Flying Kiwis: Chris Wood, 2019-20 Season Preview

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According to the proverbial ‘they’, preseason means absolutely nothing. Don’t worry about results until there are points on the line and don’t even look at the table until at least November. But while good and bad preseasons might not be the best determiners of impending success, it sure bloody helps to at least have one.

A year ago Burnley were scrapping their way through Europa League qualifiers starting in late July. They made it through two ties but fell at the final hurdle, losing 4-2 on aggregate to Olympiacos which cost them a spot in the group stage. By that point it was the very end of August and Burnley had already played three Premier League games – as well as six EL qualifiers. Any semblance of a normal preseason was hampered by the early start and Burnley were already looking exhausted and undercooked just a month into things, and the effects of that handicapped start would linger disturbingly deep into the season.

At the halfway stage of things the Clarets had won just three of nineteen Premier League games and found themselves sitting in the relegation zone. It was awful and the worst part of it was that the dependable defence that had kept them in so many games the previous campaign suddenly looked a complete mess. Rock bottom was reached with a 5-1 hiding by Everton on Boxing Day… but then they bounced back to beat West Ham 2-0, Chris Wood scoring the first goal, and it all changed from there. 

Burnley 1H of 2018-19: 19 GM | 3 W | 3 D | 13 L | 17 GF | 41 GA | -24 GD | 12 PTS

Burnley 2H of 2018-19: 19 GM | 8 W | 4 D | 7 L | 28 GF | 27 GA | +1 GD | 28 PTS

Chris Wood only scored once in those first nineteen games as he was in and out of the starting team. He then scored nine goals in his next fifteen games and suddenly Burnley were safe. One other bonus was getting Tom Heaton back. Joe Hart had made a lot of saves in his place, which had people shallowly talking up the ex-England number one, but he’d also conceded a lot of goals and captain Heaton was able to restore things on a much wider scale. They would lose their final three games but they clearly didn’t care too much by that point with the job already done and that magical 40-point buffer reached.

This time around Burnley FC and gaffer Sean Dyche have had a proper period of time to prepare for the new season and that’s already a reason to be much more optimistic about this team. Dyche’s football relies on organisation and fitness to overcome their relative lack of resources. They’re clever in the transfer market and they get the best out of the players they’ve got. When Burnley started last season with European footy, it stretched a thin squad beyond its capabilities and results suffered. That won’t be the case this time.

Which brings us to the man you’re here to read about. Kinda sneakily, Chris Wood actually played all 38 games last season. Nine of those appearances were off the bench but the ninth of those was the big defeat against Everton and he started each of the final nineteen games in a row. For a guy who has struggled with niggly injuries at various times in his career that’s a huge milestone. In fact the only time he’s played more league games was the magical 27-goal season for Leeds (44 games played) which pretty much earned him his transfer to Burnley, finally graduating him from Championship to Premier League.

In those 38 games last term he scored ten goals, hitting double figures in the Premier League for a second straight season… though as we know the first half of his campaign was pretty dry so judging by the way he finished it he could have been looking at 15+ … and that’s about where he ought to be aiming this time around. He also led the Premier League in offsides so that’s one to maybe one to work on but he brought the goods at a crucial time, which was unsurprisingly when Burnley were at their best. He’s a poaching striker after all. A dude who feeds upon the great work of others.

And while that warning about overreacting to preseason still stands, Chris Wood has been absolutely sizzling in Burnley’s friendly games. The goals keep flowing, as you’ll know from reading Flying Kiwis the last few weeks, and this final weekend before the real things provided three more. A hat-trick against French side OGC Nice in the midst of a 6-1 victory. Patrick Vieira’s coaching Nice these days but his team didn’t have an answer to The Woodsman who stuck twice in the first eight minutes before Jeff Hendrick made it 3-0 after 16. Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Jay Rodriguez scored second half goals too, sandwiching Woody’s third banger. The kiwi striker had at least one other great chance amongst all that too. He was subbed off with ten mins remaining.

Nothing especially sublime but all three were pure poaching precision, Woody making them look deceptively easy with a combination of his strength, his body positioning, and his finishing. Excellent stuff to be watching this close to the new season because those are exactly the types of chances he’s expected to convert in the Premier League. Burnley then chased that one up with a 2-0 win over Parma in which Jay Rodriguez scored both goals and Wood played the first half before being replaced, polishing off his preseason with a couple decent chances (including one volley over the top) but unable to add to his tally. That left him with nine goals in seven preseason games. Woody is a player who gets on these streaks sometimes and when he’s hot he’s really hot. He’s going to be hitting the 2019-20 Premier League at a molten temperature. Get him in your Fantasy team pronto.

One of the things that cleared the path for Wood’s strong second half of the last season was the sale of Sam Vokes in January, which locked Wood and Ashley Barnes in as first choice. Peter Crouch also popped by the club but had a minimal impact in his final stint before retirement. However Burnley have moved to bring in local lad James Rodriguez this transfer window to offer a little more competition up front for the Clarets. Rodriguez is a different kind of option to Wood or Barnes. Those two are bruisers (Wood a target man bruiser and Barnes more mobile) while Jay Rod is a quick and shifty little fella (relatively speaking). Rodriguez is also an England international who might well have been at the 2014 World Cup but for injuries. It seems that Wood and Barnes remain first choice but this dude is a serious threat to step up if form falters and most importantly Rodriguez gives them a point of difference that they’ve lacked in recent times, allowing Burnley to be more than just an old fashioned lumpy team in the attacking third. Another undercover reason to be optimistic.

