Sean Dyche, the underdog manager, is perfect voice for Everton right now | Jonathan Liew

Survival, hard work, staying in the game, protecting what you have: this is not simply Dyche’s football tactic but an identity

There is a tantalising alternative history of English football in which Sean Dyche does not get offered the Burnley job in October 2012. Instead, he continues to plug away in the position he had started a month earlier, as an assistant to Stuart Pearce in the England Under-21 setup. Perhaps over the following years, it is he and not Gareth Southgate who emerges as the natural heir of English football’s new dawn.

The fields of St George’s Park resound to the gospel of 4-4-2. Danny Ings wins 100 caps and a World Cup Golden Boot. England beat Italy in the Euro 2020 final because let’s face it, there’s no way a Dyche side is letting Leonardo Bonucci get a free shot from three yards. The world feels like a simpler place, but in many ways a happier one too. Does Dyche forge the connection with England’s hardcore fans that Southgate never enjoyed? Does Brexit still happen? Does the “red wall” stay red?

Implausibly, there is a not entirely unserious point at the nub of this. If Dyche has one outstanding gift as a coach, it is as a communicator: the ability to paint an ineffably complex game in simple, digestible, palatable terms. In the Dyche footballing universe, there are no higher ideals beyond the next 90 minutes, the tasks and the battles and the decisions they comprise. Dyche tells it how it is and by extension tells you who you are.

A few months ago Dyche filmed a video for The Coaches’ Voice dissecting Burnley’s 1-0 win at Anfield in January 2021. Clips have been recirculating on social media since Dyche joined Everton, and before his return to Anfield on Monday night. But the video is worth watching in full, not so much for its tactical insight but for its language, the way Dyche brings to life time-honoured and often quite elementary principles and somehow makes them feel fresh.

So Dyche talks about “crunching the pitch”, the way in which the whole team moves across in an attempt to pin the opposition to a particular flank. The centre-forward drops “north side” of the deep-lying midfielder, meaning ball-side, cutting off the pass. Nick Pope kicks along the “soft diagonal”. When Burnley get the ball, he wants them to play “fight football”. He refers to “five-yard fury”, the way teams such as Liverpool scramble to win the ball back after losing possession.

Maybe this sounds like meaningless jargon to you, the cultured Observer reader with a shelf full of Jonathan Wilson books. But to professional footballers you see on a daily basis, there is a value in reinforcing these catchy little motifs over time. Indeed, Dyche explains his attachment to 4-4-2 partly in terms of simplicity. “It’s quite logical for the players to follow,” he says. “It’s not loads of information.” But, when combined with 100 minutes of hard running, a little luck and a soft penalty, enough information to inflict a first home defeat on champions Liverpool in 68 games.

You could see those similar themes in Dyche’s first game as Everton coach, a 1-0 win over Arsenal last weekend. When Arsenal work it wide, Everton crunch the pitch to limit them. The midfielders are brave and “lock on” to their assigned markers. When Arsenal advance, every Everton player concentrates on protecting the “V”: imagine two diagonal lines going outwards from the goal towards the far corners of the 18-yard box, and then extending parallel to the touchlines.

And this is what Dyche can impart in five days. Imagine what he can do in five more, and then five more after that. At Burnley he turned journeyman Championship players such as Ings, Tom Heaton, Kieran Trippier, Michael Keane, Jay Rodriguez and Ben Mee into Premier League regulars, even international players. Imagine what he can do with players already at that level.

Sean Dyche masterminds Burnley’s 1-0 win at Anfield in January 2021, which ended Liverpool’s 68-match unbeaten run at home.
Sean Dyche masterminds Burnley’s 1-0 win at Anfield in January 2021, which ended Liverpool’s 68-match unbeaten run at home. Photograph: Jon Super/PA

At which point, of course, we are forced to return to the realm of conjecture. For Dyche has never worked with a squad of this quality before, indeed never really worked at a club with the expectation of winning more games than he loses. Tactically, he has always been flexible, more flexible than often assumed. But when it comes to principles – mentality, approach, instinct – these things become hard-wired over time.

Let’s go back to the video. It’s 18 minutes long. The first 10 minutes are entirely devoted to what Burnley do without the ball, what happens if Liverpool switch, cross, play one-twos around the flanks, what happens if this man gets beaten. Everything here is contingencies, what-ifs upon what-ifs, a gameplan built primarily for survival. “Staying in the game is the biggest thing against these teams,” he says.

You could argue that this is an approach specifically tailored to far stronger opponents. But in 215 of Dyche’s 259 Premier League games, his side have seen less than 50% of the ball. And as an indication of how Dyche teams perform when expected to win, it is instructive to examine his cup record at Burnley: nine exits against lower-division opposition in 10 seasons. Remarkably, Burnley’s record against teams ranked beneath them was roughly similar to that against teams from the same or a higher division.

Dyche is an underdog manager. As a player and a coach, football was always trying to spit him out. He failed to make the grade at Nottingham Forest, endured a torrid spell at Bristol City, spent the early years of his coaching career driving the minibus at Watford for no money. At Burnley he performed miracles on the edge of an abyss.

Survival, hard work, staying in the game, protecting what you have: this is not simply a football tactic but an identity. It is what makes him the perfect voice for Everton right now: a club in straitened circumstances, desperate to keep what they have, that crave above all a little simplicity, a little unity, a little calmness. But anyone expecting a Damascene conversion to the high line or a possession-dominant game is probably going to be disappointed.

“If Everton wasn’t in the shape it was in, maybe I wouldn’t get the chance,” Dyche said at his first press conference. Translation: if you were any good, you wouldn’t have asked for me in the first place. Dyche knows who he is, he knows why he’s here, and in the process he is also telling Everton who they are. The question is whether they are prepared to listen.


Jonathan Liew

The GuardianTramp

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