How Aberdeen can beat Burnley

How Aberdeen can beat Burnley

By James Cairney

Aberdeen’s season will finally be underway on Thursday night as the Dons host Burnley in the Europa League qualifiers, with Derek McInnes attempting to reach the group stages for the first time in his five year tenure. Burnley present a difficult hurdle for Aberdeen to overcome, being one of the strongest-looking sides in the draw at this early stage, but the English Premier League side still have their flaws and McInnes will be looking to gain every advantage he can, no matter how slight.


Scotland’s other three European representatives have all hit the ground running in Europe but Aberdeen’s fixture against Burnley will be the first time this season that a Scottish club goes into a tie with the odds stacked against them. McInnes will be perfectly aware of the treat that Burnley pose with the relative proximity of the two clubs – the question is, do Aberdeen have what it takes to make it to the next round of qualifiers?


The match will be the latest ‘Battle of Britain’ to take place in European football and looks to be an intriguing encounter. Burnley overachieved in the English Premier League last year to qualify for Europe, finishing in seventh place overall, with their success was largely based on their defensive solidity. The Lancashire club only scored 36 league goals but only conceded 39 in the process, so Aberdeen can expect a cagey match on Thursday night.


Burnley are well-known in England for their reactive approach to the game, often ceding possession and opting to play on the counter attack. Sean Dyche’s team averaged 45.8% possession in the Premier League last year, with only West Brom and Newcastle United’s finishing the season with a lower average. This suits Aberdeen, who usually enjoy the majority of possession in their league fixtures, preferring to set the tempo and seize the initiative. If McInnes wants to knock Burnley out, Aberdeen will need to rely on an open, expansive approach.


But more on that later. First of all, we need to see what kind of threat Burnley offer and what kind of team Aberdeen can expect to face on Thursday evening.  An in-depth look at their league stats for the previous campaign paints a fuller picture of Aberdeen’s opponents.


As we can see, Dyche’s side are an effective counter-attacking unit. They lead the Premiership in terms of interceptions and long balls played, highlighting their approach. Burnley’s shot rate is particularly low – if Aberdeen can keep a hold of the ball, move it around well and react quickly to counter attacks then life could quickly get very uncomfortable for their English opponents.


However, the passes Burnley are attempting are generally risky ones: the Clarets are one of the worst offenders in the Premier League when it comes to giving the ball away, doing so over 100 times a game. Defensive shape and organisation will be of paramount importance if Aberdeen are to nullify Burnley’s attack. A high press could be a suicidal approach for the Dons – Burnley will continue to play long, searching balls over the top and it only has to work once to win them the tie. The Aberdeen players will need to stand off the ball and be prepared to make lots of interceptions if they want any realistic chance of progressing.


Going forward, Aberdeen will have opportunities to score – whether or not they can convert those opportunities, however, is a different matter. Only Stoke City faced more shots than Burnley in the 2017/18 Premier League and the Clarets had the lowest success rate in defensive duels, only winning the ball back 19.7% of the time. If Aberdeen’s attackers are on-form then the chances will come. The likes of Niall McGinn and Stevie May will need to hit the ground running and perform better than they did over the last season – if they each play poorly, then it’s difficult to see where else the goals could come from in this tie.


Burnley spent most of last season lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, although it could sometimes shift to a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2. In terms of shape, Dyche prefers to set his team out very narrowly, which creates room on either wing that McInnes will surely be looking to exploit. Burnley prefer to stand off their opposition and flood the box with defenders, choosing to attempt to mop up crosses rather than prevent them from even occurring in the first place. It’s this space which is abandoned that so often proves to be a thorn in Burnley’s side.



Out of the last 20 goals Burnley have conceded, only five have come as a result of the opposition playing through the middle. 75% of the goals Burnley concede come from either wing – whether it be a cross into the box, or a winger cutting inside and firing beyond the goalkeeper. The Premier League outfit look particularly vulnerable at left back, conceding more goals from the right wing than any other area of the pitch.


This presents a massive opportunity for Aberdeen that is surely their best chance of negotiating their qualifier. Wingers are continually given time and space to play against Dyche’s team – picking the right cross, at the right time, will be hugely important for the Dons. Getting the best out Gary Mackay-Steven’s mercurial talents could be crucial for McInnes – on his day, the winger is exactly the sort of opponent that could give the Burnley defence nightmares.


The biggest factor towards the tie’s overall outcome could well be the fitness of Burnley’s first-choice keeper Nick Pope. The 26-year-old was probably Dyche’s most important player last season and his impressive form was rewarded with a place in the England World Cup squad. Because of this, the goalie joined up with his squad relatively late on and is a doubt to be ready for the Europa League fixtures. Tom Heaton is a capable deputy but Pope’s absence would be keenly felt.


Burnley had total expected goals against (xGA) of 57.75 in the Premier League last year, meaning that they should have reasonably expected to have conceded 58 goals over the campaign. This is significantly higher than their actual goals conceded of 39. Basically, thanks to Pope in goal, Burnley are conceding 19 fewer goals than they reasonably ought to. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is probably the single greatest factor in last season’s success and that with a lesser keeper between the sticks, Burnley would have floundered in the bottom half of the league table.


It’s a similar situation to what happened at Tynecastle last season. Craig Levein set up his side in a defensive formation that relied heavily on their goalkeeper, Jon McLaughlin, overperforming on a weekly basis. McLaughlin did so and Hearts’ newfound defensive solidity became the most important aspect of their game, resulting in a top six finish that otherwise wouldn’t have materialised. It’s an approach Aberdeen have generally struggled against though; last season, Aberdeen only won one of their four fixtures against the Edinburgh club.


Obviously, Burnley pose a greater threat than Hearts and Aberdeen’s struggles against the Jambos in the past suggest that it’s a tactical approach that the Dons are uncomfortable going up against. Dyche’s side will go into the tie as favourites and will expect to progress but there are certain vulnerabilities to their game that, if fully exposed, could be enough for Aberdeen to seal a famous win. It’s a big ask, but McInnes has been on the winning end of some surprising results in Europe before: the 3-0 win over Rijeka in 2015 and the 2-1 win against Groningen the previous year both come to mind. It will require a big effort from Aberdeen, but the opportunity is there for the taking.

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