There is a common misconception that Sean Dyche’s greatest gift as a manager is his ability to implement a system that allows his players to perform beyond their means.
This Burnley side isn’t constructed of substandard players performing to a level that could clinch them Europa League football; Dyche has improved practically every single player he’s brought to Turf Moor, and teaching them how to play as a cohesive unit of correlating elements has been just a part of that.
Yet, there is no question that Burnley’s old-fashioned principles of relentless organisation and body-on-the-line defending does allow certain players to flatter to deceive at times, particularly the defenders. Compare the role of a Clarets centre-back to one at Arsenal, for example.
The former will usually only need to defend his own penalty box, perhaps the line bordering his final third; the latter will be expected to defend at the halfway line whenever his side are in possession and then make up the ground towards their own goal, before producing some kind of last-ditch challenge, should the opposition break through on the counter.
They’re two incredibly different brands of defending, and while one is all about the routine consistency of clearing crosses, intercepting passes and blocking shots, the other is about the focus to still fulfil those duties to the same standard during the fewer occasions they’re required while also trying to prevent them from happening in the first place, by winning the ball higher up the pitch and keeping the team in possession. In short, replacing Shkodran Mustafi with Ben Mee won’t suddenly improve Arsenal’s modest defensive record.
Perhaps the most obvious example of that is Michael Keane. Last season, the 25-year-old looked arguably England’s most capable out-and-out defender such was his incredible form for Burnley. Two-thirds of a season on from a big-money move to Everton though, the man who replaced him in the Clarets’ starting XI, James Tarkowski, is now rather ironically replacing him within the Three Lions fold as well.
It would be wrong to claim Keane’s been ‘found out’ at Goodison – there have been mitigating factors, chiefly injuries and managerial turmoil – behind an underwhelming debut season, but he certainly hasn’t assailed parallel heights to his final term at Burnley and has rarely looked like providing the steely, Dychian influence in defence Everton have so desperately lacked throughout 2017/18.
It’s been a tough learning curve for a centre-back who is no longer protected by a deep-sitting midfield four in front and tall full-backs tucked in either side of him. Even with Allardyce at the helm, Everton are a far more open side – especially when Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines are overlapping down the flanks.
Tarkowski though, is of a slightly different breed. Whereas Keane has always been a rugged centre-back of the traditional English mould that accordingly fitted perfectly into Dyche’s system, Tarkowski by his own admission was considered a ball-playing centre-half in his younger years, particularly at Brentford where an expansive game-plan obliged him to play out of the back and take risks in possession.
Dyche has revolutionised his game at Turf Moor, but the key variation from Keane is that the 25-year-old understands the fundamentals of a different way of defending, albeit practised only at Football League level.
While that has seen Keane’s career stutter upon joining a team with more open defensive dynamics, Tarkowski’s ball-playing spell at Brentford could well allow him a much easier transition.
But the first key litmus test of that, ahead of a summer transfer window in which there will almost certainly be some interest in his services, comes during England’s coming friendlies with the Netherlands and Italy, with the 6 foot 3 defender likely to start at least one of those games.
“Before I joined Burnley no-one ever said I was an ‘old fashioned English defender’. I was more a ball-playing centre-half. Playing out from the back in a Brentford team that was expansive, open, took a lot of chances. When I went to Burnley it flipped on its head.
“We take a lot less chances but do the basics right. I’ve found that has really brought my game on, keeping it quite simple at times but doing the defending – the most important stuff – right.”
Southgate’s masterplan for this England side seemingly centres around three at the back, utilising the growing breed of modern defender who can step into midfield and carry the ball forward. John Stones and Harry Maguire are the leading contenders for starting roles at the World Cup for that reason, but the third slot remains unclear and will be up to Tarkowski to make his own.
Conquering that challenge though, will require at least one impressive performance in a different setup to the four-man defensive line Dyche has stuck to religiously during his Burnley tenure, with a much greater demand on the centre-backs to contribute in possession.
Keane has looked steady in a back three for England at times too, playing on the left in a 1-0 defeat to Germany and in the centre in a win over Lithuania, yet not exactly commanding or effortlessly comfortable either. If Tarkowski can reach those levels against Italy or the Netherlands, it will provide a key endorsement of his adaptability, which is the ultimate quality the Premier League’s top clubs must question when they consider recruiting from this particularly idiosyncratic Burnley side.
In terms of who Tarkowski may interest, Manchester United are perhaps the most noteworthy candidates. Many were surprised when Jose Mourinho didn’t bring Keane back to Old Trafford last summer, and the Red Devils look set for a defensive shakeup this time around with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling struggling for significant periods of the season.
Man United have loosely resembled Burnley at times this season, during their many attritional performances against key rivals, but Mourinho needs a centre-back who can defend high up the pitch and offer quality on the ball as well.
Chelsea too, have reason to swoop for Tarkwoski. Gary Cahill and David Luiz’s time at the club appears to be coming to an end, and Chelsea are in desperate need of more English players if not for the sake of Premier League quotas alone.
Their use of 3-4-3 requires healthy depth in the heart of defence and the Burnley ace – who Transfermarkt value at just £5.4million – could be a shrewd addition to the first team squad, even if he struggles to hold down a starting berth at first.
Before anything concrete comes from those clubs though, Tarkowski must show he can succeed where Keane has struggled by replicating his performances for Burnley in a team that doesn’t offer the same protection. These England friendlies are a vital chance to do that, not only securing a place in the World Cup but also at a top Premier League club next season.