By this stage in their Premier League journey, Burnley are a team that offer few surprises. Midway through their fourth successive season in the top flight, the first time they’ve achieved such a feat for almost 50 years, everyone knows what to expect from Sean Dyche’s well-drilled side.
Burnley prioritise diligence and experience above all else. For the most part, they don't want possession of the ball and are a team that takes few risks when they do have it. They're compact, solid and disciplined, a combination which enables them to consistently punch above their weight. This approach lends itself to using seasoned campaigners and the vast majority of the Clarets’ squad are currently in their peak years, with one notable exception.
Dwight McNeil is an outlier in many ways. He's the youngest member of the Burnley first team by a significant margin – the only one under 26 to have played for the club this season - and someone who thrives with the ball at his feet. He's a talented, technical player in a team that's happy to surrender the initiative to the opposition.
McNeil only turned 20 at the end of November but has already established himself as one of Burnley’s key players, someone who Dyche trusts implicitly despite his tender years. Since properly breaking into the team last December, he’s become almost indispensable. Aside from a 2-0 defeat to Everton in May, McNeil has started every single Premier League game in 2019.
The importance he’s assumed is especially surprising considering Burnley’s rugged style of play. On the surface, it shouldn’t suit him but he makes it work. McNeil’s able to mix it physically and allow his quality to shine through. His greatest strength lies in using the ball adeptly, which isn’t something that Dyche places undue emphasis on.
The Clarets have the second-lowest average possession figures in the Premier League at 42.9%. They look to get the ball forward quickly into dangerous areas, feeding their battering ram strikers Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes, rather than risk playing themselves into trouble at the back. This means that McNeil doesn't see a great deal of the ball, but he's decisive when he does.
More accustomed to playing centrally at youth level, he’s been used out wide, typically on the left, in the first team. McNeil is good at running with the ball, committing defenders and providing excellent service from open play and set pieces. He’s been given the responsibility of taking corners and free kicks, which are a reliable source of goals for Burnley, and his impressive form has led to a place in the England Under-21s squad and interest from bigger clubs.
After McNeil was released by Manchester United as a 14-year-old, he was quickly picked up by Burnley and hasn’t let that early disappointment hold him back. His father Matty came through the non-League system to play professionally for Macclesfield Town and Stockport County, and he’s inherited that same drive and underlying resilience.
Those qualities continue to serve McNeil well, particularly when allied to an excellent technical ability that’s unmatched by any of his teammates. He was a revelation when making his breakthrough late last year, providing an extra dimension to Burnley’s typically robust attack. He brought some much-needed subtlety to a side that prides itself on strength, spirit and organisation above all else.
McNeil has continued his upward trajectory this season and, with 40 appearances behind him, he already feels like an established Premier League player. He combines the humble qualities that Dyche demands with the skill needed to prosper in a more progressive team. Long term, McNeil looks destined to play at a higher level, but for now he's more than happy as Burnley's brilliant aberration.