Burnley's dilemma: should they try in Europe or focus on the league?
For football supporters of a certain vintage, Thursday night might look like the biggest occasion in Burnley's modern history. They will face Olympiakos for a place in the Europa League group stage and while they need to win by at least two clear goals, Sean Dyche's side has beaten the odds plenty of times before. It's the kind of assignment that has traditionally brought out their bullish, belligerent best; for around 20,000 home fans inside Turf Moor, some of whom will still remember the Clarets' European Cup quarterfinal appearance back in 1960-61, the volume will be turned up to its crackling, raucous limit.
Back then, European football was to be cherished beyond measure. But the modern game has shifted many clubs' priorities and Burnley are faced with a cold, hard truth that would once have been unthinkable: overcoming Olympiakos could well be the worst possible outcome for their season and for their immediate future.
"It's hard for the players," said Dyche after Sunday's 4-2 defeat at Fulham, which extended their win-less start to the season and made it eight top-flight games without a win in total. "They constantly get bombarded with negatives about being in the Europa League but for a club like Burnley, it's a fantastic positive."
In most cases it should be, but the danger to Burnley is quite specific. Their outstanding progress under Dyche has been underpinned by a maximum-energy, tightly bound approach that needs total focus in order to pay off against opponents who, by any admission, generally have more individual quality. On days when their setup -- in particular, a back line that only conceded 39 times in the 2017-18 season -- is not in perfect working order they become exposed and bereft, as if an elastic band has snapped. It happened in a surprisingly sloppy 3-1 home defeat to Watford; it happened again when Aleksandar Mitrovic & Co. ran riot in west London on a damp late-summer afternoon.
What does that have to do with the Europa League's Thursday-to-Sunday slog? Nobody instinctively warms to a traditionally unnatural schedule but in fairness, it is hard to ascribe total cause-and-effect evidence to any side's decline upon experiencing it. The example of Ipswich Town, relegated in 2001-02 after finishing fifth in the previous season, is generally cited as a cautionary tale: they played three two-legged rounds of UEFA Cup football, eventually losing to Inter Milan, and have not returned to the top flight since. Yet there were many other factors behind their demise -- new signings not settling in, key players departing, an ill-timed stadium expansion, simple "second-season syndrome" -- and the feeling at the time was more that European exertions had compounded existing issues rather than causing their slump.
Bolton experienced a near-miss six years later. They had fared well in their first season of UEFA Cup football, going down respectably to Marseille in the last-32 under Sam Allardyce in 2005-06 and still finishing eighth in the Premier League, but their 2007-08 campaign under Gary Megson saw scheduling concerns crystallise. With Bolton in relegation trouble but facing a finely poised last-16 second leg with Sporting Lisbon after already beating Atletico Madrid, Megson rested seven players and Bolton were eliminated.
"I've said all along our main aim is to retain our place in the Premier League," said Megson afterwards. That season Bolton only achieved that mathematically on the final day.
Others have been here before Burnley but the sense that they are ill-prepared for a minimum of six more games, should they turn things round against Olympiakos, persists. "[The Europa League] is more problematic in that we didn't get the players in that we had hoped for in numbers," Dyche admitted after the uncharacteristically error-strewn reverse at Craven Cottage, subsequently stating that Burnley lack quality in the final third: "an ongoing thing that we need to add."
There is no chance to make additions until January so Burnley's thin squad, still without Steven Defour and Robbie Brady due to injury, must go with what they have. When Johann Berg Gudmundsson pulled up in the first half at Fulham, specialist left-back Charlie Taylor was asked to replace him on the wing, to understandably minimal effect. They will soon integrate a match-fit Matej Vydra into the squad but the sense, even at this early stage of the season, is that Burnley are giving themselves plenty to do even before an extended European campaign is considered.
On Sunday, some 66 hours after Burnley have learned their Europa League fate, Manchester United will be the next visitors to Turf Moor. Jose Mourinho's side are at a low ebb and this, historically, is the kind of test to which Dyche and company have risen with aplomb. A resounding defeat in that fixture may set alarm bells ringing more loudly for United; meanwhile, earning all three points might make Burnley's struggles in a relatively soft start seem nothing more than a blip. But there remains a nagging suspicion that the old magic is starting to wear off.
Those are issues for the Premier League's weekly grind, a churning wheel bereft of novelty and light on levity but one that nobody on-board would dare to jump off it if relegation was the alternative. And that is the issue facing Burnley now: the very status they strove for in finishing seventh last season threatens, just a few months on, to become a dangerous millstone. After the sheer amount of guts and effort it has taken them to get this far, it brings about an agonising moral question: can they really afford to prolong the risk?