Hence Sean Dyche, as expected, continued to mix up his striking options over that final week of preparations in order to keep his main trio working on their combinations. Wood and Barnes started against Nice while it was Wood and Rodriguez against Parma (and in last week’s FK’s there was a game where Barnes and Rodriguez started together with Wood on the bench). All three permutations of that trio have gotten extended opportunities together while there was even a ten minute spell against Nice where the three of them were all out there at once. Sometimes it was as a strike duo, other times Barnes or Rodriguez drifted wide with Dwight McNeil on another wing in a 4-2-3-1 shape (in which Woody would be the first choice target man up front). It’s all about variety and all three have been scoring goals in preseason.

Sean Dyche: “I have been really impressed by all variances. Everyone was at it, which is what you want of course. Jay Rod offers that flexibility and we know Barnesy can do it, he did it a lot at Brighton and has done it for us in the past. We know Woody can play up there on his own. We know Barnesy can play up there on his own and probably Jay Rod. Dwight (McNeil) can float around the midfield and it’s nice to have flexibility. We want to be effective, whichever way you look at it – we were effective with both (systems), and the mood the players were in, I think we were always going to be effective, because sometimes you get that, when everyone is on top of it, and I thought everyone was.”

Dyche admitted that the team which started against Parma will not necessarily be the one that starts their Premier League campaign this weekend against Southampton. That’s a relief to Ashley Barnes who was on the bench but more than anything it’s a relief for Burnley fans watching a team that was missing James Tarkowski. Their best defender was absent with a minor issue though coming so soon after the news that Manchester United were on the verge of signing Leicester City’s Harry Maguire that was a bit of a cloudy one. See, Tarkowski (along with Lewis Dunk of Brighton) is one of Leicester’s top preferred replacements for Maguire and so the timing is obviously suspicious. And with the transfer window closing for Premier League clubs before the first week of games (for incoming deals anyway) that would leave Burnley struggling for time to find a replacement if the England international were indeed to leave. A watch-this-space situation for sure. Ben Gibson started alongside Ben Mee for the Parma game.

That’s captain Ben Mee by the way, because Tom Heaton was sold to Aston Villa this week. A slightly disappointing one to lose such an influential player and the club captain but with Nick Pope back fit and Joe Hart also hovering around something had to give. Heaton might be the best of that trio right now (or he might not be, hard to judge) but he’s also the oldest and after six years and more than 200 games for the club he might’ve felt it was time to move on. Burnley quickly signed Northern Irish keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell from Leeds in response to be the third-stringer. Erik Pieters is their only other senior addition, joining from Stoke to offer some cover at fullback.

Add that all up and we’re looking at a very consistent Burnley team with Sean Dyche relying on better preparation, stronger combinations, and the form of his lads over the second half of the season to flow into a much better start this time around. Which is all sweet as for Christopher Grant Wood who is already showing the benefits of that approach in preseason.

So what can we expect from him this season? If he stays fit he’s going to play in more or less every game, whether as a starter or as a sub. That balance all depends on his form compared to the form of the other two strikers in that rotation but so far so good on that front, even with all three looking sharp. We already know he’s got a connection with Ash Barnes that goes back to their days at Brighton together and their combo was one of the elements of their success over the second half of last season. Now we also get to chuck in a possible Big Man/Little Man duo with Rodriguez which, just quietly, wouldn’t be a million miles away from hoe he’s played with guys like Kosta Barbarouses and Marco Rojas for the All Whites. Now there’s something to get pumped for.

To be honest there are no excuses for The Woodsman this time. The dude’s in the prime of his career and if he’s ever going to have the kind of season that puts him on the wider Premier League radar then this is the time. Fifteen goals, perhaps? Twenty in all competitions? With a pretty well defined playing role on a familiar team that’s already got a roll-on before the season’s even begun those might not be unrealistic targets. Not expectations, that’d be too ruthless… but targets for sure.

Burnley don’t have the depth to be challenging teams like Watford, Wolves, Everton, and West Ham who all look like they’ve improved in the race for the ol’ Best Of The Rest title. They’re still super reliant on Jack Cork in the midfield. They don’t have particularly great quality down the flanks (in midfield or defence). They have a few inconsistent playmakers. They have a small squad and struggle to replace players when injuries and suspensions hit. Plus the way they play means that if they ever concede a couple quick goals then they’re probably out of the game just like that.

But if they can keep a consistent starting eleven most weeks then they’re the kind of side that won’t ever give you an easy go of it. Top six would be a fantasy. Top eight would be on the fringes of possibility at the very best. Top ten? Just like Woody’s goals, that should be the target… though the main thing is to make sure they don’t get dragged into another relegation battle. If Chris Wood’s scoring goals then that shouldn’t be a problem.

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