For Burnley FC, 2021 will mark the start of a new era. Just hours before Big Ben rang in the New Year, the locally-owned club was taken over by U.S. investment group ALK Capital through their sports investment arm Velocity Sports Partners.
They are the latest of a series of recent American investors to see potential in English soccer clubs, and perhaps believe they can make clubs more efficient so they can punch above their weight.
Burnley have been punching above their weight for years under Sean Dyche, who managed to finish as high as seventh with one of the smallest budgets in the Premier League. According to sporting intelligence, Burnley had the fourth lowest average first team salaries in the league in 2019-20.
Salaries are a strong indicator of success, and it is rare that any team can outperform their salaries for as long as Burnley have. One of the teams below Burnley in the salary table finished bottom of the league last season, and another, Sheffield United, surprised everybody last season, but this year are showing how ironcast the link between salaries and finishing position is.
Burnley’s new owners recognize Sean Dyche’s achievements and won’t do anything as foolish as changing their manager. They only need to look at neighbors Blackburn Rovers, and the decision a decade ago by new owners Venkys to sack Sam Allardyce, to see what will likely happen should they let Dyche go. Instead, new chairman Alan Pace has said that Dyche will be backed in the transfer market.
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Sean Dyche certainly needs backing. Burnley’s squad is good enough to probably stay up this season, but it is a squad on its last legs. According to CIES Football Observatory, Burnley’s average age is 28.3, the second oldest in the league behind Crystal Palace. More than half of Burnley’s starting line up are either over 30, in the last six months of their contract, or both. Burnley lost Jeff Hendrick on a free transfer to Newcastle United last summer and could lose half of their defense, as well as midfielder Robbie Brady, this summer. Even if players like Matthew Lowton, Kevin Long and Erik Pieters are still at Turf Moor next season, they will likely need replacing a couple of seasons down the line.
Rebuilding an aging squad while making sure it is good enough for the Premier League is an expensive process. Aston Villa had to spend north of $100 million to make sure they had a Premier League quality squad ahead of last season.
Without the riches of their Premier League rivals, Burnley had a very quiet summer transfer window, sensibly ensuring that they didn’t get into a financially precarious position when the impact of the pandemic on Premier League soccer was still unclear. But that lack of spending in the summer means Burnley’s squad didn’t get the rejuvenation it so desperately needs.
Sean Dyche won’t overturn his entire squad this winter, even if the money is available for him to do that. But making a few top signings now will make his task of rebuilding Burnley’s squad in the summer a lot easier. A young right back wouldn’t be a bad start.
While Burnley are punching above their weight, one weakness they might have is their scouting limitations. They haven’t made a big-money transfer from outside the British Isles since signing Steven Defour from Anderlecht in 2016. While their domestically focused approach has paid off in terms of avoiding the kind of expensive flops that teams like Brighton and Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town have signed in the recent past, it is also holding Burnley back.
Rules on homegrown players and stricter visa restrictions could add to the premium that Premier League clubs already have to pay for English players. Even a top signing from the Championship without any Premier League experience, like Nottingham Forest defender Joe Worrall, who may well move to Turf Moor this winter, will likely cost a seven-figure sum. By narrowing recruitment to the British Isles, Burnley are fighting a losing battle financially, especially as the crises afflicting many top European clubs like those in Ligue 1 means that there are plenty of bargains to be had with proper overseas scouting.
ALK Capital could help Burnley improve in this aspect. For one, they have invested in soccer data analytics firms AiScout and Player LENS, which could help Burnley find players to improve their squad in the long run and make sure that the extra money available to Sean Dyche is put to good use.
But ALK will have to be careful to get the balance right so that they don’t accidentally damage what has made Burnley’s recent success possible in the first place.