NBA First Half Awards
With the season just over halfway done, let's look at the major awards. Feel free to disagree but it's James Hardens world right now and we're just living in it.
The hype around Liverpool's attack got very serious a few weeks ago as Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Philippe Coutinho earned themselves a nickname. They call them the “Fab Four”. But much like the real Fab Four aren't the Beatles, Liverpool's standouts aren't the real “Fab Four” of the Premier League.
Liverpool gets a lot of praise for its offensive record, and it's true that earlier in the season they last scored at this pace in the 19th century, but they have still scored nearly 20 goals less in the Premier League than Manchester City.
There have been some breathtaking attacking displays, like a couple of 7-goal nights in the Champions League, but where was the so-called “Fab Four” in the team's last home game – a 0-0 draw against West Brom. If they are really that fabulous, then why didn't they manage to break down a side that hasn't won a single game in the league since August?
Overall, Liverpool has drawn blanks in four games across all competitions this season. The “Fab Four” has combined for 32 league goals and for 53 in all competitions, which is a very good return, but they have been missing in action too many times. Something tells me there will be plenty of other goalless efforts coming up during the second half of the season as well.
Of course, the Beatles weren't from Burnley, which makes it hard to connect them with the “Fab Four” label, but the backline of Sean Dyche's team actually deserves the nickname more than Liverpool's forwards.
With a half a season gone, Burnley surprisingly finds itself in Champions League contention. Largely thanks to the good work done by Matthew Lowton, James Tarkowski, Ben Mee and Stephen Ward. Together they have combined the league's fourth-best defensive record, conceding only 15 goals. They even shared the best defensive record with Man City before the last round of action.
In a 3-0 defeat to Tottenham, Dyche's team ended up conceding as many goals in one match as they had in the previous nine home outings. Ward was out injured, Tarkowski was suspended and it instantly showed. Harry Kane ended up having a field day and scored a hat-trick.
In total, the Lowton-Tarkowski-Mee-Ward back four has started in 13 matches. Burnley has recorded six clean sheets in these games, narrowly missing out on a 7th one against Arsenal when Alexis Sanchez scored an injury-time penalty. The team's record reads six wins, four draws and three losses. Two of the draws were away to Tottenham and Liverpool. City and Chelsea have been the only sides to score more than once against that back four and Burnley still beat the latter.
Dyche has done a wonderful job to mold his backline into one of the best, if not the best, in the league. And let's not forget that he did it after losing his best defender from last season, Michael Keane, to Everton. In the end, that deal actually seems to have worked in Burnley's favor as they have already recorded more clean sheets (9) than they did during the whole of last season. Only Manchester United, who the Clarets face on Boxing Day next, has more clean sheets in the Premier League (10).
Tarkowski is the successor to Keane. And a really cheap one at that. He was signed during the winter transfer window in 2015/16 for £4 million from Brentford. Dyche sold Keane last summer for nearly £30 million. Considering how Tarkowski is playing, then the club could end up selling him for an even heftier fee.
There were more than a few questions regarding Burnley during the summer after no real replacement was brought in for Keane. They were in the middle of the pack in terms of goals conceded in 2016/17 and narrowly survived in the league, finishing 17th. But it looks like Dyche was well aware of Tarkowski's quality and maybe even saw the 25-year-old as a better central defensive partner to Ben Mee.
Tarkowski and Mee have been awesome this season, to say the least. They are both among the top shot blockers in the league, having stopped 28 shots. Also, only Brighton's Shane Duffy (155) has made more clearances than Tarkowski (145). Mee is also in the top ten with 122.
Kevin Long and Phil Bardsley, who have come into the side recently because of injuries, deserve praise as well, but it's been the “Fab Four” at the back that has carried Burnley. Their importance will probably come out even more during the next couple of games as Tarkowski can't return from his suspension before the New Year and Ward could also miss more matches because of a knee problem.
Goalkeeper Nick Pope deserves a mention as well. The rookie goalkeeper was thrown in at the deep end when Tom Heaton picked up a serious shoulder injury back in September. Based purely on stats, you could say that the former Charlton man has been the second-best goalkeeper in the league behind the wonderful David de Gea.
Among goalkeeper with at least ten games played, de Gea and Pope are the only ones who have kept a clean sheet in at least half of their appearances. The Burnley man has eight in 16. De Gea is leading the league in save percentage, having saved 81.6 per cent of shots faced, but Pope isn't far behind with 81.4 per cent. Also, only Man City's Ederson has a better goals-against average (0.63) than Pope (0.69). That said, none of this wouldn't be possible with the superb work done by the Burnley “Fab Four”.
Ironically the two “Fab Fours” will meet directly soon. Burnley hosts Liverpool on New Year's Day. Tarkowski's suspension will end right before the match and hopefully, a recent hand surgery won't prevent him from playing. Ward has been missing since December 12 but should be back as well. After limiting Liverpool to only one goal at Anfield in a 1-1 draw earlier in the season, I know where my money's going to be in this fixture.