Football: Moneyball, Burnley-style

Brighton's Glenn Murray is fouled by Burnley's James Tarkowski to earn a penalty, which Murray blasted over the bar. Visitors Burnley rode their luck to draw 0-0.
Brighton's Glenn Murray is fouled by Burnley's James Tarkowski to earn a penalty, which Murray blasted over the bar. Visitors Burnley rode their luck to draw 0-0.PHOTO: REUTERS

Dyche's astute use of limited budget reason why unfashionable club is flying high

It felt fitting. The goal that took Burnley, however briefly, into the top four was scored by a signing. In their own way, Burnley have bought success.

But theirs is a budget method encompassing identifying players others have ignored and improving them. It was Ashley Barnes who scored Tuesday's late winner against Stoke - the same Barnes who cost £450,000 (S$808,760).

Three days earlier, Scott Arfield was the match winner against Watford. Sean Dyche invariably mentions that Arfield was a free transfer from Huddersfield.

His goal was set up by Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who joined after being relegated to League One with Charlton. So was Nick Pope, the goalkeeper now competing with David de Gea for the Golden Glove.

Welcome to Moneyball, Burnley style. They are competing in the richest league in the world with what is almost certainly one of the three lowest wage bills. They are turning the big six into a big seven, rubbing shoulders with clubs who should be their superiors.

But for Leicester's astonishing achievement when their 5,000-1 shots won the league last year, Burnley's would be the greatest case of overachievement since promoted Ipswich came fifth in 2001.

And the gulf between rich and poor has widened since then. Burnley's entire starting XI last week cost less than Alexandre Lacazette, Alvaro Morata or Benjamin Mendy. Their entire match-day 18 cost less than Romelu Lukaku or Paul Pogba.

They stretched their wage ceiling to pay Chris Wood £40,000 a week; Zlatan Ibrahimovic was paid more than that every day last season and the average salary at both Manchester clubs is over £100,000 a week.

Wood is Burnley's record buy at £15 million; Manchester City have spent more on 32 footballers in the Sheikh Mansour era.

Burnley made a transfer-market profit last summer while the Manchester clubs, who can each name a £400 million starting XI, had a combined net outlay of £264 million.

But Burnley have prospered in a defiantly different method. They cannot rival the super-rich, on or off the field.

  • SUMMER NET SPENDING, £

  •  
    BURNLEY 
     
     

    -4.7m 

     
    ARSENAL: -2m
     
    TOTTENHAM: 11.5m
     
    LIVERPOOL: 50.3m
     
    CHELSEA: 75.7m
     
    MAN UTD: 130.3m
     
    MAN CITY: 134.1m
     
     
  • COST OF STARTING XIs, £ (LAST WEEKEND)

     
     
    BURNLEY 
     

    50m

     
    TOTTENHAM: 90m
     
    LIVERPOOL: 178m
     
    ARSENAL: 205m CHELSEA: 255m
     
    MAN UTD: 283m
     
    MAN CITY: 360m
     
    £1 = S$1.8 

There are certain similarities with Leicester, who won the league with the third-worst passing accuracy. Burnley have the lowest rate now. Whereas the top clubs have largely abandoned 4-4-2, both defend in two banks of four.

Burnley have actually shifted to 4-4-1-1 this season which, along with the transformation in their away form, has made them better.

Their midfield has been quietly upgraded over three transfer windows, hard-working, technically gifted players arriving, and their ability to play fine football was highlighted when Jeff Hendrick's winner at Everton came after a 24-pass move.

Understanding and unity come from continuity. Whereas Jurgen Klopp has made the most changes this season, Dyche has made the fewest. He likes unchanged teams.

Instead, his catalytic moves tend to come during games: Barnes was a scoring substitute against Stoke. So was Sam Vokes at Southampton. Dyche is willing to bring on a second striker at 0-0.

Essentially, however, he builds from the back.

Only the Manchester clubs have had better defensive records.

Dyche is an outstanding coach of defenders; they invariably improve under him. James Tarkowski was Michael Keane's understudy last season.

Now he tops the Premier League tables for blocks and ranks second for clearances, headed clearances and winning aerial battles.

Bought from Brentford, he is emblematic. Dyche recruits almost exclusively from English clubs, and invariably graduates of lower leagues.

Perhaps that makes him unfashionable, and that image may account for the strange lack of interest bigger clubs have shown in him.

That has been to Burnley's benefit. They can look a complete anomaly who will fall away - perhaps in a week when they face Tottenham and Manchester United - but we said that about Leicester, too, and they did not.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Moneyball, Burnley-style'. Print Edition | Subscribe