Big clubs quiet but Sean Dyche building fine reputation at Burnley
When Burnley welcome Arsenal to Turf Moor on Sunday, they will do so with a starting XI that cost around £65 million. Their back five cost about £7.5m -- roughly a fifth of what their opponents spent on Shkodran Mustafi. Seven of the likely starters were recruited from the Championship, or lower. And yet they will start the game level with Arsene Wenger's side, a point shy of the Champions League places and with the third-best defensive record in the Premier League.
That's the reason manager Sean Dyche is one of the highest rated managers in the country. He could yet be poached by an Everton side desperate for the stability and direction that he might bring, but for now Burnley are delighted he remains with them.
So what makes him so good, and why have bigger clubs been slow to seek him out?
His journey to becoming a manager began almost before his playing career did. His assistant Ian Woan has known him for nearly 28 years, meeting when the pair were youngsters at Nottingham Forest.
"Looking back then, we would say he was always going to go down this route," Woan told the Lancashire Telegraph. "There was no doubt in any of our minds that he was going to be a manager."
Dyche was only 18 at the time. But perhaps his early ambitions aren't a surprise, given the manager Woan and Dyche played under at Forest. Brian Clough's prime years had passed by the time Dyche played under him, but the young defender was clearly influenced by one of the game's greats.
Clough preached simplicity and that seems to be a central tenet of Dyche's style: or, perhaps more accurately, rather than having simple concepts, making sure he communicates with his players in an uncomplicated way.
Forward Martin Paterson was at Burnley when Dyche arrived in 2012, after Eddie Howe returned to Bournemouth.
"He was excellent at letting the players know how he wanted us to play," Paterson tells ESPN FC. "He would say: 'We're going with this system, you're playing here,' then want you to get on with it and in his words 'go hard.' He wants people to fall into that mindset of everything's for the good of the team."
Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton concurs. "He simplifies it for players," he said in Tim Quelch's new book From Orient to the Emirates, about Burnley's rise to the Premier League. "He sets the standard, the expectation, the format of what he wants. It helps that he's so approachable."
"Approachable" is not a word you'd readily use to describe Clough, but Dyche seems to have taken on his old boss' talent for psychology and reaching his players on a human, as well as a sporting, level.
"He is very high on different types of psychology," striker Sam Vokes said in From Orient To The Emirates. "He is a good motivator off the pitch. Coming here with his extensive playing experience and his relatively youthful age, he understands the lads and gets on with them."
That interest in psychology might inform Dyche's approach to the amount of time he spends with his players. For the first half of the week he lets Woan and coach Tony Loughlan (another former Forest teammate) take training, but when games approach he appears, to maximise the impact of his presence.
"I think it works," Woan told the Burnley Telegraph. "I've worked with managers before who bark from Monday to Friday, and it loses its bite. The players know that when they hear his voice on a Thursday, it's the business end."
"His man management with individuals is brilliant," said former Burnley defender Kieran Trippier, while on international duty with England in November. "He helped me a lot on and off the field. Respect, that's what you get from him, and honesty. He demands a lot and all his players throughout the years at Burnley have been willing to work for him because of that honesty. He's just a good all-round coach and a great guy too."
Trippier is perhaps the best example of Dyche's success in taking unfancied players, improving them and thus creating a better team. Trippier came through Manchester City's youth system and spent a season on loan at Burnley before signing permanently in January 2012, a few months before Dyche's arrival. He was already a promising Championship-level player, but under Dyche he blossomed into one of the best right-backs in the Premier League, and has since improved further at Tottenham.
While in the last year or two Dyche has been able to spend comparatively large sums on the likes of Chris Wood, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, Burnley's first-choice defence consists of Matthew Lowton, signed for £1m after a season in and out of Aston Villa's team; Ben Mee, like Trippier, signed from Manchester City before Dyche's arrival; James Tarkowski, a £4m purchase from Brentford; and Stephen Ward, nabbed from under Brighton's nose after a year on loan from Wolves. Goalkeeper Nick Pope, a signing from League One Charlton, was nominated for Premier League player of the month in October while covering for the injured Heaton, the club captain acquired on a free transfer in 2013.
