Vincent Kompany had no intention of downplaying its significance. “It’s that kind of fixture,” the Burnley manager said. “There’s no need to say any different. It’s a massive game for both teams. They’re not the easiest ones leading in to but they’re the ones that make you.”
And break you. Only Sheffield United have conceded more than Burnley in the Premier League this season, just as it is only Kompany’s Clarets who have scored fewer than Paul Heckingbottom’s Blades.
The Premier League’s two most porous, goal-shy teams face each other at Turf Moor on Saturday afternoon in what would have been a meeting of the bottom two had Everton not been deducted 10 points for financial breaches to add a little intrigue to a relegation battle that seemed likely to send the three promoted clubs straight back down.
Neither Burnley nor Sheffield United are ready to throw in the towel just yet – let alone Luton – but they cannot hide from the importance of what Kompany called a “standalone” game that could go on to define their seasons.
It was a defeat to Sheffield United around this time last year that would provide the catalyst for an extraordinary 10-match winning streak that propelled Burnley to the Championship title and promotion back to the promised land at the first attempt, and in some style, under Kompany’s guidance.
Kompany is hoping victory on Saturday can provide its own springboard and boy do Burnley need it. They have lost all seven of their home league matches this season, none of which were as agonising as last weekend’s loss to West Ham when they led for 85 minutes only to concede twice at the end, and an eighth defeat would leave the club on course to rival the lowest points tally in Premier League history. That was set by Derby in 2007/08, when they won just one of their 38 matches en route to amassing 11 points, although Burnley are surely better than that.
If their supporters are looking for positives, they will remember that it took some time for a young, inexperienced squad to gel last season after the arrival of 16 new faces in the transfer window. This summer Burnley signed 15 new players, all bar two of whom were under 25, and followed on from the four who joined in January so another bedding in period felt inevitable. Yet the Premier League is a far more unforgiving place than the Championship and the stark reality is that Kompany needs to start to see a return – and fast – on the hefty £90 million investment the club made.
Although there have been signs of improvement in recent performances, the atmosphere at Turf Moor has been understandably flat after the joint worst home start to an English league season and, if a potentially favourable run of fixtures in the lead up to Christmas do not yield a flurry of points, then faith in Kompany may start getting tested.
Beyond some grumblings over team selections, though, the majority of fans remain behind the former Manchester City captain, who still has credit in the bank given how he won promotion a year ahead of schedule. That support appears to be shared in the boardroom, too.
JJ Watt, the former NFL star who is a minority shareholder in the club, may not necessarily speak for Alan Pace, the Burnley chairman and others. But Watt – who had flown over from the US to watch that “devastating” defeat to West Ham – declared somewhat emphatically this week that Kompany “ain’t going, I’ll tell you that right now” when quizzed about the manager’s future.
“It’s always better than hearing the opposite of that,” Kompany said. “But, in all fairness, the lines of communication within the club itself are open enough for me on a daily and weekly basis to have conversations that are always very transparent and very clear.”
Kompany was characteristically upbeat as he looked ahead to the visit of Sheffield United, even if he was honest enough to admit “you sometimes get tested in terms of the things you preach” in reference to his own resilience in this difficult period.
Burnley are facing fewer shots – and taking more – than Sheffield United and enjoying more touches in the opposition box than their rivals but whether it is enough overall remains to be seen and they are finding it is much harder to keep the ball, and be effective with it, in the top flight than the Championship.
Some things have conspired against them. It was announced a few weeks ago, for example, that the striker Lyle Foster is taking some time away from football as he receives treatment for his mental health and his absence has been a loss.
Elsewhere, though, some decisions have yet to pay off and could come back to haunt them. Kompany would have loved to have seen the return this season of Ian Maatsen, Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Nathan Tella, all of whom were key figures on loan in the Championship.
But the failure to bring in a specialist left back once Maatsen opted to stay at Chelsea has left them unbalanced on that side. Equally, the defence lacks the presence and physicality invariably required in the Premier League and the decision to commit £19m on the England Under-21 goalkeeper James Trafford, who has had a very mixed start, has split fans who felt they already had an able No. 1 in Aro Muric and that money could have been spent in other areas.
Luca Koleosho is an exciting talent and, still only 19, surely destined for bigger things and Sander Berge, once of Sheffield United, is finally hitting form. But Burnley are pinning an awful lot on a very young crowd of attacking players and, so far at least, they are struggling to bridge the gap.
Kompany says the dedication, work rate and focus he sees behind the scenes convinces him Burnley can turn things around. But if they are serious about that then Turf Moor cannot witness another home defeat this weekend.