In an era where a defender who can do a few cute step-overs commands a transfer fee just shy of the £50million mark, it’s refreshing to see a centre-back like Michael Keane doing so well in the Premier League and accordingly attracting interest from its top clubs.
Indeed, if John Stones is at one end of the centre-back spectrum, the ball-playing tail, Keane is unquestionably at the other; old-fashioned, no-nonsense, simplistic and gritty. You won’t see the Burnley defender trying to play his way out of trouble with a risky one-two on the edge of his own penalty area – just as you won’t see him out-muscled, out-jumped or caught out of position.
He impressed the last time the Clarets were in the top flight but, just like Sean Dyche’s 13th-placed side as a collective, there’s been a noteworthy leap in his performances this time around. He’s helped Burnley claim the second-best goals conceded record in the bottom half after Middlesbrough, playing in every minute of their Premier League campaign, and is maturing into a real leadership figure, something his two goals and one assist at the other end pay testament to.
In the age of overly-technical, over-protected young English footballers he’s a real throwback, and now on the fringes of the England squad at the age of 24, the timing feels right for the former Manchester United youngster to return to the elite level of the game that provided his academy education.
The latest reports from The Daily Mail claim Liverpool are interested in signing Keane this summer, whilst the British newspaper further allege that Everton and Manchester City have also discussed potential swoops for the end of the season. Likewise, Chelsea have been mooted as potential suitors more than once this term, a theory seemingly intertwined with John Terry’s expected retirement.
Keane’s throwback style makes him stand out and top-end Premier League clubs call ill-afford passing up the chance to sign an English player for a modest price these days, assuming Burnley won’t be able to demand the same kind of figure Everton dictated for John Stones last summer. But potential suitors must be wary; although there’s no doubting how effective Keane has been this term, Burnley’s style of play flatters him immensely.
The Clarets are themselves a bit of a throwback, playing direct football in a 4-4-2 setup. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when coupled with Dyche’s emphasis on the kind of organisation required to keep clean sheets, Keane and centre-back partner Ben Mee are well protected at the heart of defence. They have two full-backs tucked in on either side and a flat four in front that makes the gap between the two banks is as small as possible, which usually means Keane and Mee only really have to contend with clearing away balls into the box.
That’s not to say their job is easy – concentration, positioning and effective marking are essential – but most Premier League centre-backs should be able to eat up that kind of stuff all day. It’s when the team is stretched and attack turns into defence in an instant when the best defenders in the world truly come to the fore. Simply a consequence of how well Burnley are organised, we’ve not seen a wealth of evidence of how Keane copes in such scenarios. Would he be such a commanding and consistent presence in a Manchester City side that leaves wide open gaps on the counter-attack and the centre-backs susceptible from practically every angle?
Likewise, although John Stones’ price-tag has drawn plenty of criticism, there’s a reason City paid so much for a young centre-half with such obvious ability on the ball. The game is unquestionably changing and there are greater technical demands on defenders than ever before; full-backs are practically wingers these days, whilst at least one centre-back needs to have the confidence and quality to become the extra man in deep-lying midfield – in some instances even providing the passes that set up attacks.
Just as Burnley’s style flatters Keane in some respects, it may also be doing him an injustice in others. But Dyche’s direct philosophy means he’s yet to prove he can contribute on the ball to the level most now expect of centre-backs at top Premier League clubs.
Indeed, the England international’s passing accuracy is just 73.1% – John Stones’, meanwhile, is the best of any player in the top flight at 91.8%. Cesar Azpilicueta, Aleksandar Kolarov, Dejan Lovren and Shkodran Mustafi – centre-back representatives from four of the Premier League’s top six clubs – average 68 passes per match between them; Keane doesn’t even average half of that at 31.6.
Once again, footballers placed in different teams are capable of different things. Real quality is a question of how they adapt and performances for Burnley suggest Keane’s got a fair bit in his locker. It’s also worth pointing out the 24-year-old impressed on loan at Leicester and Blackburn Rovers before arriving at Turf Moor, so it’s not as if he hasn’t experienced the challenges that come with moulding your game around a new manager, a new team and a new philosophy.
Nonetheless, acquiring Keane comes with risk. Whilst he may stand out in an incredibly functional Burnley side that requires him to excel in the nuts and bolts of the defensive trade, he could do so for the wrong reasons when a bigger club attempts to bring out the more aesthetic aspects to his game. Even if they don’t want Keane to lose that no-nonsense approach, they’ll inevitably need him to provide more on the ball and prove himself in different, less controlled defensive scenarios.
That’s the bridge Keane will have to cross if he is whisked away by a top club this summer,but it may also be what deters some of his rumoured suitors from putting money on the table.