Looking good to stay up
Despite a recent drop in form, Burnley have strong chance to remain in top flight beyond single season for first time since mid-1970s, writes Greg Lea
Reaching the magical 40-point mark as soon as possible is the principal objective of any club who have just been promoted to the Premier League.
Since the division was reduced to 20 teams in 1995, only three out of 63 sides – Sunderland in 1996/97 with 40, Bolton Wanderers in 1997/98 also with 40 and West Ham United in 2002/03 with 42 – have suffered relegation after amassing a points total that was more than that tally.
When Burnley beat Leicester City 1-0 in late January, manager Sean Dyche could have been forgiven for thinking have his team were on the verge of booking their place in the top flight for the 2017/18 campaign.
That victory at Turf Moor took Burnley’s points total to 29, which meant four victories from their final 15 matches would almost certainly be sufficient to extend the club’s stay in the first division of English football beyond a single season for the first time since the mid-1970s.
Given that Dyche’s men were at that stage accumulating points at an average rate of 1.26 per game, it would not even have been unreasonable to suggest that last year’s Championship winners could end the campaign closer to 50 points than 40 – a return which tends to be good enough for a top-half finish.
Since then, though, Burnley have struggled. A narrow 1-0 triumph over Stoke City in early April remains the only match they have won since that Leicester success, with their other 10 encounters in that time bringing four draws and six defeats.
Their points average since the start of February has fallen to just 0.64 per game, which means they are still four adrift of the target of 40 heading into today’s showdown with Crystal Palace.
Burnley, or any of their relegation rivals, will probably not require that many points this time around, and the fate of Dyche’s side is still firmly in their own hands.
Just one win from their four remaining clashes would see them over the line – and, depending on the results of Hull City and Swansea City below them, even that may not be necessary.
Nevertheless, Burnley’s run in looks set to be a great deal more edgy than seemed probable a few weeks ago.
One of the likely factors for that is psychological.
Burnley’s players and staff were presumably highly motivated to prove the doubters wrong having been widely tipped for relegation this term, but it is possible that they eased off once their target seemed secure, although the demoralising factor of their fifthround FA Cup exit at the hands of non-league Lincoln City should also be considered.
A lack of squad depth is another reason for their decline. Bournemouth and Leicester are the only teams in the bottom half of the table who have used fewer players than Burnley’s 26 this season, which is hardly surprising given that the club are operating on one of the smallest budgets in the division.
As time has gone on and fatigue has kicked in, Dyche has struggled to keep results ticking over.
Above all else, though, Burnley have simply regressed to the mean, with their climb into the top half of the table earlier this year an example of overperformance.
Given the squad Dyche has at his disposal, it is not too much of a surprise to see his side in 16th place. In fact, Burnley have exceeded expectations to be where they are after 34 games.
“When you look at the points on the board now and historically with our last two efforts [in the Premier League] we’re in good shape – against all the odds, noone gave us any chance at all,” Dyche said after last weekend’s loss to Manchester United.
Staying up is all that matters for Burnley and, despite their recent downturn, they are still on course to do exactly that.
Burnley have a small squad at their disposal, yet they have exceeded expectations to be where they are after 34 games in the league this season.