Wood we sell Chris?
Plus: xG shows a lack of luck
Another week, another defeat - this time in the FA Cup with Huddersfield Town coming from behind to dump us out in the third round. Our main article this week comes from Nate Gilman, assessing xG, but first here’s me on Chris Wood.
Wood we sell Chris?
On Sunday morning, a report came out in the Telegraph suggesting that Newcastle United had set their sights on signing Wood, with Burnley apparently open to a sale.
On the face of it, this might sound just as unlikely as the James Tarkowski stories that were doing the rounds a few weeks ago. Tarkowski and Wood are both key players, although they have badly underperformed this season, so allowing them to join a direct relegation rival would appear to make little sense from a football perspective.
Wood, after all, has scored at least 10 Premier League goals in each of the four seasons he has spent with us since he joined from Leeds United. The list of players who have done the same is short: Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah, Jamie Vardy, Heung-Min Son and Alexandre Lacazette. Wood might not be universally popular with Burnley fans, but it is impossible to argue he does not get the job done for us more often than not.
This season has been very different, though. Wood has only scored three goals in 17 Premier League appearances and for once is not our top scorer, with Maxwel Cornet’s remarkable impact leaving him in the shade. Cornet has become the main man of the Burnley attack, though he will be absent for a short while due to international duty.
I get the feeling Dyche’s faith in Wood has been gradually waning. He came off at half-time at the weekend, supposedly due to a knock, with Burnley’s poor performance before the break somehow becoming even more wretched after Wood’s departure.
Most would agree Wood has not been at his sharpest in a lot of games, but Dyche seems to be making him the scapegoat for our attacking issues. He has started 17 games, but been taken off in 11 of them. For context, during last season Wood started 33 games in the Premier League and he came just off 10 times. That means something.
So if Dyche doesn’t fully trust Wood any more, should we consider cashing in on him?
Newcastle are going to buy a striker soon with Callum Wilson out for two months. They are going to get ripped off and end up paying silly money for someone. To play devil’s advocate a bit: with Burnley now likely to be relegated, it might as well be us.
That the squad needs refreshing is obvious and Alan Pace does not seem to have the cash to make that happen. For all the praise over our summer transfer window, a net spend of £20 million represented progress but clearly has not had the transformative impact on our fortunes that was needed after several years of under-investment.
Selling Wood for a big fee - and I think negotiations would have to start at £30 million to pique our interest at all - would give Dyche some room to reshape an ageing squad. Wood’s contract is up in 2023 and he is already 30. He is at his peak value right now.
The problem is selling Wood with Cornet away reduces our goalscoring potential to virtually nil with two gigantic home matches on the horizon in the next week or so.
It isn’t an easy call, but big decisions certainly have to be made during this window.
xG shows a lack of luck
The underlying numbers always offer a clue as to why performances and results are poor. Sitting down to write this, I asked if our defence was conceding more chances? Are the attacking players creating less? The answer to both questions surprised me.
When you compare this season to the previous four Premier League campaigns, the Clarets’ numbers are… pretty much the same.
This season, according to Football Reference/Statsbomb data, Sean Dyche’s squad have actually created more expected goals, 17.0, through 17 matches than in any season other than 2019-20, when the Clarets had created 19.7.
A quick aside for those who are unfamiliar with this metric: expected goals (xG) models use information from tens of thousands of shots across top football leagues to determine how likely a shot from a certain location is to be scored. So Burnley’s 17.0 xG so far this year outpaces last season’s total, at this point, of 14.6 xG.
However, the Clarets’ finishing has been a little unlucky so far, at least compared to xG. Whereas previous Dyche teams overperformed their expected goals early in the season, this season the Clarets are running cold, two goals behind where xG says they might otherwise have scored.
Last season provides a more dramatic example of Burnley running cold. At the 17-match mark, the Clarets had scored just eight goals from their chances worth 14.6 xG.
One other attacking note should be mentioned, however. According to Understat (which has different expected goals totals than FBref), the Clarets have created just over half of their xG in open play, the lowest in a season going back to 2017-18 with more than a third of their total xG coming from corners.
Though the overall scoring chances remain similar year-over-year, there should be concern about the lack of open-play scoring opportunities being created this season.
Despite criticism of his performances, it’s worth noting that Wood still leads the Clarets in xG this season with 4.4. However, Wood’s xG per 90 minutes (0.29) is currently the lowest it’s been as a Claret and well below the 0.48 xG/90 he recorded in 2018-19 and 0.44 in 2019-20.
Wood is taking slightly fewer shots per match but putting about half as many on target per match than in previous seasons. Wood’s lack of production can’t be fully blamed on lack of on target shots because of the drop in xG as well since expected goals models don’t factor in whether a shot was on or off target. So far this season, Wood is taking shots that have lower chances of being scored overall.
