Looking nothing like a team without a win in six, the Clarets were great value for their 1-0 win at the Valley, writes Kevin Robinson.
Accused of being afraid of changing things up recently, Sean Dyche made a real statement of intent ahead of kick-off at the Valley this afternoon by making five changes, predominantly in attack, to the side that lost in horrible fashion to an uninspired Huddersfield Town side at Turf Moor on Tuesday night.
The message from the manager was clear. Our recent form has been unacceptable, certain players have been well below par – and it ends now. Two changes were forced – Dean Marney and Chris McCann missing out through injury – but Keith Treacy, Danny Ings and Brian Stock were dropped to the bench. Dane Richards, the substitute who suffered the embarrassment of being hauled off due to poor performance midweek, didn’t even make the squad.
David Edgar partnered Marvin Bartley in the centre of midfield, while new signing Alex Kacaniklic made an immediate debut on the left wing and Martin Paterson and Junior Stanislas were recalled to form an almost entirely changed attacking unit to the one that had failed to find the net in over 300 minutes. Only Charlie Austin kept his place, but he has struggled to hit the heights that found him fame under Howe earlier in the season.
If it’s broke, fix it. And our attacking play certainly is broken. No longer the free-scoring side from the first half of the season, goals are about as rare as opposition clean-sheets were previously. But the problem is not simply personnel - though it is true that some individuals have underperformed, the explicit swing in priorities from attack to defence since Dyche’s arrival has undoubtedly stifled our offensive play.
The balance hasn’t been quite right of late, but you wouldn’t have known at Charlton. Almost throughout the whole game the Clarets created more, pushed more men forward and looked the more likely to score than the home side.
The bizarre and frustrating decision to play Austin almost in midfield behind lone-striker Pato almost paid off mid-way through the first 45 when the latter cooly slotted home a sharp Junior through-ball. I have criticised his composure recently but it really was a great finish and deserved more than to be ruled out for offside.
When the teams were announced it looked likely we would line up in a 4-4-2 formation, but in reality it was more like 4-2-3-1, and I am still to be convinced Austin should play so deep – he is a true poacher, feeding off scraps, and needs to be in the box at all times. Instead he spent much of the game closer to the half-way line than the goal and it’s really quite saddening to see his abilities wasted back there.
Before Austin scored the game’s only goal with a superb strike with first-half added-time looming we created countless chances, albeit without anything to really test goalkeeper David Button. It almost didn’t matter that the end product was lacking, however, the quality of our buildup play and confident attitude provided more than enough encouragement that it would come.
In start contrast to recent weeks, we moved forward with great belief and purpose, using both wings well as the full-backs overlapped regularly and Junior and Kacaniklic caused trouble with clever footwork. Whatever Dyche has said to them since Tuesday, it worked.
Despite all this it really should have been Charlton who opened the scoring, three forwards inexplicably missed the ball only a couple of yards from goal with Lee Grant helpless. Had either made contact we’d have been a goal behind. In a rare flashback to earlier form our back line had fallen asleep – we really shouldn’t have allowed three men so much space unchallenged in front of goal – but we got that bit of luck you sometimes need.
Instead, the opening goal was fitting of the creative football Burnley played and was more than deserved. A real solo effort, Charlie Austin picked the ball up deep in the Charlton half and unleashed a wicked shot into the top corner of Button’s goal. It was struck with such force and accuracy the ‘keeper had no chance of getting close and fans and players celebrated with similar ecstasy, knowing we would almost certainly head in at the break ahead.
If Burnley were playing with belief, the same could not be said for the visitors and it got worse for them after the break. Their home record is abysmal and they clearly reacted poorly to the vocal abuse thrown their way early in the second half. Any concentration seemed to slip away as they felt the pressure, one unopposed defender completely missed a header while Button found himself stranded in no-mans-land having wandered too far from goal during a Burnley attack.
Our own attacking tendencies were shrinking too, though, as we looked to hold on to our lead. Kacaniclic went on a mazy run, dribbling past several defenders on his way from half-way to the penalty area before falling over after one challenge too many. It was a move almost identical to Wade Elliott’s at Wembley, but without anybody there to give him the ball back the move ended there this time.
With 15 minutes on the clock we had already had our last forage forward and it was now time to shut up shop and sit it out. Charlton sent Leon Cort up to play as a striker, before the rest of the team joined in to what must have been a 1-9 formation. With five added on, this meant 20 minutes of backs-against-the-wall squeaky-bum-time – much longer than my nerves were comfortable with. It was nervy, but we coped well and saw the game out to the end.
The second half might not have been anywhere near as entertaining as the first, but overall it was a very professional performance from Burnley. It wasn’t perfect – we still lack a spark up front, the offside strike and that moment of genius from Austin aside we never really troubled Button, and we were undoubtedly helped by Charlton’s really poor performance - but it was much improved from us and the result will silence those fears of a relegation fight that were beginning to creep up.
David Edgar was outstanding in midfield and Lee Grant pulled off two excellent saves. Paterson looked much sharper than usual, and Kacaniklic showed lots of promise. Most notably, though, was the way we attacked with real intent. It wasn’t Howe-esque and keeping things tight at the back remained a priority, but the changes Dyche made to the line-up and tactics allowed us to offer a stronger threat up top than we have been used to of late.
The gaffer sent a message out before the game, this was the end of our bad form and the start of renewed success. It has started perfectly – now it needs to continue.
Are we rid of any relegation risk now? Did Dyche get it right, or were we lucky? Comment below.