Sean Dyche recently spoke of his pleasure at the ‘healthy mixture’ of youth and experience in his squad following the recent arrivals of Charlie Taylor, Jon Walters, Jack Cork and Phil Bardsley. All those players, whilst unlikely to set any pulses racing, will at least pad out Burnley’s squad with considerably more top-flight nous.
That said, with a fortnight until the season starts and four weeks until the transfer window snaps shut, I’m beginning to fear for Burnley’s chances of kicking on from last season’s excellent campaign. Without decisive action soon, there's every chance of them getting mired in a relegation slog once again.
Driving this concern is a typically prudent approach to the transfer market. Whilst the club’s commitment to long term sustainability is both wise and admirable, it’s impossible to truly thrive at the top level without some investment.
Having cleared all of their previous debts and survived their first season back, there’s an argument to be made for loosening the purse strings slightly in a bid to establish the club in the top flight. Whilst such thoughts may well be the plans of Sean Dyche and Mike Garlick, they are keeping incredibly quiet about it if so.
There are two key positions that the Clarets must tackle before the end of the summer - a new centre half and a proven goal scorer. Either area, if not addressed properly would be a concern, but the effect of both, bearing in mind Burnley’s current recipe for success, could be catastrophic.
The Clarets’ achievements last term were built on a Kevlar plated rear-guard. Of teams in the bottom half of the table, only the hopelessly lopsided Boro conceded fewer whilst Burnley’s defensive record at home was the league’s 8th sharpest. Central to this was Michael Keane, who, by the end of the season, was rightly recognised as one of the best in the league and had worked his way into England's starting XI.
Whilst Mee, Ward, Lowton, the excellent Heaton and Dyche’s fine drilling were all factors in last year’s success, Keane was clearly the standout, something highlighted by the club’s record with/without the new Everton man. When Keane featured, Burnley won 1.11 points per game, shipping on average 1.4 goals. In his absence, that number plummeted to 0.3 points per game whilst shots locating Heaton's onion bag soared to 2 per match.
Unless Burnley go all out in pursuit of a player at Keane’s current level, I do worry for their safety. Were Dyche to back rookie James Tarkowski (a man who’s played less than 900 minutes of league football since moving to Lancashire 18 months ago) or another player plucked from the Championship alongside Mee this season, it would be an almighty gamble considering their ultimately conservative game plan.
Having to average at least two goals just to snag a draw will see points much harder to come by, even at fortress Turf Moor. The Clarets netted more than once on just 9 occasions in the league last year but Dyche’s men got away with being low scorers (they notched the least of anyone outside the relegation places) thanks to their watertight backline. Losing that solidity without scoring freely is a proven recipe for trouble.
I’m sure a centre half will come in with some of the Keane money, but the club are certainly taking their time over it. As it stands, mentions of Burnley in the gossip columns are rarer than combs in Pep Guardiola’s house.
Moving onto the second area of concern, Dyche looks reluctant to spend even middling funds on a new striker. Burnley’s forward line of Vokes, Gray and Barnes all look short of the quality required to hit 15+ goals in the Premier League next year. In fact, the trio only notched 25 between them last term with six of those coming from the penalty spot.
Underwhelmingly to say the very least, the only action on this front has seen £3M of the club’s allegedly slender kitty spent on Jon Walters, a man who is many things on a football pitch – niggly, sweaty, quite cross - but has never been even close to ‘prolific’. 34 years old in September, Walters has never scored more than 8 league goals in a top-flight campaign and averages a measly 6 per season in the PL. A reasonable signing if made 12 months ago, right now it smacks of a stagnation and lack of ambition that the club can ill afford.
The existing trio of Barnes, Vokes and Gray could well surprise me by kicking on and discovering a truly ruthless edge next season, but there’s little on their collective CVs to suggest it’ll happen. All have pretty modest track records despite spending much of their careers well down the Football and Non-League pyramid.
In the not implausible situation where Dyche either fails to find, or refuses to splash out on, a comparable replacement for Keane and a proven forward, it’s easy to see how Burnley could struggle. Whilst the Clarets have far more about them than Middlesbrough under Aitor Karanka ever did, Boro's results last spring, when shorn of the injured Calum Chambers, offer a pretty decent picture of what happens when a goal-shy team lose their defensive lynchpin.
Even without the cash generated by Keane’s sale, the money coming into the Premier League from viewing rights and sponsorship remains unprecedented, there must be some funds available.
Great managers are judged on more than just what they do on the training pitch, however, and recruitment is a vital part of top level stewardship. Right now, it’s time for Sean Dyche to prove he can deliver in the board room. Considering the blood sweat and tears expended in returning to the promised land, it would be a terrible waste not to act decisively in the transfer market in a bid to stay here.
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