The Clarets have bounced back from a dip in form in remarkable fashion, and are looking to push on in their quest for promotion, come May. Jordan Eyre takes a look at the reasons for the revival, the fixtures ahead and what new players could bring…

It has been a physically demanding start to 2016 for Burnley, but if there is a squad in the Championship capable of ploughing through the rigorous schedule of regular fixtures, it is Sean Dyche’s tireless Clarets.

Three away trips to Middlesbrough, MK Dons and Brentford have yielded an impressive return of 10 goals and, more importantly, three wins. Their reward for such endeavour is a trip to current holders Arsenal in the FA Cup at Boro’s expense; in the league, two thumping away wins at Stadium:mk and Griffin Park have seen them jump from stalling play-off hopefuls to firm promotion contenders.

It was a tumultuous end to 2015, as a run of six games without a win from the beginning of November to mid-December raised question marks about whether Dyche’s men had the mettle to last the distance and keep up with the division’s pacesetters. Any existing questions have since been emphatically quashed by a series of performances that have fans daring to dream once more.

Identifying the reasons for a reversal in form is not difficult. Michael Duff, a Burnley stalwart of over 12 years, is 38 years of age and for all his experience and wisdom in defensive situations, one wonders whether body can carry out what the mind is thinking. There have been moments when Duff has been beaten for pace, exploited by his limitations and the Clarets have been ultimately punished.

Dyche’s pragmatic response has worked well. Ben Mee has been moved centrally alongside Michael Keane at Duff’s expense, while Republic of Ireland international Stephen Ward has come in at left-back. The reshuffle has been instantly vindicated: Burnley have conceded twice in their last five games, and Ward even got the winner against Boro in that third round cup game 10 days ago.

Ward’s re-introduction to the side has also coincided with an upturn in fortunes going forwards, too. While he has yet to contribute either an assist or goal in the league, he has taken up threatening positions and, against Brentford last Friday night, was among the best players in a scintillating team performance.

His predecessor at left-back, the now-repositioned Mee, has been one the club’s best players this season. The former Manchester City man has gradually improved since joining the Clarets in 2012, and has been rewarded with a place at the heart of the defence – a position in which he excelled at youth level for City as captain. Judging by his displays in a central berth, it’s a case of new year, new Mee.

Another player who has shone recently and, in fairness, has done all season, is Joey Barton. Any reservations over the 33-year-old’s arrival in the summer have now surely dissipated in the wake of a string of displays that quite frankly, have been brilliant. It is difficult to find a player parallel to Barton in terms of performance levels in the league this season, and alongside David Jones, has given Burnley security in possession and a springboard for counter-attacks.

The overall quality of each aspect of Burnley’s game has been superb, and all in good time. Next up for Dyche’s men are Derby County at Turf Moor, a game with potentially huge ramifications on the promotion picture come May. That testing duel with the Rams is followed by a trip to Hillsborough to face sixth-placed Sheffield Wednesday, before Hull City travel to East Lancashire.

Dyche will isolate each game as it comes of course, but many would suggest that these three fixtures represent a real test of Burnley’s promotion credentials heading into the business end of the season. The Clarets boss will be counting on his squad to continue their stellar form, but new signings may also be in the offing as the manager continues his pursuit of key targets.

Brentford pair James Tarkowski and Alan Judge have been heavily linked, with the former going as far as refusing to play for the Bees in that televised match five days ago. The chances of securing either player seem remote given the rumoured fees manager Dean Smith is holding out for – believed to be £5m and £8m respectively – so securing both seems even less likely.

But a player in the mould of Judge would be ideal for a Burnley side who, despite the standard of their play, seem more functional than easy on the eye. A creative midfielder, a schemer of sorts, would offer a different dimension and be able to produce a goals from nothing – as Judge did in the second half against the Clarets.

Generally, however, it has been a strong start to the year for the club. Sustaining this run of form is a different matter entirely, but for now, the signs look ominous for rest of the Championship as Burnley’s bristling performances have them primed for a possible return to the Premier League next season.

By Jordan Eyre
@_jordaneyre

 

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