Arsenal arrived at Turf Moor on a warm spring Sunday afternoon to draw the 2018/2019 Premier League season for themselves and their hosts to a close.
Having secured a slot in the Europa League final the previous Thursday evening, Unai Emery made nine changes to the team that had beaten Valencia, no doubt insuring against injuries ahead of their trip to Baku. Unfortunately for Burnley, one of the players retained in the Gunners’ starting line-up was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Fresh from his hat-trick in Spain, the in-form striker represented the difference between the two teams. A player of the highest quality whose pace and movement were a constant source of anxiety for the Burnley defence and who left Turf Moor with a further two goals to add to his impressive tally for the season.
Sad to relate, however, that Aubameyang was aided by a self-inflicted wound. Mistakes by Ben Mee occur with the same frequency as Halley’s Comet; but early in the second half Burnley’s Mr Consistency mis-controlled a rather hurried pass from Jack Cork and Aubameyang had all the invitation he needed to go on and slot the ball past Tom Heaton.
The Arsenal striker later volleyed in a second and despite Burnley’s efforts, the game was put beyond the Clarets.
Not that Burnley played badly, they stuck to their task and hauled themselves back into the match when Ashley Barnes headed in Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s cross, concluding a surge of intense pressure on the Arsenal goal.
Thereafter though, they were unable to maintain that pressure and force a point, and a full stop was put on the game when Arsenal scored their third with the last kick of the season.
A season which concluded satisfactorily for Burnley, despite a horrendous first half of the campaign during which Burnley seemed destined to be relegated.
Throughout that time they were shapeless, lethargic and lacking in both purpose and passion. All the qualities that are normally associated with the Clarets under Sean Dyche.
The 5-1 Boxing Day mauling at home to Everton represented a turning point; Dyche reverted to the 4-4-2 formation that he had become closely associated with; and made two selection decisions which were to prove crucial.
Tom Heaton was restored in goal, replacing a largely blameless Joe Hart; and teenage winger Dwight McNeill was brought in and given his head.
Heaton’s presence was comfortable and reassuring, like a favourite pair of slippers. He smoothed out the lines of communication between keeper and back line and as a result Ben Mee and James Tarkowski began to perform with greater certainty and confidence.
McNeill in turn brought with him the vigour and swagger of youth; his close control and spurts of pace challenged opposing defenders who had previously been unruffled, he added an extra dimension of attacking thrust.
Victory against West Ham was a turning point, with McNeill scoring and Heaton keeping a clean sheet. A run of eight unbeaten league games followed culminating in a rousing 2-1 home win over Spurs who at the time were seriously challenging for the title.
After that, there followed a run of four consecutive defeats, including a horror show at home to ten-man Leicester City, which plunged Burnley back into the relegation mire.
But victories over Wolves, Bournemouth and (vitally) Cardiff followed by a feisty draw at Chelsea pulled Burnley clear of danger. It turned out alright in the end.
The endeavour, commitment, organisation and skill shown by Burnley in the second half of the season should not be underestimated. From so perilous a starting point, to pull themselves out of trouble and achieve survival with four games remaining required a huge effort and when the standard of the opponents is factored in, is an achievement comparable with the long unbeaten run which climaxed in Burnley winning the 2016 Championship.
Despite all that, it must be acknowledged that, taken in the round, this has been a bad season for Burnley; a season in which the club regressed, failing to capitalise on last season’s seventh place. Most Clarets fans would have been realistic enough at the outset not to expect such lofty heights to be achieved again, but a relegation scrap would surely have been off the agenda.
There were a combination of mitigating factors; the ludicrously unwieldy format of the Europa League; players returning tired and injured from the World Cup and the disruption this caused to pre-season training.
But it is also true that Burnley sleepwalked through the last two, possibly three, transfer windows. Whilst not diminishing the importance of working within a budget, investing in infrastructure and future-proofing the club, the fact remains that next season will be Burnley’s fifth Premier League season out of the last six.
That achievement is down almost entirely to Sean Dyche, he deserves the opportunity to develop this team further; to have the purse strings loosened and to be the recipient of a more dynamic, a more focused and a more aggressive recruitment policy.
Burnley’s squad is in not in need of major renovations, merely a makeover but this must happen in the summer’s transfer window. In the cut-throat world of the Premier League, standing still is not an option, but it too often seems that the club’s hierarchy are quite prepared to do just that.
I repeat, Sean Dyche deserves better and if he doesn’t receive it, he may well conclude that he has done all he can for the club.
The other big issue Burnley must address during the summer is ensuring an improvement in their home form. Burnley lost more than half of their home games this season and that is unacceptable. Fortress Turf Moor must be re-established.
Next season will be more challenging than this; Norwich City, Sheffield United and whichever one of the stately old clubs emerges from the play-offs are unlikely to be as meek and listless as Huddersfield and Fulham and will possess classier players than those of Cardiff.
At the other end Manchester City will once again set the standard, but expect Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and perhaps even Manchester United to rise to the challenge.
This is what makes the Premier League so compelling and so fascinating to football watchers all over the globe. This club – our club – from this small run-down town in post-industrial Lancashire will continue to play their part in this epic production, and that is quite something.
Written by Dave Thornley who has contributed on behalf of Clarets Mad throughout the 2018/19 EPL season. Same again next season Dave? (TEC.)