Burnley away, described as a must-win by some and must not lose by others – we managed to gift the Clarets a win in a game it would be hard to argue they deserved.
Given our record at Turf Moor maybe this wasn’t surprising, but this isn’t the Burnley side that finished 7th last season, it is the one that before a run of three wins around New Year was in the bottom three and with the second worst defensive record in the league. As a fan base, we keep being hopeful it will turn around and even after today people say that we need to have more positivity and there’s plenty of games to go and it’s fine to hold that opinion. But what evidence is there to support that? We’ve won three games out of 22 – all at home – and if we can’t get points from those around us how do we expect to do anything other than getting hammered when the big teams come to the Cottage in the second half of the season.
With the way the game started, we could have been forgiven for believing this might be the day where the team showed the fight and quality to make a decisive statement in the race to avoid the drop. A long ball from Denis Odoi in the vague direction of Andre Schurrle after two minutes looked like a bit of a lost cause but the German did well to take it down on his right foot and unleash one of the best strikes I’ve seen from a Fulham player over Heaton and into the far corner of the goal. When something as magical as that happens at a game for the team you support there is the thought that this has to be your day, however abstract that sentiment is. But it seems like the players also got sucked into that feeling as after we scored, we had our worst period of the match, with Burnley applying constant pressure to our back 5 and the midfield being unable to get out and play into Burnley’s half of the pitch.
This is where the structure of Ranieri’s 5 at the back system comes under huge scrutiny, especially with the deployment of Calum Chambers in midfield. Chambers has done an admirable impression of a central midfielder, which in fairness is more than can be said for some of our actual midfielders, but his lack of ability to keep possession when under pressure is harming the team. To be clear this can’t really be described as his fault specifically, a converted centre back is never likely to have the ability to retain the ball with their back to the play as that isn’t really the role they have to perform in their usual position. People like to have a go at Seri for giving the ball away but when he has no options and no reliable partner in possession next to him what exactly is he supposed to do?
The most harmful part of the Ranieri system, as we’ll call it here, is that it negates the best things about the squad that has been built by the Khans. Initially, there is a perfectly valid argument that shock treatment was needed, even if it was first identified by Slav away at Anfield, and there is a case to play it against the stronger sides in the league. However, to play it against teams in and around us in the table doesn’t make sense when our position dictates, we have to seize the initiative in games where points are readily available. People can point to successful results against Saints and Huddersfield but in particular the later game, we were incredibly fortunate to get anything out of it, considering how few genuine chances we had to score. Against Burnley, there were too many times where the two wingers playing off Mitrovic didn’t get into the game and the wing back system demands a huge amount on the ball from Christie and Bryan, neither of whom had their most effective displays.
The second half was a huge improvement in terms of our general play as we actually got on the ball for the first time in what feels like years, but in reality is about 10 games ago under Slav, and used the possession to put Burnley under pressure. The arrival of Tom Cairney onto the pitch and a move to 4-3-3 seems like the best solution when playing teams lower down the table and someone as experienced in management as Ranieri surely has to realise the potential success of this approach going forward. TC, in particular, showed some of his best qualities when he came on with his manipulation of the ball, the great timing of his passes and even had the drive at the opposition defenders which has largely been missing from his game so far this season. The key to us getting out of the mess we currently find ourselves in has been to restore a three in midfield and to give TC the license to create opportunities because he’s the only one who appears to have that skill set when he’s in the mood.
People will point to the way that Burnley’s goals came about, own goals from Bryan and Odoi after decent work in the penalty area by Jeff Hendrick and say that proves our defeat was down to bad luck rather than anything fundamental in the performance. The header onto the woodwork from Chambers and Tarkowski’s goal line stop from Vietto’s shot does seem to support that feeling. But in context of the full 90 minutes, and the season as a whole, this explanation doesn’t provide much consolation. Burnley spent pretty much the entire first half in dangerous positions on the pitch and if the own goals didn’t happen then there were plenty of other chances that might have gone the other way. We have been unlucky in moments throughout the season, there’s no doubt about that, but at what point do we stop bemoaning bad luck and accept that to be in our position means a severe lack of quality throughout the 22 games so far this term.
Playing away from home in any division isn’t easy but the record of 2 points all season is bordering on a disgrace given the amount of time and money supporters invest in travelling across the country, not just for a Saturday at 3 o’clock but all the wonderful times Sky and BT decide we have to play to suit a TV audience. But the resolute determination of fans to make a long and logistically challenging journey is one of many things that we all love about this club. Whether we end up staying in this league or dropping out of it we’ll still do exactly the same. This doesn’t mean we should give up and be resigned to what appears to be our destiny as there are still a lot of points on offer, even if it doesn’t feel like we’ll get that many of them.
Just as last January the opportunity and need to bring in some new signings could provide a welcome bit of excitement and enthusiasm both for the fans and those within the club who look like they need something to boost them for the rest of the season. The impact of Mitro and Targett last January will raise expectations for anyone we sign in this window but our last season in the Premier League offers a cautionary tale that not all signings made in this period will turn out to be a success. Overall, the outlook is bleak right now and the game against Spurs next Sunday will in all likelihood make it a whole lot worse, but we’ve been in worse positions as a club and we have to hope something will change even if every bit of reality tells you it’s unlikely. See you all back the Cottage.