PHOTOS: Millwall 0, Burnley 2
SEAN Dyche describes his time at Millwall as “hand in glove. It just fit.”
You get the feeling that, similarly, Dyche and Burnley are made for each other.
Dyche was a key cog in the Lions’ side that won promotion to the old First Division in 2001, and reached the play-offs the following season, though he modestly said: “It was a real, real talented group when I look back.
“I wasn’t one. I was the glue that tried to hold it all together.”
While he may not be the on-field general he was for Millwall, holding it all together, what he has brought to Turf Moor is something managers have long since been searching for.
He explains it in three words - “Framework and freedom.”
Often we have seen too much of one, and not enough of the other, looking for that perfect balance.
And in the space of 15 games, Dyche has delivered that defensive discipline and solidity, while retaining the enterprising attacking football craved by Burnley fans.
The leakiest defence in the Championship has now earned seven clean sheets in 15 games, as the side have climbed up to seventh in the table - their highest position in over 12 months.
If you were to compile a Championship form table since Dyche’s arrival, the Clarets would be fifth.
To replicate that sort of form over the remaining 18 games is now the challenge, but Burnley have set the standard of late, winning their first three league games of a calendar year for the first time since 1958.
They have now won four of their last five league games, while only conceding once.
If last week’s performance against Crystal Palace was arguably their best display of the season, this surpassed it.
It was their most complete performance of the campaign, as comprehensive a victory as you are likely to see.
The score flattered Millwall in the end, with growing signs of a real understanding between the players, of their own roles within the system, and of each other’s.
Energy levels, will to win and commitment to the cause were admirable, with Lions boss Kenny Jackett admitting: “Burnley wanted it more, they had more desire and bite.”
What he didn’t say was that Burnley also outplayed his men with their intelligence and fluidity of movement, and then, there were the off-the-cuff moments of brilliance that win you football games.
Millwall are no mugs, lying seventh before kick-off, having lost only once in nine games at The Den.
Dyche had said before the game: “It’s not a place for weak minds. You need to be ready to play and earn the right to play.”
And the Clarets were bang at it from the kick-off as they systematically dismantled the Lions.
Pressing high up the pitch, they penned the Lions in, causing all manner of problems down the flanks, and they might have gone ahead when Sam Vokes nicked the ball off keeper David Forde and crossed, with Dean Marney and Danny Ings getting in each other’s way, when Marney looked to have the better chance.
Within two minutes Burnley had a deserved lead as Junior Stanislas nutmegged James Henry, and reverse-flicked the ball to beat Adam Smith and hit the bye-line.
From there, he fed the ball in for Vokes, who got across the front to poke home through Forde’s legs.
The Clarets were dominant, and Ings fired over after trademark quick step overs created a yard of space.
But Millwall were a threat from set plays and the delivery of Henry, who himsel went close from 20 yards after Stanislas gave the ball away - his effort beating Grant but going just over.
Then Jason Shackell cleared after Martyn Woolford pulled the ball across goal from a Henry cross.
Liam Trotter shot tamely at Grant, before Vokes headed over from Marney’s cross after linking superbly with Ross Wallace.
The rotation of Burnley’s front six, dropping off, overlapping and going in behind, was causing Millwall all manner of problems, with both full backs also getting forward, and Vokes headed narrowly wide from Kieran Trippier’s cross just before the break.
The only disappointment at half-time was that the Clarets didn’t have more than a one-goal lead, expecting a response from the home side in the second half.
Jackett introduced loan signing Nathan Tyson on the left at the expense of the quiet Woolford, but Wallace might have made it 2-0, sending a vicious strike curving just away from goal after cutting inside the hapless Jack Smith.
But the Lions enjoyed their best, albeit brief, spell, as Andy Keogh failed to turn in Henry’s cross, before a wicked centre from Henry agonisingly beat two blue shirts at the far post.
Burnley re-established control, and Ings mis-kicked in front of goal from a Chris McCann cross, before he made amends, nodding in from virtually on the line after Vokes flicked on Trippier’s cross after a glorious move.
The impudent Stanislas was replaced by Keith Treacy midway through the half after suffering with cramp - no surprise given the energy expended by the entire side - and Burnley should have wrapped things up when Trippier dropped a delightful pass over Mark Beavers for Ings, who killed the ball with a stunning touch, but lifted his effort over Forde and the bar.
Treacy was then played clean through by a sublime pass from Ings, but Forde turned his side-foot strike around the post.
Millwall had another flurry as Shackell was forced into a brave block, before Trotter saw his shot cleared off the line by Trippier, but Burnley had further chances to score, with Treacy having a header saved from the indefatigable Marney’s centre.
But two goals was more than sufficient for the win, and you’d find it hard to single out a man of the match, though Marney stands out for a midfield masterclass alongside the excellent McCann, epitomising the performance of drive, grit and quality.