Burnley's defensive struggles are a head-scratcher

Sean Dyche at West Ham
Sean Dyche at West Ham
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It is, as manager Sean Dyche might say, a bit of a head-scratcher.

How have Burnley gone from one of the most miserly defensive units in the Premier League, to one of the most porous?

Only a wide-open Fulham side, with 28, have conceded more than the Clarets’ 25 so far this term, in 11 games.

Dyche’s side only shipped 39 in 38 games last term, only bettered by the top five, and, indeed, it would have been the third-best record but for losing by five at Arsenal in their penultimate game, Arsene Wenger’s last home game in charge, having been assured of seventh place and Europa League football before kick-off.

Before the Arsenal game, the Clarets had only conceded four in a league game twice under Dyche, both at West Brom in the Premier League.

That’s twice in 237 games before the trip to the Emirates.

But in the following 13 games - Dyche hit 250 league games in charge on Saturday - they have been hit for four or more five times, and in three games in succession.

They have one clean sheet in their last 10 league games, conceded at least twice in six of those, and Dyche accepts: “There’s still work to be done, but it’s an ongoing thing with us, I said last season, we’re not the real deal.

“These lads gave every ounce of themselves last season, to end up seventh.

“And it’s not that they aren’t now, but you need some of the twists or fate, your shape to be right, all the details, and if you’re just off, it can go against you.”

The details are off, but it seems the malaise runs deeper than small margins, although a story in the national media on Saturday suggesting there is unrest in the dressing room appears to be simply stirring the pot with little substance, as Dyche insisted: “The bigger picture is a group who are committed to improving, but the immediate picture is not improving enough to get results.

“So that’s got to change, because it’s a results business.

“But the mentality of the group, how far they’ve come, you’d never hear me knock that. I couldn’t be more proud of these players and what they keep achieving.”

So what is the issue? Certainly consistency of selection is a problem.

Dyche has long been known for picking what he sees his best side, week in, week out, but only Joe Hart and Ben Mee are ever-presents in the league.

But of the back five which was so solid last season, the only changes are Hart for the injured Nick Pope, and Charlie Taylor for the injured Stephen Ward.

A section of fans would welcome the return of club captain Tom Heaton, pointing to his all-round ability, his organisational skills, his sheer force of character and vocality.

That would be harsh on Hart, who has kept the score down in the last three games.

So is it the famed framework? When you dissect the goals, Burnley have appeared shorn of their organisation, that basic desire to keep the ball out of your goal at all costs - albeit Mee performed heroics to prevent Filipe Anderson scoring in the first half with a remarkable headed intervention, which, as former Sunderland keeper David Preece joked: “I’d have asked for Ben Mee’s hand in marriage if he’d cleared one off the line like that for me!”

Further forward there is the intention of trying to be more progressive, but while Burnley scored twice here, the forwards have largely struggled for service, and have the central midfielders offered enough protection to the back four at the same time?

The wide men have, at times, not given their full backs enough assistance, and while Johann Berg Gudmundsson was on the scoresheet and has been the main provider of assists, is Aaron Lennon offering the same?

Up front, Dyche has chopped and changed, with Sam Vokes becoming the main main, having, arguably, started the league season as fourth choice behind Chris Wood, Ashley Barnes and Matej Vydra.

However, James Tarkowski remains the joint top scorer in the league with two, and he hasn’t scored in over two months.

It’s a conundrum, and certainly other factors are at play, Europe, the business – or lack of – in the transfer window, and, currently, a series of niggling injuries.

Tarkowski hasn’t been able to shrug off the groin problems which forced him out of the England standby pool for the World Cup, while Ward and Ben Gibson have undergone surgery, and Pope is still working his way back to fitness, looking at a December return.

But this group haven’t become poor players overnight.

And, in Dyche, they have a manager who certainly doesn’t panic.

He will try and see through the “noise”, as he calls it, and has more than enough credit in the bank to merit the trust and belief of the fan base that he can get things back on an even keel – despite the odd dissenting voice on national phone-ins.

It doesn’t get any easier, with a trip to Leicester City on Saturday, on what is sure to be an emotional occasion for the Foxes.

But Burnley will have to help themselves first, and cut out the unforced errors.