This collection of misfits and hidden talents has let in a remarkably miserly nine goals in 12 games this season. Only the two Manchester clubs have been better. In his two full (promotion-winning) seasons in the Championship, Burnley had the best, then second-best, defensive record in the division. Even when they were relegated from the Premier League in 2014-15, they conceded the same number of goals as fifth-place Tottenham. "When he came in we were conceding a lot of goals," said Trippier. "He tightened the defence straight away."
That also speaks to Dyche's management style; a pragmatist in the truest sense of the word. That has led to questions about his style of play, which is frequently rather industrial, but Paterson believes that's a necessary consequence of the job he's doing.
"I think one thing that's helped him is that I believe he's underestimated," Paterson says. "He's stereotyped as a big centre-half, and I believe the style of play thing is a myth. You don't play Danny Ings in the No.10 slot [as he did between 2013-15] and not play football. If you gave him Eden Hazard or Cesc Fabregas I'm pretty sure he wouldn't play the same way."
It was interesting that, immediately after Burnley's 1-0 win over Southampton on Nov. 4 when speculation was at its height that he could take the Everton job, Dyche obliquely referenced this idea.
"It's about the effective nature of football," he said. "It's about how you can work and be honest with your players -- what skillset have they got, and how we can make that into a team that's effective. I actually take great pride in what I think about football and what's appropriate about this group of players."
Dyche can come across as extremely paranoid when he complains about the perception of him, which he does frequently. He will often create straw man arguments based on some sort of ephemeral supposed slight, a good example being his comments about Antonio Conte, just after the Italian arrived at Chelsea last season.
"Conte got commended for bringing a hard, fast, new leadership to Chelsea, which involved doing 800-metre runs, 400m runs and 200m runs," Dyche said. "Come to my training and see Sean Dyche doing that and you'd say: 'Dinosaur, a young English dinosaur manager, hasn't got a clue'."
It was curious because Dyche has received almost universal praise, and if anyone was criticising his training methods, they were doing it very quietly.
"So is it perception or is it fact? I have no problem with it," he said.
So much so that he chose to bring it up, unprompted. It's as if he's having these conversations on his own.
It is perfectly possible that a big reason he has not yet been seriously considered for higher-profile work is the perception of him personally and his style of play. Those concerns may be well-founded: for all his success at Burnley, nobody knows if he would adapt to a club with greater resources, and as West Brom found out under Tony Pulis, an attritional style of play is fine when you're winning games, but things go south rapidly when the results disappear.
Still, for all the talk about a lack of aesthetic pleasure in his teams, one of his big influences is the most aesthetic of them all.
"Dyche's pressing game was derived from Barcelona who he regarded as the finest exemplar of this method," writes Quelch in From Orient To The Emirates. "Dyche remarked that, while it was Barcelona's passing skills which garnered the plaudits, it was their pressing game which impressed him most of all."
And it's not the only slightly unexpected area he has taken elements from. While doing his UEFA Pro license, Dyche spent time with the Oxford University rowing team.
"There is no confusion in their journey," he said. "They focus fiercely upon the Boat Race they are driving to win. You have the reserves who train as hard, if not harder, than the elite crew, even though they know they might not get in the boat for the big event. There was also a simplicity, a rawness of vision, just a blackboard with a date and a time when the Boat Race is going to be. I took a lot from that."
Many of the criticisms of Dyche have merit. His Burnley team will never win prizes or plaudits for pretty football; his perception of his critics far outweigh the reality. But a man who draws his influences from Clough, Barcelona and the Oxford rowing crew could never be an old fashioned grunt.
With their budget and playing staff, survival for Burnley this season would be a brilliant result. As it is, they could end the weekend in the Champions League places. It's quite a job that Dyche has done.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.