Underuse of Steven Defour a rare blot on Sean Dyche's strong Burnley season
Burnley bring their most successful Premier League season to a close on Sunday when they welcome West Ham United to Turf Moor. Everyone at the club can reflect on a job well done.
Despite winning only once away from home all season -- the recent 2-0 success at Selhurst Park -- the Clarets were rarely in danger of going down.
The only time they spent in the relegation zone was after the first weekend of the campaign, when they lost 1-0 at home to Swansea City. It is testament to the fine work of Sean Dyche and his coaching staff that survival was secured with the minimum of fuss. Even the off-the-field dramas involving Andre Gray and Joey Barton were handled carefully by the club and the manager.
But Dyche's side have grown increasingly difficult to watch in the last few weeks. The manager has returned to a safety-first approach that has seen creative talents including club-record signing Robbie Brady and Johann Gudmundsson stuck on the bench along with Gray, unquestionably the most dangerous striker in the squad.
Those substitutes have been joined by Steven Defour of late, meaning Dyche has regularly been naming a bench with around £30 million of talent sitting on it. This is incredible for a club that has traditionally had an extremely low budget compared to peers.
Defour has not played a single minute in the last six weeks despite being fit to play, and the Belgian looks certain to be one of the players who will leave Turf Moor in the transfer window, with the impending departure of England international Michael Keane also virtually guaranteed.
Fitness issues meant Defour struggled to complete a full 90 minutes in the first half of the campaign, but his influence was key as the Clarets made a strong start to life in the Premier League. He was excellent in the home wins over Liverpool and Watford and scored one of the team's best goals of the season in the draw against Hull City, beating his man with a sublime touch before driving into space and lashing an unstoppable drive into the bottom corner.
While Dyche appears to have lost faith in Defour for some reason, Burnley's record when the 29-year-old has been named in the team is extremely good. Assuming he is not in the side to face West Ham this weekend, Defour will have started 19 games in all competitions this season. Of those, the Clarets have recorded 10 victories and two draws, form that would see them in the top half of the league if extrapolated over the course of a whole league season.
Dyche is known to be a fan of data sets such as win ratios, so it is odd how he has been wilfully overlooking Defour, especially after Barton's absence due to a betting-related ban opened up a place in the team.
The midfielder was also absent for two of the team's worst performances of the season, the EFL Cup defeat at Accrington Stanley in August and the FA Cup fifth-round loss at home to Lincoln City of the National League. It is evident from the statistics that results are better when Defour plays.
While the Clarets have reached the 40-point mark despite Defour not featuring much since the turn of the year -- he did not manage a single minute in February or March due to injuries -- the best football the team has played all season was when he was a regular starter.
While Defour's lack of mobility means it is hard to fit him in to Dyche's preferred 4-4-2 formation, the team recorded a handful of home wins while playing one forward earlier in the campaign. Having Defour back in the team would likely require a major tactical shift, perhaps even for the system to be redesigned around him, but he is certainly good enough to deserve that honour.
While complaining about Dyche is churlish considering he has recorded two promotions to the Premier League and kept the Clarets up, his underuse of Defour feels like a misstep. Defour has won four league titles, been capped over 50 times by Belgium and has played in the Champions League. It is strange Dyche now deems him not good enough for Burnley.
The club's fans are not accustomed to seeing players of Defour's undoubted class, and it is a shame they have not been given the chance to enjoy watching him more often this season. Hopefully they will at least get the opportunity to say goodbye to him on Sunday.
Jamie Smith is ESPN FC's Burnley blogger. Follow him on Twitter @nonaynevernet.