Tactics report: Same shape for two away defeats

James Bird James Bird
Jamie Smith August 28, 2012

Burnley lost twice on the road playing the same team and shape, writes Jamie Smith.

A week after that excellent 2-0 home win against Owen Coyle’s Bolton Wanderers, the mood is somewhat gloomier following two bad performances on the road. Eddie Howe picked the same team for Middlesbrough and Huddersfield Town, perhaps giving his men the chance to redeem themselves after a 3-2 defeat at the Riverside.

Burnley were not too terrible in the north-east. Indeed, it was two wonder goals that won it for the home side, although they were clearly the better team and fully deserved the points.

With Martin Paterson unavailable thanks to his latest hamstring problem, Sam Vokes was partnered with Charlie Austin up front. Dean Marney played at the base of an almost midfield diamond with Chris McCann in front of him and Ross Wallace and Junior Stanislas providing width from the flanks, at least in theory.

But the Clarets were slow and ponderous in possession, missing a man who could mix up the tempo and provide a range of passing from the centre of the pitch. Boro handed a first start to Josh McEachran and the Chelsea youngster buzzed about impressively on his debut for Tony Mowbray’s side.

Brian Stock was on the bench – apparently fit after coming on at the end of the Bolton match – but he was not involved. Instead, with half an hour left to go in the match and Burnley struggling for a foothold, Marvin Bartley was sent on. Bartley missed the entire pre-season with an injury and looked well off the pace, finding it hard to close Boro’s sharp midfield down. His booking was the closest he got to touching the ball.

The wings are starting to become a problem for Howe. Stanislas is a talented boy but does not show it often enough and Wallace is even more frustrating. The former Preston North End flanker is guilty of drifting through entire games and often seems to be hiding behind his full-back rather than demanding the ball and making things happen. Wallace scored three games in a row last season and we know he can be effective, but not on this showing.

With the game slipping away, Howe switched to three centre-backs, freeing up Joseph Mills and Kieran Trippier to play further up the park. While a move that made sense on paper, substitute Ben Mee stood off Adam Reach within seconds of his arrival and the Boro youngster curled a long range effort into the top corner.

Burnley managed to get back into it – Trippier causing problems from deep and Boro failing to clear his cross, Stanislas bundling in his first Burnley goal – but we deserved nothing. And that’s what we got when Luke Williams strode forwards, again into the chasm between midfield and defence, to thunder the winner into Grant’s top corner.

Marney was man of the match against Bolton, with the match’s high tempo suiting his game entirely. He’s at his best when breaking up play and using the ball swiftly over short distances. But in the 4-1-3-2 shape we seemed to play at Boro and Huddersfield, there was never anyone close enough to pass to, so he lost possession alarmingly frequently.

We know Eddie wants his side to play a patient, passing game. If we have the ball, the opposition can’t score. It’s faultless logic. But the best teams that play this style – Barcelona, Arsenal, Spain and so on – have a change of pace in the midfield and swift widemen who can take on their opponents.

As we lack a player with the confidence to carry the ball forward at pace – someone like Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata, Andres Iniesta in the above teams – we are one-paced, playing entirely in front of the other side. It’s easy to defend against. Nobody in our midfield is going to produce a defence-splitting pass from deep and even if they did, Vokes and Austin are not the type of strikers to burn away from centre-backs for sheer pace.

Our goals come from getting the ball to Trippier in space and relying on the full-back to produce a cross of quality. Both goals at Boro came from the former City man’s right boot. He’s an excellent player, but it’s concerning our main source of creativity is in our back line.

To Huddersfield, with over 3,000 Burnley fans making the short trip across the Pennines on a day so wet, Hebden Bridge was flooded. Howe surprisingly named the same team. Paterson had gone from being rested to being injured and Burnley’s squad suddenly looked light on attacking options with Danny Ings also injured. Keith Treacy was moved on to the bench.

While we held our own in the first half at the Riverside, the second half was a different story and it was more of the same at the John Smith’s Stadium. Adam Clayton and Oliver Norwood – two midfielders we had been linked with in the summer – ran the game for Simon Grayson’s men, with Marney again struggling as the deepest midfielder.

Graham Alexander is the best player the Clarets have had for this job in decades and he embodied the role perfectly. He won the ball cleanly, provided a shield for the defence, organised those around him and rarely wasted a pass, acting as a launch pad for attacks. Marney has his strengths, but he is woefully ill-equipped to play at the base of the midfield. It’s a curious tactic for Howe to persist with, when the only player he has capable of playing the role – Brian Stock – is sat on the bench.

Stock was again unused at Huddersfield. Instead, Howe went to a back three in the second half, bringing on Michael Duff for Vokes. Although at first glance a defensive move at 2-0 down, it freed up Joseph Mills and Trippier to push on and the Clarets had some joy from Trippier’s crosses. An Austin header was still the closest we came to a shot on target, though.

The shape soon became a mess when Mills was withdrawn for Treacy to come on, however, and any hope the Clarets could come out with a point were soon extinguished.

Neither Boro nor Huddersfield were particularly outstanding. Middlesbrough profited from some world-class long range efforts and Town were well-drilled and organised, without a particular creative spark. Both are clubs we should be looking to finish above.

Next up for Howe is Plymouth Argyle at home in the Capital One Cup, with questions needing to be answered over our shape, as well as the absence of Stock from the line-up.

What did you make of Howe’s tactics? Comment below.