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On Soccer: The Big Six and … Burnley? A Success Story Confounds the Statisticians

Almost a third of the way into the season, Burnley has overcome all expectations, even its own.

More significant, it has bucked conventional wisdom, and in such a way that writing it off as an outlier, a freak product of random chance, is unsatisfactory. “Burnley is a team that stands out in any analysis,” said Simon Gleave, head of analysis at Gracenote Sports. “That probably suggests that the models being used miss something.”

At first glance, it is easy to assume that it is all much simpler, and that Burnley has just been, well, lucky.

According to data provided by Opta, no Premier League team has blocked more shots or made more clearances. Ben Mee and James Tarkowski, the team’s central defenders, rank second and third in the league in each category. No goalkeeper has made more saves per game than the man who plays behind them, Nick Pope, but that in itself is not a surprise, as Burnley has allowed more shots than any other team.

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Ben Mee, right, and Burnley are a surprising seventh in the Premier League, tied with their opponent on Sunday (Arsenal) and a point behind Harry Kane, left, and fourth-place Tottenham.

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Daniel Leal-Olivas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Metrics from both Opta and Gracenote suggest that given the number and quality of chances created against Burnley this season, Dyche’s team should have conceded 17 goals. The actual figure is only nine, a defensive record bettered only by Manchester City and Manchester United and matched only by Spurs.

It seems, then, as though it might all just be good fortune, and at some point the luck will run out. A day will come when Pope does not make quite so many saves, when Mee and Tarkowski do not make quite so many blocks, when shots that were spinning wide will start to curl in, and at that point Burnley will slide down the table.

It is an enticing interpretation, in part, because it fits the widespread perception of Burnley as nothing more than a team of doughty, hard-bitten journeymen trying to survive among the sophisticates of the Premier League on nothing more than grim determination. The idea that Dyche’s team has ridden its luck by throwing its bodies in the way somehow fits.

Burnley, of course, rejects the assessment that its players are artisans among the aesthetes. Dyche, in particular, bridles at the lack of credit he believes he and his team receive for what, in others, might be recognized as innovation or intelligence. He might, if he chose, use the way Burnley defends as a prime example.

When Dyche arrived at the club in 2012, he brought a few DVDs for his players to watch. One contained video of the Valencia teams that had been so successful around the turn of the century; another, more recent, was of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, which Dyche had “studied for a year, but only watching what they did off the ball.” A third video case study came from a club side in Argentina.

They were designed to illustrate how he wanted his team to defend. Not individually — “at this level, they know all the basics” — but as a structure. “We did a lot of work at the start loading them with what I expected,” Dyche said. “I used teams who I knew did that structure well.”

Five years later, those ideas are refined and reinforced continually, both on the training field and with video analysis sessions. The learning never stops: Burnley is one of the few teams to include a specific defensive drill, led by a coach, Tony Loughlan, and concentrating on heading and clearing the ball, in its pregame warm-ups. The aim is not to prevent Burnley’s conceding chances entirely — “That’s not possible,” Dyche says — but to limit the number of “golden” opportunities the opponents might have.

That involves working intensively on the team’s “shape in certain situations,” he said; to illustrate, Dyche used the example of a central defender dropping into the line of a shot from a specific angle or position, or his defense squeezing opponents into less dangerous areas.

“The way it is designed is to put a player in a position that it is statistically, visually and from experience, harder to score from,” he said. “Or to allow the team to defend more bravely, to step out of their positions to move towards the ball because they know they have cover. It is to make a chance less of a chance.”

Burnley may concede the most shots, but it also gives up the “lowest quality of opportunities to its opponents of all Premier League teams,” Gleave said. Last season, Burnley blocked 32 percent of the shots it faced; this season, that figure is 35 percent. The league average is 27 percent.

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Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope saved a shot against Newcastle at Turf Moor last month.

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Andrew Yates/Reuters

Data from Stratagem — a sports trading firm — shows quite how assiduously Burnley defends its goal. On average, a Premier League team will have five defenders between its goal and an opponent taking a shot on around 9 percent of the chances it concedes. Burnley does so almost twice as often. Its record on what Dyche would call golden opportunities is even better. Time and again, it reduces the opposition’s sight of goal to nothing more than a pinprick.

Just as impressive is how rarely Burnley is caught out: Last season, Stratagem’s figures show that fewer than 2 percent of the chances Dyche’s team conceded came when it had one or no defenders between the attacker and goal. The average for the league was 14 percent.

The data quickly makes clear, then, that Burnley’s defense is not built on players mindlessly throwing themselves in front of shots. It is not a desperate rear-guard action that must, at some point, crumble. It is all by design, rather than accident. And, most important, it works.

That the method’s success is not reflected in the analytics — that the underlying data seems to suggest Burnley is somehow lucky — says more about the analytics than it does about Burnley.

“A lot of the models used for analysis struggle with two things in particular,” said Chris Anderson, co-founder of the analytics consultancy Anderson Sally. “One is defensive actions; a lot of models do not take into account the positions or the numbers of defenders on any given chance. And the other is team actions. It is hard to put a figure on the cohesion of a team. That is what Burnley does really well: It is a team, and that cannot always be measured.”

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