Saturday, 23 April 2011

Burnley 3 Middlesbrough 1: Tactics Report

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.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Burnley 2 Swansea City 1: Tactics Report

Burnley haven’t managed to put out a settled side in recent weeks and this game was no different with Jay Rodriguez returning from injury to replace the suspended Marvin Bartley. This meant a slight change in Burnley’s shape with Howe opting for a 4-1-2-3 for the first time as the Clarets’ manager with Elliott, Marney and Cork forming a fluid rotating midfield three behind a trident of Rodriguez, Delfouneso and Eagles.  This gave the game an interesting complexion as both sides pursued very similar strategies.

The start of the game was marked by some good pressing and tidy possession football from both sides and although, as the home side, Burnley perhaps shaded possession; it was Swansea who looked the most dangerous hitting the wood work twice in the first half. There were a couple of key reasons for this: firstly, the Swans’ attacking movement was much more positive - Rodgers had clearly highlighted an obvious weakness in Burnley’s combination of a slow central defensive pair and a high-line and the Swansea front three regularly looked to make runs in behind. At the other end, Delfouneso was alarmingly static and Eagles tended to move into crowded areas with Burnley’s best attacking runs coming from Marney and Elliott breaking from midfield into the right channel.

The second key reason for Swansea’s greater creativity was their better use of the ball. Although Burnley kept possession well and played some neat football, it was largely in the home side’s own third and play was too concentrated narrowly down the right half of the pitch. Fox consistently took up good positions on the left flank but the Burnley midfield lacked the vision or the quality on the ball to pick him out and stretch the play. In contrast, Swansea were able to make full use of the pitch with Dyer in particular, found a number of times as Swansea switched the play from left to right with the former Claret managing to get the better of Danny Fox in the early stages, cutting the ball back into the box for one of Swansea’s efforts against post.  Borini was also played in by a couple of excellent balls down the side of the Burnley centre-backs. The Italian’s movement was impressive all day and he took his goal early in the second half well beating Burnley’s poorly organised defensive line.

The change in Burnley’s fortunes coincided with the arrival of Chris Iwelumo for the ineffective Nathan Delfouneso on 55 minutes, almost immediately after Borini’s goal.  Up until this point the Clarets’ had unsuccessfully tried to match Swansea’s patient passing game and although Howe’s commitment to playing out from the back is admirable - Swansea’s more expansive use of the ball in this game highlighted just how pedestrian and blinkered Burnley’s own passing in midfield is at present. Iwelumo allowed Burnley to play more directly and gave the Clarets a platform to play higher up the pitch. Interestingly, the Scotland international only managed to win one header in the 35 minutes that he was used but his sheer physical presence meant that he was a constant nuisance to the Swansea defenders who suddenly looked uncomfortable clearing their lines which, in turn, allowed the Burnley midfield to press and get on to the ball in much more dangerous areas.

Instantly, Burnley hit back through an Ashley Williams own goal from an Eagles cross on 57 minutes and the Clarets grew in confidence. Dean Marney in particular, thrived on the change in approach and grew into the game considerably, winning tackles and interceptions in dangerous positions and giving the ball intelligently. I’ve been critical of Marney’s movement and use of the ball in recent games where he’s struggled to influence the game from an unflattering deep-lying midfield position but in this match; pressing on from midfield, the stand in captain was excellent.  

As the second half wore on Burnley’s shape became difficult to make out as the Clarets attacking players swarmed the Swansea defence. At times it looked like a clear 4-4-2 (although with Rodriguez picking up one of the Swansea midfielders in the defensive phase) but at others it seemed more like a 4-3-1-2 with Marney, Cork and Elliott narrow in midfield. Either way, it was Burnley who began to look the most likely to win the game as the home side upped the tempo and looked to play some good attacking football in the Swansea half.  Clear-cut chances were still at a premium with Swansea defending well but Rodriguez managed to test the keeper from a good shot from the edge of the box shortly before he was pushed in the back whilst challenging for a Wade Elliott cross resulting in a penalty.  Chris Eagles has been Burnley’s regular penalty taker this season with Alexander out of the side and the winger did the club captain proud smashing the ball to de Vries left to put Burnley 2-1 ahead with 13 minutes left to play.

Swans’ manager Brendan Rodgers withdraw the fading Nathan Dyer for Stephen Dobbie shortly after Burnley’s goal, matching the Clarets’ 4-4-2 but Swansea struggled to create anything and couldn’t get back into the game.  As the game drew to a close, Howe’s next change was to bring on Graham Alexander in place of Chris Eagles for the club captain’s 1,000th competitive professional appearance – a remarkable achievement. It was just unfortunate that Grezza couldn’t quite manage a perfect end to the game when the skipper’s freekick clipped the bar with the last kick of the game.

This was an interesting game tactically with both sides setting out with very similar opening strategies but implementing them with marked degrees of success forcing a re-think from the home side. Howe is clearly committed to a patient brand of football and will surely look to bring in players during the summer more suited to it but this current Burnley side looks a much better, assured and comfortable outfit, when, like in the second half of this game, they play a more direct and higher tempo game. If Howe has any hope of promotion this season (however unlikely), he may just have to put his footballing beliefs to one side for the next six games.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Burnley 1 Ipswich Town 2: Tactics report

A combination of poor form, injury, suspension and even a loan signing all contributed to a slightly unfamiliar Burnley line up for this game. From the team that started against Bristol City: Brian Easton deputised for the suspended Danny Fox at left back, Marvin Bartley replaced the injured Jack Cork,  Nathan Delfouneso came in for Wade Elliott and Everton’s Shane Duffy made his debut in place of Clarke Carlisle in central defence.

