The Game Plan
The drawn-out caricatures of Burnley and Dyche’s footballing philosophy would mislead you to believe Albion can expect anti-football. Two flat banks of four Burnley midfielders and defenders in a 4-4-2 with former Throstle Chris Wood profiting from long balls and set-pieces as Burnley look to edge out their opposition.
To an extent these stereotypes remain valid – some of the hallmarks of defensive and aggressive football remain visible in Burnley’s play. They lead the league in aerial duels won (105) which is remarkable considering they have played a game less than most teams. For reference, Albion have won 45 aerial duels in four games.
Burnley also rank 20th in the Premier League for progressive passes and 19th for pass completion percentage. It is also worth noting that one in three attempted Burnley passes are considered long balls forward (33%). Surprisingly 32% of West Brom passes have also been long balls this year, yet you wouldn’t characterise Bilic ball as direct in any sense.
In what is a small sample size for Premier League football this season, it is very coincidental and therefore fortunate that both Albion and Burnley have two mutual opponents from this campaign – Leicester and Southampton. Despite the Baggies and the Clarets losing their respective games a lot can be learnt from their performances.
Burnley’s xG in their fixtures against Leicester and Southampton stands at a combined 2.4, four times as many as West Brom’s 0.6. In a system that hinges on a two man attack it perhaps isn’t shocking that the Lancashire outfit carve out decent goal scoring chances, but in this instance I’d say that this statistic illustrates a lack of creativity on Albion’s part.
For example, both sides have 66 passes in to the final third of the pitch, but Burnley have 33 passes in to the penalty area, Albion have ten. Yes, Robinson has not effectively offered the side an attacking focal point, but this is where the game will be won or lost on Monday evening. Albion have to be the more creative and clinical team in the final third.
This isn’t a ground-breaking theory but it’s particularly poignant against Burnley for two main reasons.
Firstly, Burnley will be very compact in the middle of the pitch off the ball. Brownhill, Westwood and McNeil will tuck in and continue to lead Burnley’s midfield press – their combined 188 pressures in their first three games is almost twice as much as their entire defence so far who have 106 pressures. With Stephens marshalling in front of the back four they will make it scrappy and hard for Albion’s flair players to pass through the lines or isolate a fullback. If there was ever a game for Romaine Sawyers to find his best form and play that quarterback role for Albion it will be Monday night. Adventurous, long passes that stretch the play could be Burnley’s undoing given their narrow, compact defensive shape.
Secondly, a congested middle third may stifle any attempts to play pretty football but it may leave space on the flanks for Gibbs and potentially Furlong to exploit. Albion must commit to more wing play against Burnley. Burnley play narrower away from home and they do not want to be stretched laterally in the final third because they don’t want pockets of space for Albion’s attackers emerging in the penalty area.
Pereira and co. will absolutely need to manufacture more chances than they have done, but Bilic will have to drill his defence to stop Burnley’s left side. Most of Burnley’s attacks will appear via link up between Taylor and McNeil. Whilst they’ve only mustered one shot between them this year, they’ve combined to create 16 shooting opportunities this year. Their right flank, Bardsley and Brownhill, have carved out half as many.
I would therefore not be surprised to see Albion revert to their five at the back system for this game. O’Shea and Furlong can occupy the space McNeil will want to operate in whilst also being able to muzzle Charlie Taylor by closing him down the right side of Albion’s defence. The extra centre half allows for the man marking of Wood and his strike partner whilst also offering defensive cover for any marauding wing back play from the home side.
With little in the way of creativity coming from Burnley’s central midfielders, Sawyers and Livermore may not have to contend with being overrun like they often have been this campaign.
A lot rests on whether Robinson is available or whether Grant is ready to start, but this could be a game where Austin starts and excels. He won’t have to dart in behind a high defensive line and his more than capable one-touch finishing in a cramped Burnley penalty area may be the difference.
This is by no means an easy game and based upon results this season across the league it’s almost impossible to predict what will happen at The Hawthorns tomorrow. Whilst I’m not bracing myself for a goal-fest, Albion certainly have the quality to break Burnley down. If Bilic gets his tactics right and with a bit of luck West Brom might just nab their first league win of the season.