Make no mistake about it - Saturday’s trip to Turf Moor is huge. A win against Burnley would see Sunderland climb out of the relegation zone, until Sunday evening, at least. Defeat, while not disastrous - this is the miracle escape club after all - would see Burnley extend the gap between the two clubs to nine points.
The hosts always battle hard and put up a good fight, but they’re converting grit and effort into points this time around. Compared to the last time they were in the top division, Burnley have three more wins and five more points after 18 games, sitting five places higher in the table. They’ve certainly given themselves a better chance of survival as we head into the January window.
So, what do you need to know about them?
Sean Dyche tends to keep things simple, often lining up in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1. Either way, they’re interchangeable. The premise is as obvious as the formation suggests: two banks of four with one forward to drop back. It’s a very rigid and solid setup with a focus on keeping the team’s shape. In midfield, one typically presses the ball, while the other patrols the space in front of the defence. Burnley like to force teams wide, away from the goal where they’re at less risk of conceding. As you’ll see below, they’re quite proficient at not only blocking cross attempts, but clearing them away too. Four wide players - Jon Flanagan, Matthew Lowton, George Boyd and Stephen Ward - leading the team in tackles further emphasises this.
In attack, only Arsenal attack the middle third of the pitch more than Burnley. 66% of their attempts on goal also come from this area. One explanation for this is that Burnley play a high number of long balls. Typically, this occurs from the defensive third of the pitch, with Mee, Keane, Ward and Lowton (plus goalkeepers Tom Heaton and Paul Robinson) all attempting more than 2.5 long balls per game. The aim is to win the second ball; using the aerial prowess of Sam Vokes and Ashley Barnes to win the initial long ball for the likes of Andre Gray and midfielders Dean Marney and Jeff Hendrick to run onto centrally. Wingers Boyd and Johann Berg Gudmundsson tend to drift inside to latch onto any knockdowns, allowing the full backs to advance into the space opened up.
It’s not exactly pretty, nor revolutionary, but it’s quite effective.
Burnley’s form on their travels has been rotten, with just one point from eight games. They’ll be delighted that they’re playing at home, then. Only Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal have better records at home than Burnley do.
The Clarets excel at winning aerial duels. 21.9 per game is only second to Crystal Palace (22.5). Their more ‘traditional’, direct style of play is evidenced by their impressive numbers at both ends of the pitch. Vokes wins a monstrous 7 aerial duels per game, while Barnes supports him admirably with 2.9. At the back, Keane and Mee combine for 6.5 per game. Lamine Kone and Papy Djilobodji, along with Jermain Defoe and Victor Anichebe, can expect to have a proper battle on their hands.
They’re also adept at getting the ball away from their goal, making a league high 32.8 clearances per game. Again, Keane and Mee excel in this area, with 8.1 and 9.1 per game, respectively. Burnley also block 6.2 shots (2nd in the league) and 3.5 crosses (1st in the league) per game, while their goalkeepers make more saves per game (4.7) than any other team’s. Sure, this suggests that they come under huge amounts of pressure, but the stats show that they cope with this to a decent extent. 28 goals conceded is nowhere near being the worst in the division, so Burnley are doing something right.
While Burnley have scored only 17 goals, seven of these have from outside of the penalty area. Sunderland need to be careful not to give them too much space around the box.
Away from statistics, Burnley clearly have a great deal of heart and spirit. The players would probably run through walls for Dyche. Burnley are never expected to reach the Premier League, let alone compete, so their success shows the level of commitment they give to their manager. They may be beaten, but it’s rare to see them roll over and give up the fight.
Burnley’s main concern should be creating chances and scoring goals. No team shoots less than them (9 per game), although they do fair slightly better than Sunderland and Middlesbrough in terms of shots on target. 17 goals from 113 chances created represents a measly success rate of just 15%. For now, they’re finding ways to win games - can they keep it up, though?
And while they are strong at clearing the ball from their own area (as shown above), almost 90% of their goals are conceded in their penalty area. Playing through the middle and taking a more direct route towards their goal seems to pay off.
Burnley prefer a more direct style of play, and it really tells in the statistics. Only West Brom (40.7%) have less possession than Dyche’s side (41.3%), and Burnley have the league’s lowest pass accuracy with just 68.6%. They also make more inaccurate long passes per game (46.2) than any other team. This style also sees them attempt just 7.7 dribbles per game, easily the least in the league. Sunderland themselves average just 41.4% possession, so David Moyes is likely to favour a counter-attacking setup on Saturday. The dominant school of thought may be to attack Burnley from the off, but they appear to not be comfortable in possession of the ball, or certainly not used to having it. Forcing them to try to play grounded, flowing football, which they’re not comfortable with, could really play into Sunderland’s hands.
Key Player - Sam Vokes
After the euphoria of being part of, and scoring in, Wales’ historic Euro 2016 campaign, Sam Vokes has started the Premier League season pretty decently, particularly in a limited team like Burnley’s. Only Christian Benteke (144) has won more aerial duels than Vokes (126) this season - a stat which really shows his effectiveness at leading the line in Dyche’s system.
Indeed, the frontman has scored four goals from just nine shots to add to two assists. He hasn’t scored since November 5th, however, but with Sunderland’s knack of conceding goals to those in need of one, maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to write him off. Either way, he’s certain to give the Sunderland defence a competitive battle.
- 19 of Burnley’s 20 points have been won at Turf Moor;
- Only four of Sunderland’s 14 points have been away from the Stadium of Light;
- Burnley are unbeaten in their last four home games against Sunderland;
- But Sunderland have won six (and drawn three) of the last 10 meetings;
- Burnley haven’t ended a calendar year with a defeat since 2012;
- Sunderland haven’t ended a calendar year with a victory since 2007;
- Sunderland have won just one of their last 10 visits to newly promoted sides.