The Turnaround: How Burnley’s New Style of Play Under Mike Jackson Is Key to Survival
Soccer

The Turnaround: How Burnley’s New Style of Play Under Mike Jackson Is Key to Survival


Nobody really thought Mike Jackson would have an impact. Most assumed Burnley’s owners had made a mistake sacking Sean Dyche, and even those with insider knowledge – aware of the friction that had developed in the dressing room – thought moving on would be a painful process.

Burnley and Dyche were synonymous. A shift in tactical strategy would see them crumble; would confirm a relegation that already looked inevitable. Or so we thought.

It is still early days for Jackson, perhaps too early to attribute his start to anything more than a new-manager bounce or to declare his interim role a success. Burnley are only outside the bottom three on goal difference. They’ll likely need at least three points from games against Tottenham Hotspur (a), Aston Villa (h), and Newcastle United (a) to survive.

But there is no denying Jackson’s impact has been pretty remarkable, winning 10 points (29% of their season total) from five matches and significantly altering Burnley’s style of play in the process.

Many of the basics look the same. Burnley are still playing in a 4-4-2. There remains a large-and-large strike partnership up top with two skilful wingers backing them up, while there has been no discernible change in their defensive style (either in pressing or position of their defensive line). Yet anyone watching Burnley’s last five games will have noticed a shift towards shorter passing and greater possession, along with some subtle personnel tweaks that have reinvigorated the squad.

That reinvigoration can be hard to capture in statistics. Energy, togetherness, vigour. These are the emotional intangibles defining Burnley’s revival as much as anything tactical. The shake-up alone – an inner-Burnley awoken by the manager change – might explain why, pre- and post-Jackson, their xG per game has risen from 1.05 to 1.97 and their xGA has dipped from 1.72 to 1.54. Similarly, their shot count is up from 10.2 to 14.0 per game and shots conceded down from 16.2 to 13.4.

In fact, under Jackson Burnley’s non-penalty xG rolling average has crossed over into positive for the first time in more than 12 months:

Burnley Rolling xG plot

Take the Ball, Pass the Ball

Dyche’s old-school ideas are well understood but it’s still worth mentioning how much of an extreme outlier they were in the Premier League, not least to highlight how impressive it is that Jackson has changed a squad sculpted in Dyche’s image.

In the 2020-21 campaign Burnley ranked bottom for passing accuracy (71.6%), first for aerials won (23.4 per game), and first for long balls (76.7 per game). That pattern continued through the 2021-22 campaign. A look at the team style graphic below shows us just how direct Burnley were playing under their former manager.

Burnley's style under Dyche in PL 2021-22

That all changed after Jackson took charge.

Under the new regime, Jackson’s side are stringing longer moves of passes together, putting their foot on the ball to play in a more progressive style. Burnley’s average number of passes per game have risen from 320.8 to 364.6, while their long passes have dropped overall (from 70.8 to 62.2) and as a percentage of their total passes (from 22.1% 17.1%).

Burnley's Style under Jackson vs. Dyche

Their number of 10+ open-play pass sequences is up from 2.4 to 6.2 per game, their average ‘sequence time’ is up from 5.7 to 6.7 seconds, and their possession share has risen from 39.2% to 44.1%.

Put together, this paints a picture of a team looking to hold onto the ball for longer periods of time, while moving it shorter and more patiently. And this is not limited to what they do in deep areas of the pitch, either: Burnley’s open-play crosses have gone down from 14.4 to 11.8 per game.

Interestingly, this has not made Burnley a more sideways team. Even putting to one side their improved goals and points tally – evidence enough – the distance in metres that Burnley move upfield per sequence has risen from 9.6 to 11.3, showing their improvement in progressing the ball forwards.


Repurposing McNeil

They achieve that directness with possession chiefly thanks to Dwight McNeil, the most improved player under Jackson. In the midst of a difficult season, McNeil has been moved back out to right midfield, a simple but effective change that allows the 23-year-old to cut inside in possession rather than drive down the outside left and into a cul-de-sac.

Burnley’s increased possession-recycling means McNeil is getting on the ball in deeper areas of the field, from which he can start to drive forward on the ball – cutting inside to carry Burnley into the final third. Those diagonal movements, starting within his own half, suit McNeil’s skill set far more than picking up the ball high on the left and trying to beat his man on the outside.

Dwight McNeil Progressive Carries Under Jackson

McNeil’s carries have gone up from 12.3 to 16.6 under Jackson, while his dribbles are up from 2.3 to 2.8 per game. He is becoming the creative driving force of the team again, and getting more touches of the ball, too. His 111 against Southampton and 107 against Watford are two of his three highest tallies this season.


Jackson’s Possession Explains the Slow Starts

The biggest obstacle to Burnley surviving is making slow starts. Aston Villa took the lead in the seventh minute last weekend and Watford scored in the eighth minute the week before, while Southampton and Wolves both missed good early chances in previous matches.

In fact, despite good results in three of these four, Jackson will be a little concerned by how open his team have been at times. Burnley’s possession in their own third is inherently more risky, and the slower tempo of their passing leaves them vulnerable to both starting matches without enough energy and getting caught on the ball.

Opposition high turnovers have increased from 3.4 to 4.4 per match since Jackson’s appointment, while Burnley’s PPDA against has dropped from 13.5 to 12.5 and their pressed sequences against have gone up from 13.4 to 14.2. Although it is a small sample size, Burnley haven’t exactly played hard-pressing teams under the new management and the numbers suggest there is some cause for concern that this style is encouraging more defensive actions against them.

But that is simply the price of a more progressive style of football. And at this moment in time, it looks well worth paying, because in just three weeks Jackson has taken Burnley from relegation certainties to 17th – and done it by dismantling a tactical system that has defined the club for 10 years.


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Design by Matt Sisneros.