace shifting to play as a more orthodox winger on the left.  However, it didn’t quite work as with Iwelumo off the pitch the few good crossing positions that the change had created were often wasted. The change also had the effect of opening up the Burnley midfield and Palace had their best spell of the game but fortunately, Howe’s Burnley look a much more resolute outfit and they withstood the Palace pressure well with little real concern. When Alexander came on late in the second half to sure up the midfield the three points looked secure.

This was a very professional performance from Burnley. The first half was very impressive indeed, although Howe will be mildly concerned that they weren’t able to translate their dominance into goals and the second half defensive display was assured and comfortable. As we’ve seen against Portsmouth, Norwich and PNE Howe’s Burnley look to have learned how to defend a lead – something Laws’ Burnley had struggled to do, throwing leads away regularly; most notably at Sheffield United and Norwich.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The McDonald Enigma

In football there are often players that coaches love and players that fans love.  The former are often unassuming water-carriers who diligently play unspectacular possession retaining passes or tireless workhorses who incessantly press and harry the opposition (see Carrick and Fletcher at Manchester United). The latter on the other hand, are more often gifted forwards who are forgiven their defensive disinterest for moments of pure creative inspiration and brilliance.  Kevin McDonald it would seem falls firmly into the ‘players that fans love’ category with supporters repeatedly calling for the midfielder to be involved even during his continued exile from the first team.  BMGH looks at why Burnley fans seemingly rate the Scottish under 21 international much higher than his managers have done.

McDonald’s wonderful creative passing ability is often cited as the biggest reason for his inclusion in the team with the home game v Arsenal in the Premier League used as an example of how he can run games even against top sides with the BBC match report describing the player afterwards as “outstanding”. This match (along with the League Cup Quarter Final the season before) is commonly regarded as the players finest for the club so it seems appropriate to analyse this match in particular.

Below we see the Guardian chalkboard for McDonald during that game.

Kevin McDonald:
Passes 43, Successful 27, Unsuccessful 16 (pass completion ratio 63%)

The chalkboard shows off McDonald’s range of passing reasonably well with a mixture of short and long passes as well as a number of successful forward passes into dangerous wide areas; however, it also hints that he was actually quite wasteful with the ball.

Graham Alexander:
Passes 55, Successful 43, Unsuccessful 12 (pass completion ratio - 78%)
Andre Bikey:
Passes 23, Successful 18, Unsuccessful 5 (pass completion ratio 78%)

When compared to his midfield partners on the day we can see that McDonald’s pass completion ratio of 63% was significantly worse than either Graham Alexander’s or Andre Bikey’s - both 78%. It also reveals that McDonald was less involved in the game than Alexander who attempted 55 passes compared to McDonald’s 43 albeit with the veteran’s board showing a less impressive variation in pass. It ought to be pointed out here that as the most attacking of the three we would expect McDonald’s pass completion ratio to be slightly less than either Alexander or Bikey as he more often attempts incisive and therefore riskier passes. Compared to Burnley’s other attacking players in that game the midfielder compares more favourably:
 Elliott 62%, Fletcher 59%, Eagles 57%

However, for these players, passing isn’t considered the principal part of their game and they also have less space to operate in; so McDonald’s involvement, in a game that is held up as an example of what he can do is surprisingly disappointing when faced with the data. In comparison Aaron Ramsey who replaced Cesc Fabregas just before half-time for Arsenal completed 33 out of 39 passes (85%) playing a similar role as McDonald in the Arsenal midfield (albeit admittedly in a much better team although the possession for either side on the day was surprisingly even Burnley 48% Arsenal 52%).  The problem is that often one elegant shift of body weight followed by a precise and perfectly weighted 30 yard ball out to the toe of a team mate is usually much more memorable than ten diligently performed possession retaining passes but managers, increasingly, have the match statistics available to see beyond such aesthetic biases.

The critic’s stock response to McDonald’s many supporters is that the midfielder is a liability from a defensive point of view and the stats appear to support this claim.  The player is often accused of being lazy and negating defensive responsibilities when his side lose the ball and the heatmap below shows that he spent the vast majority of his time in the opposition half against Arsenal. This is perhaps understandable as the most attacking of the three but it is still useful in showing the player’s positional mentality. 

The stats also show that McDonald only completed one tackle during the whole 90 minutes.  This in a vital area of the pitch is telling.  Chris Eagles for contrast, a player also accused of being adverse to defensive duties, won 5 tackles during the game.

Football has changed remarkably over the last decade becoming much more holistic in nature.  Teams no longer tolerate the out and out goal poacher who contributes little to the team or the midfield playmaker who is absolved of all defensive responsibilities in exchange for moments of inspiration. This shift can be traced back to the 1970s with pioneering coaches such as Rinus Michels and Valeriy Lobanovsky but it is Pep Guardiola’s outstanding Barcelona side that have shown the world what can truly be achieved when football is viewed holistically with sides both attacking and defending as one rather being broken down into various specialised compartments; simply, when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Kevin McDonald however, seems at odds with this modern view of football. Often seen strolling back into position pointing at opposition players who have made runs past him, McDonald demands that more defensive players be placed in midfield alongside him to compensate and allow him to perform. This inevitably weakens the team as a whole.  This is not to say that McDonald is a bad player. He quite clearly isn’t; he possibly possesses the most impressive range of passing and vision in the whole Burnley squad but is he quite that good to warrant building the team around in such a way? His managers clearly haven’t been convinced.  Therefore, if McDonald wants to regain his place in the team he is going to have to work on and develop his all round game and it is at this point where persistent accusations regarding the player’s attitude come into play. The midfielder does have areas of his game that he needs to work on but if the player isn’t willing to do so, as rumours suggest, then his exclusion from the team, despite his obvious natural talent is, unfortunately for his many supporters, completely justified.