Can you smell it? Can you taste it? That sweet scent of survival is getting stronger.
Wout Weghorst collapsed in a heap. Others hugged in the middle of the field. Mike Jackson, Paul Jenkins and Ben Mee beamed with delight.
A crucial 1-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers propelled Burnley out of the relegation zone for the first time since October. How things have changed since that defeat at Norwich City two weeks ago, Burnley’s lowest point of the season. When Sean Dyche’s sacking followed five days later, they were four points behind Everton and many were asking serious questions.
With seven points from the next three games, Turf Moor are back to their fierce best and suddenly anything seems possible.
But how did it happen?
Work began on the second Under-23 coach, Jackson, being told by chairman Alan Pace that he was put in charge along with academy manager Jenkins and club captain Mee. “It’s a huge step forward,” said a source close to the camp. But they rose to the challenge.
With a match two days away, there was no time to waste. Jackson and Jenkins, aided by insights provided by Mee, came up with a plan of what they wanted to change tactically while retaining the core characteristics of what made this team so successful in the Premier League.
They decided on half a dozen key principles they felt they needed to change and passed them on to the players.
There was no talk of a coaching staff who came in and allowed the first-team players to dictate changes, but neither did they try to impose themselves in the dressing room. It is understood that this is a collective approach, with player input seen as more integrated compared to Dyche’s more rigid methods.
The board felt that Mee should be on the coaching staff to provide a voice and link between the locker room and the coaches. He acted as a consultant, and Jackson was impressed with his composure and contribution.
The coaching staff had little time to work with the squad on the training ground due to the three-game week. Either way, their intention was never to tear the frame and structure apart. This was to remind players of the qualities they possess.
Jackson dove into the analysis, spending hours watching opponents’ games ahead. He joked last week that he had barely seen his family. The work pays off. After studying Burnley’s 4-0 win over Wolves last season, Matej Vydra’s performance in that game encouraged Jackson to pick him. It couldn’t have gone better.
The former Shrewsbury Town and Tranmere Rovers assistant manager didn’t try to do it all himself. Training sessions were shared and, while willing to watch the game footage himself, he listened carefully to team analysts to help formulate a game plan with the rest of his coaching staff. Decisions, pre-game regarding team selection and formation as well as during the game, are discussed by the committee, with Jackson having the final say.
The team talks, led by Jackson, are believed to have focused on keeping things simple via basic messages such as taking half the football at a time and approaching games as opportunities rather than burdens. The three-game week in February in which Burnley took seven points in games against Brighton & Hove Albion, Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace was used as inspiration.
The players referred to the game with freedom and Burnley’s style was noticeably different. Patience in possession was emphasized in an attempt to gain more control.
The number of channeled balls has decreased, replaced by shorter passes and longer passes played into the feet of attackers. Wide midfielders have been further advanced, increasing the number of players Burnley have had in attacking areas.
Vydra widened, having started in front, during the first half and it was his tight positioning that put him in the perfect spot to score the winner. Maxwel Cornet, absent here due to a knee injury, also benefited from this freedom of position.
They get good tactical adjustments. Connor Roberts replaced Matt Lowton in the starting XI for the Southampton game and scored.
WHAT WAY TO OPEN SCORE 🤯
Connor Roberts loops home an absolute beauty to fire Burnley ahead 🙌 pic.twitter.com/OjYjbvWq2v
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) April 21, 2022
Then, with the use of Jay Rodriguez in left midfield against Wolves not working, they changed him – and it proved more effective.
Players feel they have a heightened sense of adventure now, it has been described at Athleticismas if they had been released from the cage.
“They told the guys to have an extra touch and be more careful with possession,” a source said.
Another added: “The leash has been taken off the dog and they (training staff) let them run where they want to run.”
The results have boosted confidence and players seem more comfortable taking risks.
There were small moments that showed Jackson’s ability to foster unity. Against West Ham, he pointed to all the players to go cheer on the traveling supporters. In the next two home matches, the players all stayed on the pitch after the final whistle before thanking the fans on all sides of the pitch.
At halftime of both home games, Jackson and Jenkins ran onto the field while signaling each player to run to the locker room. They all did.
The mood remained positive. It would have been easy to put the tools down, but instead the players pulled together and are determined to fight for every point. They are fighting for their future – some at the club with running contracts, and others to remain a Premier League player.
“The mood has been much better,” a source said, with results and performances helping. Training continued in the same vein as the day Dyche was sacked. It is said to have a more free, positive and intense feeling.
This was illustrated by the club’s media team having improved access around the training ground – Dyche was not a fan of cameras in first-team areas.
The club released a video featuring footage of the boot room and players preparing for practice, which included Josh Brownhill’s new ‘Max and Wout’ chant on The Beatles Twist and Shout, and Weghorst leading a quiz. Likewise, the video in the canteen of player predictions ahead of the Tyson Fury vs. Dillian White fight was unique.
“Sacking Dyche was always going to get a reaction and that initial bounce regardless,” a source said. He galvanized the game team and gave them a jolt. When it came to bringing in an interim manager ahead of the Wolves game, the consensus was that it would be difficult for a new manager to make an impact.
Dwight McNeil embodies the change of mood. He is enjoying his football again and playing with a smile on his face. When he left the pitch after being substituted against Southampton he was hugged by Jackson and Mee, but first by Jenkins who could be seen saying: “You’re smiling”.
It was felt that deploying him to the right of a midfield four would open up the pitch. This allows him to cut inside on his preferred left foot and deliver crosses or take shots as well as link play. Discussions focused on getting him in the best positions to give him the ball as often as possible. The mindset has simply been to go out and express yourself in a structure that seems less rigid.
His vision to open up Wolves’ defense for Burnley’s winner, slipping to Weghorst, illustrated his confidence and underlined why he believes his best form will come when playing on the right or in central positions.
🗣️ “He is [Mike Jackson] gave me that confidence and obviously I believed in myself more and the guys around believed in you too. He gave me advice and a little more freedom.
— Burnley FC (@BurnleyOfficial) April 24, 2022
One of the notable decisions Jackson made was to reintroduce Jack Cork into the starting XI. As well as his character and experience, the coaching staff wanted him to bring a calmness to central midfield and believed his reading of the game was ideal for their approach.
Cork’s last seven starts in a central midfield two have produced 14 of Burnley’s 31 points. Prior to Dyche’s departure, his message to the 32-year-old was to get back to playing two-touch football. It does exactly that, and the benefits, while not eye-catching, are effective.
Ashley Westwood’s injury wasn’t part of the plan, but it brought Brownhill and Cork together again in a partnership that continues to thrive.
One of the gripes the fans had with Dyche’s approach was the disconnect between Burnley’s usual style and playing to Weghorst’s strengths. The Dutch striker was reportedly frustrated with his form due to the standards he set for himself.
After an impressive start, he went eight games without a goal. He was substituted on time against Norwich after another ineffectual display. Dyche explained that the striker was too focused on the team and had to focus on playing well.
Burnley’s polished approach has allowed him to do both. He scored his second of the season in the 1-1 draw with West Ham and he was much more involved in attacking play. The patient approach has allowed him to find pockets so players can fire passes at his feet, and the extra support around him helps him retain possession.
The feeling heading into the Wolves game was that all indications were that Jackson would be handed the job until the end of the season and, with the results having gone so well, any caretaker appointment is now more likely to disrupt the pace rather than providing additional benefits.
When Pace made one of the biggest decisions in club history, it was the impact he hoped it would have. The job is not done, but Burnley have got back into the game to stay in place.
(Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)