It’s certainly uncommon for a Championship club gaining promotion to the Premier League to recruit from another second-tier side preparing for life back in League One, essentially expecting a player to jump up two divisions, but there isn’t much common about how Sean Dyche does things at Burnley.
In virtually every aspect, the Lancashire club and their gruff-voiced manager are decisively old-fashioned; they play old-fashioned football with old-fashioned players at an old-fashioned stadium and perhaps most old-fashioned of all, they give modestly-priced players from the Football League the chance to make the step up to the top flight rather than simply spending their way to success by bringing in big-money, foreign names.
That’s the real fallacy with Dyche. It’s often claimed his tactics and philosophy generate a much higher level of performance from players of limited ability; but in truth, Dyche uses his system and the confidence it breeds to improve those players, to turn them into consistent and reliable performers. He’s also got a real eye for talents with untapped potential, and that’s the category midfielder Johann Berg Gudmundsson falls into.
He picked up the Iceland international for just £2.7million in summer 2016 after Charlton Athletic suffered relegation to League One, a fee and a standing in English football’s pyramid that suggested Gudmundsson wouldn’t have a significant impact on the Turf Moor outfit’s survival chances. But those who watched Gudmundsson’s Addicks career closely will have known he stuck out like a sore thumb during his time at The Valley, when the rest of the first team had become awash with substandard, almost anonymous Roland Duchatelet signings.
During his first season in English football, the attacking midfielder scored ten times in 41 Championship appearances. During his second, despite it ending with Charlton’s exit into the third tier, he netted six times and provided the joint-most assists of any player in the division. Gudmundsson may have been part of a side that finished 22nd in the Championship, but he was also probably they only reason they didn’t finish rock bottom. In a nutshell, he was the talisman.
If there was one criticism of Gudmundsson, however, it was that he could be nomadic and mercurial for the Addicks – classy and clinical, but not always seeming to fit into the team and sometimes allowing games to pass him by. That’s partly a consequence of how disorganised Charlton were, but it also provides the strongest evidence of Dyche working his magic on the 27-year-old; he’s taken Gudmundsson’s natural ability and shaped it into something that makes him a vibrant part of a functioning team.
There were impressive signs last season but having been disrupted by injury and the need to acclimatise to Dyche’s methods, the current campaign has truly seen Gudmundsson flourish. While two goals and five assists may not seem a resounding return for an attacking midfielder, it also means the 63-cap international has played a hand in exactly a third of Burnley’s top flight goals this season and all but one of them – a strike against Liverpool – directly gained the Clarets at least a point each time.
He’s provided Dyche’s hardworking side with essential cutting edge and that was evident once again on Saturday as a superb late goal that required shrewd movement and demanded technical quality, side-footing Matthew Lowton’s deep cross past Ederson, secured a shock draw with the Premier League’s runaway leaders Manchester City.
But what stands out most about Gudmundsson is how he’s been able to deliver that quality in Dyche’s rigid system that encourages organisation over possession, and that’s because of how hard the former Charlton man works. He’s averaged more than one tackle and one interception per match this season, while being dribbled past on just 0.9 occasions per match, and that effort off the ball has been as important as his quality on it for Burnley.
Just as Gudmundsson had clearly outgrown Charlton in 2016 though, it’s starting to feel as if he may be too big for Burnley come the end of the campaign. That’s no disrespect to the club who could well qualify for Europa League football if they hang onto seventh place, but it’s clear there will always be strict limitations at Turf Moor – deep down, Gudmundsson will know he can achieve more and earn more elsewhere.
Aged 27, a chance at the very top of the Premier League may have already passed Gudmundsson by. But a club of West Ham’s stature would suit him well, and the Hammers may be in need of another star talent this summer should long-standing concerns over Manuel Lanzini being eventually snapped up by a major European club prove true.
The Icelander would be a shrewd replacement, not least because he’s a master of an increasingly old-fashioned art – crossing the ball. In fact, only five players have produced more accurate crosses than Gudmundsson in the Premier League this season, and only three – Pascal Gross, Xherdan Shaqiri and Kevin De Bruyne – have created more scoring chances with crosses.
With Andy Carroll and January signing Jordan Hugill up front, that kind of service could be something of a game-changer for a West Ham side that lacks consistency and identity at times. It would differentiate them from other Premier League clubs, the majority of whom have moved away from traditional centre-forwards and aerial bombardment, and give a consistent supply line to one of the Premier League’s most unplayable strikers when fully fit.
Inevitably, however, the ultimate question is cost for the Hammers. While Burnley picked up Gudmundsson for a pittance and Transfermarkt value him at just £3.6million, the club showed during Michael Keane’s departure to Everton that they know how to secure the right price for their top talents, receiving £25million plus bonuses for the England international.
But there is something working in West Ham’s favour in that Gudmunsson’s contract is due to expire in 2019 – meaning it will have just one year left in the summer. The club have the option of another twelve months but a decent offer may convince them it’s better to cash in than commit the creative midfielder down to longer terms, especially if they get the feeling his desire to be there has waned amid interest from elsewhere.
So, West Ham fans, do you think Gudmundsson has what it takes to replace Lanzini should the Argentine leave this summer? Let us know by voting below…