Defensively, the story is much the same. Burnley’s defence have allowed more chances this season but not so many more than in past campaigns. Granted, that’s the highest expected goals allowed in any season since 2018-19 but not by a whole lot.
Burnley’s opponents haven’t been providing much help either this season, scoring 26 goals from 25.9 xGA. Whereas some opponents in previous years finished poorly based on quality of chances created (cough, 2017-18), this season that isn’t the case.
The underlying numbers, expected goals minus expected goals allowed, put Burnley ahead of relegation rivals Newcastle, Watford, and Norwich City as well as slightly better on a per 90 minute basis than Leeds United.
This is all to say that Dyche has succeeded in setting up a squad that isn’t among the worst in the league, so is usually good enough to avoid the drop anyway.
Dyche has been able to get similar attacking and defensive numbers out of inexpensive squads (at least by Premier League standards) and a consistent tactical approach. Dyche and his coaching team might be looking at the same kind of numbers as these and think the squad is good enough to turn things around.
And based on what we’ve seen, the team is performing about where they have in the past, like was noted above, enough to survive, and on multiple occasions, good enough for top ten finishes. When you’re a team constantly in the conversation about the drop, you have less margin for error for survival. Burnley are creating and allowing similar amounts of chances but they haven’t had much luck so far.
Could the Clarets bounce back in 2022 and go on the run we’ve seen a few times of seven or eight unbeaten, notching some upsets along the way? Sure. But the slow first half and the real lack of improvement over the years leaves Burnley in a tricky spot.
The absence of Cornet on international duty complicates matters further. How Pace and Dyche approach the January transfer window will be very interesting.
I’ve seen calls to add a creative central midfielder this window but that’s complicated. Dyche’s seeming preference to play 4-4-2 requires hard-working, defensively sound central midfielders. If Dyche was willing to go back to the 4-5-1/4-4-1-1 set-up he often favoured with Jeff Hendrick at 10, an attacking midfielder could make sense.
If 4-4-2 will be the formation to determine the Clarets’ future in the Premier League, a striker with a complementary skillset to Wood could be top of the transfer wish list. In that case, Cornet could return to the wing whenever he’s available again.
However the decision-makers at Turf Moor approach this window, incoming signings surely seem necessary. Retention of key pieces is vital as well. As noted above, though Wood isn’t creating as much danger as we’ve become accustomed to, getting him back on track has to be the highest priority for the rest of the season. Selling him should be a non-starter, especially to a relegation rival.
The Clarets don’t have the same cushion they’ve had in past seasons. Though the team statistically looks very similar, they’ve used up their margin for error if they want to be preparing for another Premier League fixture list next summer.
Birthdays and anniversaries
Gary Parkinson is 54 today. If you have a few quid spare, consider chucking it his way.
Our last game #OnThisDay was a 2-1 defeat of QPR in 2015, but let’s flash back even further to 1998 and a 2-0 home win against Watford, in which Andy Cooke scored a hilariously scrappy opener and was later on the mark with his noggin again.
Last week, I suggested it is time to seriously ask questions of Dyche. The shocking display on Saturday, albeit with a Covid-hit squad, just deepens my view further.
We had a couple of letters in response to that newsletter, firstly from John S:
Totally agree with your points made here but I do feel we are in a position to be more vocal in our discontent. As you say Dyche has plenty of credit in the bank and there is no doubting his achievements. However we have had a significant lack of progression on the pitch now for three seasons and the core values he talks about are sadly lacking.
It’s now just a case of giving it all we can to the end of the season, maybe a couple of players in and a change in the starting XI can at least breathe some life into the season but the tactical limitations continually imposed will certainly restrict seeing anything overly encouraging and I don’t see too many things positive to shout about for Clarets supporters.
The point about core values is spot on. For years we’ve been told that “maximum effort is the minimum requirement” but I’m not sure we’ve been seeing that lately.
Mark G also wrote in after the defeat to Leeds a week ago:
I don't think it's time for Dyche Out chants at the minute - like you said he has enough credits to his name plus he's the best and most successful manager in my life time. Stan was a good manager but Dyche has worked miracles.
My heart’s saying we can stay up yet my head is saying we may go down. Just a shame we lose Cornet for a month for the African Nations Cup. Cornet was class coming on, I think he should have started, his free kick was class. I thought Lennon had two good games and took his great goal against Manchester United well.
There is no denying Dyche’s record overall, but at some point do the results and performances of the last 18 months count for more than what he did with us before?
Always good to hear from you, so let me know your views on Wood and the xG stuff picked out by Nate this week. Chances are the Leicester game on Saturday will be off, in which case I’ll delay the newsletter until after we play again. Whenever that is!