Burnley’s Europa and Premier League juggling act

Burnley’s Europa and Premier League juggling act
Simon Winter
Simon Winter
August 20, 2018
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Born in the south east of Ireland, Simon put his life-long love of football to good use when he started a successful independent blog in 2010. That opened up an alternative route to a career in journalism, and having had work published across a number of sites and publications, Simon joined the staff at Spotlight Sports Group in 2018.

The Premiership and the Europa League have never been comfortable bedfellows. Often viewed as the Champions League’s ugly relation, the Europa League has generally been treated with disdain by the English clubs chasing a top four finish.

For the bigger teams, the misery of missing out on the top four is further amplified by the threat of the Europa League places lurking below, opening their jaws wide to snare some more unwitting participants for the next season’s tournament.

Any continental qualification used to be considered a reward for finishing high up in the previous season’s table, though participation in the Europa League is now largely seen as punishment for not finishing high enough.

Managers of the Premier League’s big hitters have been known to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat mumbling the words “Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday”.

However, the antipathy towards the Europa League usually rolls downhill. For the division’s middling clubs, the competition represents the first rung on the ladder and a rare chance to punch through football’s glass ceiling.

This season, for the first time in 51 years, Burnley have put a foot on that ladder. Under the stewardship of Sean Dyche, the Clarets battled and played their way to a 7th place finish in 2017/18, earning themselves a place in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League.

Make no mistake, Burnley want to play in the Europa League, but will they be able to find the right balance between their domestic and continental commitments?

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The Juggling Act

Securing a spot in the Europa League qualification rounds meant an earlier pre-season return than normal for Burnley’s players. With holidays cut short and recovery time shortened, this was an entirely new physical experience for the Clarets players.

Already the rigours of keeping two plates spinning with a small squad seem to have unsettled things at Turf Moor. Having negotiated a double header with Aberdeen before the English Premier League got underway, Burnley had to come through another tough double-legged tie İstanbul Başakşehir – a brace of fixtures that were interspliced with a pair of domestic contests.

After the first leg in Turkey, Burnley dropped points in a 0-0 draw at Southampton. After the second leg in Burnley, the Clarets were turned over 1-3 by Watford at Turf Moor. Admittedly, the extra time they needed to eventually see off their opponents didn’t help, but they erosive effects on Burnley’s energy levels in both Premier League fixtures was obvious.

In each of their league outings, Burnley started well before fading and declining as a physical force as the game progressed.

Of course, the club are likely to have prioritised the Europa League over the Premiership, in the opening couple of weeks at least and if you had offered Sean Dyche a trade – Europa League group qualification for one point from Burnley’s first two Premier League matches – he wouldn’t have hesitated to accept.

Nevertheless, if Burnley were out to prove they could manage a war on two fronts, they failed their first test.

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Premier League clubs in the Europa League last season

If Burnley were looking for a little inspiration or even a successful template to follow, then Arsenal showed that it is possible to crack the Europa League/Premier League code.

The Gunners progressed deep into the competition, making it all the way to the Europa League Semi Finals before they were eventually eliminated by Atletico Madrid. In terms of continental hangovers, Arsenal didn’t seem to suffer – they played 12 league matches directly after European contests, winning 24 points from the 36 available.

In total, they picked up 7 wins, 3 draws and 2 defeats from their 12 domestic fixtures and their losses came against last season’s top 2, Manchester City and United. Arsenal also lost the Carabao Cup Final to City just three days after losing to Östersunds FK in late February.

Of course, in terms of numbers and experience, Burnley’s resources pale in comparison to Arsenal’s. Maybe then, a look at Everton’s post-Europa, Premier League performances would be a better basis for comparison.

Like Burnley, Everton had to come through a qualification process to secure their place in the Europa League proper. Again, like Burnley, Everton dropped points in both of their Premier League matches directly after their double legged qualifier, drawing one and losing one of their domestic contests after mid-week excursions.

Burnley and Everton’s league results after continental qualification action are eerily similar, but Clarets fans will hope that those quirky coincidences and parallels end pretty quickly when the nitty gritty of the Europa League gets under way in the competition’s group stages.

Because Everton’s attempts to give equal attention to two competitions last season resulted in disastrous campaigns in both. With the Toffees squad stretched too thin, they took just 4 points from 24 in the 6 Premier League matches that were played directly after Europa League fixtures.

Everton slipped down the Premier League table and offered little threat to the teams that finished above them in their Europa League group, where they eventually finished 3rd behind Atlanta and Lyon, and a full 7 points adrift of the latter.

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Squad size and financial restraints

Burnley will be desperate not to repeat the mistakes Everton made last season, though even at this early state, the signs don’t look good.

9 Burnley players played in 3 of the 4 alternating Europa League and Premier League fixtures the Clarets have played since the 9th of August and looking at the results and performances over that quartet of games, it feels as though more rotation was necessary.

But herein lies the major obstacle facing Burnley. Operating with one of the smallest budgets in the Premier League, Burnley’s squad is finely tailored to operate within their closely controlled financial constraints.

The Clarets posted profits of around £22m for the financial year in 2017, and while the numbers are healthy, Burnley remain one of the few Premier League clubs unable to splash out on big-money transfers.

What that means is that Sean Dyche must be a carefully considered “tweaker” rather than a lavish spender. Three players, Joe Hart, Ben Gibson and Matej Vydra arrived over the summer while a similar number were let go.

The policy has served Burnley well, though their inability to put extra bodies on the payroll this summer means that juggling Premier League and Europa League commitments is likely to shine a light on their limitations as a club.

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