There's no room for complacency
Three wins out of three in the Premier League have created a renewed optimism around Turf Moor.
The nine points have lifted the Clarets out of the bottom three and that miserable 5-1 home defeat to Everton on Boxing Day now looks a turning point rather than, as it felt at the time, a depressing indicator that the team was drifting towards relegation. But there can be no room for complacency in this transfer window.
Against Fulham on Saturday, Burnley battled hard to hang on to their lead in a second half where they created little. Crucially though there was a familiarity about that performance – seeing James Tarkowski clear off the line and then receiving a grateful and supportive embrace from Tom Heaton was a reminder that since the Everton debacle, Sean Dyche has been able to rediscover some of the key elements that were behind last season’s successes. Ashley Westwood and Jack Cork grafted hard in central midfield and there was a determination about the display which dispelled any fears from earlier in the season that the motivation, ‘the eye of the tiger’ as Dyche puts it, has been lost.
The change in the goalkeeper position has had the desired effect. Joe Hart can feel a little hard done by – he made few if any real clangers - but there is no doubt that the defence, as a collective, looks more solid and organised with Heaton behind them and his greater presence outside the six-yard box is noticeable and fully justifies his recall. More broadly, whatever was said at the ‘clear the air’ meetings after the Everton defeat has had the desired impact.
But no-one should take the better displays and these three wins as a sign that “we will be fine” or blithely repeat the falsely reassuring mantra that “there are three worse teams than us”.
Because you don’t have to look far for a reality check.
The remaining league fixtures this month are Watford and Manchester United – both away. Barring upsets, the Clarets will probably end the month back in the relegation zone. Even though February offers more opportunities, it is always has to be remembered that the fixture list has given Dyche’s side a very tough run-in with the last four games Chelsea (a), Man City (h), Everton (a) and Arsenal (h). So despite the recent upturn in fortunes, Burnley still face a long, hard battle against the drop.
Which makes this transfer window absolutely vital.
Dyche is always careful not to over-promise regarding bringing in reinforcements. He quite rightly offers reminders of Burnley’s financial realities and business model. And Clarets fans are, on the whole, realistic about what the club is capable of spending and the kind of player whose transfer fee and wages can be afforded. The board are right not to risk the long-term future of the club by the kind of wild spending that other clubs have engaged in and then lived to regret.
It is also well understood that the January window is tougher than the summer, that it is even harder to get value for money. But the approach shown in the summer, when the club were in a fantastic position to attract players, having finished seventh and qualified for the Europa League, but failed to significantly boost the quality of the squad, cannot be repeated.
Injuries and suspensions happen and they can stretch a squad. Against Fulham, Burnley were without three injured wide players and so had to play Jeff Hendrick in a relatively unfamiliar role on the right. Thankfully teenager Dwight McNeil has grown in confidence with every game and looks a terrific prospect but another wide option, given the system Dyche prefers, would be welcome. Strengthening is certainly needed in central midfield where Cork and Westwood are in good form but where, given Steven Defour’s unfortunate injury record, there is a lack of reliable cover - a player who could give the kind of bite that has been missing since Joey Barton’s departure would fit the bill. Another option up-front is also needed – Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood show signs of working as a partnership but the attack lacks the threat of real pace.
Improving the squad this month will cost money but relegation would cost much more in lost revenue. In the last three games, Dyche and the players have shown the character needed to turn this season around and get the team away from the bottom three. But the next 16 games will bring tough runs of fixtures, injury and suspensions and dips in form for some players. The club need to make sure there is enough quality in the squad for the next four months to give themselves the best chance possible of top flight survival.
* Simon Evans is Football Correspondent for Reuters news agency. He has reported on football across Europe, including eight years covering Italy’s Serie A from Milan. He co-authored ‘The Rough Guide to European Football’ book. After ten years covering sport in the United States, he returned to England in 2017, covering football across the country, particularly in the North West. A lifelong Burnley fan, Simon grew up in the area where he now lives again.