For the majority of Eddie Howe’s time as Burnley manager, the team has defended in a 4-4-1-1 shape and attacked with a more fluid 4-2-3-1 but in this game the side kept a more consistent 4-2-3-1.  The positioning of the players in the four advanced positions was also surprising with (as shown above) Delfouneso and Eagles wide and Ross Wallace central in a playmaking role behind Jay Rodriguez. You could understand Howe’s logic here as Chris Eagles’ form has collapsed recently playing in a central role and Nathan Delfouneso had scored an impressive goal for the England U21s during the week cutting in from an advanced left hand side position but unfortunately, the new system didn’t function particularly well.

Burnley started the game brightly but after Ipswich scored against the run of play via a set piece on 17 minutes, the Clarets’ football deteriorated sharply and the Tractor boys were able to quickly follow it up with a somewhat freakish second seven minutes later from England youngster Connor Wickham who headed into the ground causing it to bounce flukily over the head of Grant and into the Burnley net.  With the home team’s confidence drained, a number of crucial flaws in Howe’s setup were increasingly highlighted.  The most decisive of these was perhaps the inability of either Marney or Bartley to take the ball from the defence with any real confidence. Both midfielders are much more comfortable pressing onto the ball and the combination may have been more effective had Burnley played more directly but Duffy and Bikey largely looked to play out from the back which resulted in the Clarets struggling to work the ball up the pitch.  In this respect Burnley certainly missed both Cork and Fox but both Alexander and Elliott might have provided more balance in the midfield.  This problem was worsened further still as Rodriguez continually struggled to win headers against the Ipswich centre back pairing of McAuley and Delaney. Jay has looked ill at ease whenever he’s played as a lone striker this season. The young striker has great ability on the ball but perhaps isn’t quite ready for the physicality of playing the lone striker role in the Championship.  Burnley’s left hand side also failed to function coherently as Delfouneso became a marginal figure on the left flank, strangely looking to hug the touchline rather than drift inside to get involved in build up play or make runs beyond Rodriguez. In turn that restricted the attacking space for Brian Easton meaning Burnley had no real outlet on that side throughout the first half.

These factors, combined with a lack of form and confidence, meant that Burnley’s play was disjointed and Howe looked to change things early by substituting Ross Wallace for Chris Iwelumo after only 37 minutes.  Howe explained his own thinking behind the substitution in an interview on the official club website:

“We didn’t win the tackles and the midfield battle and we looked a little light weight, hence the substitution.  Ross Wallace was on the verge of being sent off, so it was a combination of that and wanting to get Chris Iwelumo on the pitch.  We really lacked steel upfront but I felt he came on and gave us a different dimension and did very well”

Wallace may indeed have been on the verge of being sent off but the experiment of playing the Scottish winger in a central position failed with Wallace largely anonymous  except for wasting Burnley's best chance of the half.  Chris Eagles’ lack of form has meant that Burnley are chronically lacking creative passing in the centre of the pitch and with Elliott inconsistent centrally and Kevin McDonald exiled; Wallace’s failure to adapt to the role is a real worry.  Eddie Howe clearly wants to play a short passing game but if the club are to push for a playoff place the rookie manager may have to settle for something a little more pragmatic in the meantime given the players currently in form and at his disposal.

With Chris Iwelumo on the pitch Burnley did just that and moved to more of an orthodox 4-4-2.  The big Scott gave Burnley a direct option and provided the Clarets with a platform to build on in the opposition half whilst also allowing Marney and Bartley to engage with the Ipswich midfield shorn of the responsibility of having to link the play in their own third.  As a result Burnley ended the half brighter and continued that into the second 45 playing with more tempo and aggression but Ipswich were happy to sit on their lead and Burnley struggled to create anything clear cut. Eagles in particular looked short of ideas out on the right flank and was withdrawn for Wade Elliott midway through the half. Almost immediately after the substitution the ball broke kindly for Dean Marney in the middle of the Ipswich half who played in Jay Rodriguez, the young striker took a touch before driving a powerful shot from the edge of the area into Lee Barrett’s bottom left on 68 minutes.

After the goal Burnley had their best spell of the match working Wade Elliott into a number of good crossing opportunities but the winger couldn’t find any real accuracy. Howe’s last change was to bring on Alexander for Bartley with 15 minutes left to play. Alexander brought the composure to the Burnley midfield it had lacked in the first half but with the Clarets now pushing for an equaliser that quality wasn’t as crucial and the game petered out with Burnley never seriously threatening to overturn the deficit.

This was a disappointing game for Burnley. The result takes the Clarets down to 9th and the momentum built up during Eddie Howe’s opening months as manager has withered. The side simply never looked like a coherent or confident outfit during this game, perhaps understandable given the number of changes but it was particularly worrying to see the players’ heads drop so alarmingly after the opening goal.  It’s games like these however where new managers often learn the most about their players.