Rewind three months to the jovial faces at a diligent, lovable Burnley whose typically plucky goalless draw with Brighton secured European football at Turf Moor for the first time in 51 years.
It was a celebration of epic proportions for a down-to-earth club with an initial target to merely remain a Premier League club. Burnley’s spectacular achievement was rightly lauded across the nation, and dreams of sparkling European nights in the north east were within touching distance for fans whose unwavering optimism would never have stretched as far as a European challenge.
Smiles plastered on the faces of gravel-tongued manager Sean Dyche and an unusually small squad was an apt indicator of Burnley’s unlikely rise to prominence, and one fans would never forget.
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It was an indelible occasion, yet the Clarets are currently clinging onto last season’s jubilation as respite from what has so far been a torrid campaign in both the Premier League and Europe.
Sean Dyche thrives upon operating with a manageable, compact squad of players whose names can be remembered with ease – Burnley were amongst the clubs who made the fewest changes to their starting eleven last term. But the Clarets swiftly discovered, as their season unconventionally began in late July with their first European adventure, that balancing two aggressive competitions is far easier said than done.
And while their small, motivated band of players was something other clubs could aspire to, their Premier League opponents will now be looking on with worried glances at a side whose storybook journey has brutally morphed into a genuine relegation struggle.
Winless across the board
Ostensibly Burnley’s results in the early stages of an arduous Europa League qualifying campaign resonated with their most impressive in last year’s Premier League season.
Battling for a goalless draw in a hostile, humid Istanbul against Basaksehir, warding off hopeful Aberdeen and fighting until the death against European superiors Olympiakos all suggested Burnley were up to the taxing challenge.
But a sterner examination shows that the Clarets couldn’t have been worse equipped for a European adventure. Money-fuelled clubs like Chelsea and Arsenal possess an endless squad of players, with many players slavering at the opportunity to earn first team football.
Youth players who are often unveiled solely for Europa League group stage campaigns are preserved in metaphorical freezers, waiting for the chance to emerge from the cold and perhaps unleash their talent on the continental stage.
Burnley simply do not have this at their disposal, and their lack of strength in depth has cost them sorely in both the Premier League and Europa League. Sean Dyche’s men are yet to pick up a win in 90 minutes in all competitions, with their only victories coming in extra time against Aberdeen and Istanbul Basaksehir.
Perhaps most concerning, though, is the fact that their fundamental philosophy – a rigid, impenetrable defence – has proven their most damaging flaw.
Burnley have leaked nine goals in their four Premier League matches; a tally only better than West Ham and Huddersfield, who have both conceded ten.
What is to blame?
Tiredness due to excessive travelling to accommodate for European exploits is a genuine, ruinous problem. It has taken its ultimate toll on Burnley, and its impacts have been intensified by their inability to rotate the team fully.
Even bigger names in European football, who can unfurl a completely different eleven to that in their domestic league, suffer from tiredness, simply because the long journeys suck energy out of first team players even if they don’t get any minutes on the pitch.
Admittedly a trip to Scotland was hardly punishing, however after Burnley successfully negotiated Aberdeen they faced lengthy ventures to Turkey and Greece respectively – with Premier League matches just around the corner.
And the rock solid evidence to demonstrate their difficulties were the results after returning from those countries.
A hard-earned stalemate against Southampton remains their solitary point this term, and shaky defeats to Watford and Fulham, followed by a toothless exhibition versus Manchester United, leaves them tethered to the relegation zone and desperately requiring inspiration after the international break.
A favourable run of fixtures after the hiatus – where the Clarets face Wolves; Bournemouth; Cardiff and Huddersfield – should be pinpointed for guaranteed points. If they don’t come out of that stretch with at least seven points, the very realistic notion of relegation will loom over a previously buoyant Turf Moor.
Can Burnley pull themselves out of this mess?