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David De Gea Ballon d'Or nomination a reminder of world class status

David De Gea Ballon d'Or nomination a reminder of world class status


Take a quick glance at the top of the Premier League table, and all seems roughly as you'd expect: Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are filling six of the top seven positions.

There's one exception, however. Burnley -- expected to finish somewhere in the bottom half -- find themselves in sixth position, ahead of Liverpool on goal difference.

This represents a truly remarkable start to the campaign for Sean Dyche's side, particularly considering the nature of their fixtures. Their seven matches have featured four away trips to Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton. Somehow, Burnley have recorded two victories and two draws from those matches, and eight away points is already more than they collected on their travels throughout 2016-17.

Inevitably, Dyche has been linked with bigger jobs. Burnley's 1-0 victory at Goodison Park prompted suggestions he could replace Ronald Koeman at struggling Everton, while a couple of pundits have suggested he could succeed at Arsenal. But Dyche's Burnley are playing an entirely different brand of football from the big boys, and therefore it's almost impossible to forecast how he might perform with a considerably more talented squad.

Dyche's achievements at Burnley are unquestionably hugely impressive; two promotions from the Championship, sandwiching a Premier League season when Burnley took few risks in the transfer market, meaning Dyche was competing with a substandard squad. He focused on defence, and 10 clean sheets was a fine record.

Burnley went down, regrouped and upon their next attempt at the Premier League, last season, were rarely in danger of a second demotion. It was a simple approach: 4-4-2, deep defending and direct attacking.

This season's approach remains largely similar, albeit in a 4-5-1 system. Various statistics from Burnley's campaign provide a fair summary of their strategy: they're in the bottom five Premier League sides in terms of possession and pass completion, but win the most aerial duels in the division.

Defensively, they've conceded more shots than any other side -- and while they don't make many tackles or interceptions, they're recording huge figures in terms of blocking opposition shots -- 61 so far, 20 clear of their nearest challengers.

This Premier League campaign is only seven games old, of course, and these statistics are skewed by Burnley's tough fixture list so far, making them seem unreasonably rudimentary. Burnley are a well-organised, defensive-minded side with good defenders in fine form and the midfield protecting them solidly. But this is a team based around heading and blocking.

This works perfectly well for Burnley, but recent history suggests Dyche's approach would be incompatible with a big club. Look at the experience of Roy Hodgson, who worked wonders with Fulham but found his safety-first, negative strategy -- and demeanour -- hugely unpopular from the outset at Liverpool, and ultimately unsuccessful too. David Moyes, who established Everton as a regular top-half side with a largely reactive, structured system, was similarly unable to adjust to the attacking demands of coaching Manchester United. His new side adapted to Moyes' Everton blueprint, and recorded Everton-esque results.

Two success stories, meanwhile, have seen forward-thinking coaches enjoying success at bigger clubs, having previously impressed with positive football. Brendan Rodgers based his Swansea side around relentless possession play, and after moving to Liverpool, he took them to the brink of their first Premier League title with attacking football -- albeit more direct play than he initially intended. Mauricio Pochettino's Southampton side were all about heavy pressing, and the Argentine has taken Tottenham to their two highest Premier League finishes since joining in 2014.

It's worth considering that, in pure results terms, Hodgson and Moyes had performed better than Rodgers and Pochettino. Hodgson had taken Fulham to seventh and then the Europa League final, Moyes regularly finished in the top seven too, peaking with fourth place in 2005. In comparison, Pochettino's much-vaunted Southampton side only finished eighth. Rodgers' Swansea side came 11th; a fine debut campaign, but hardly threatening the big boys. The style of their coaching, however, was more immediately transferrable to a big club, which explains why managers like Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce, despite recording impressive league finishes, are eternally overlooked for big jobs.

Is Dyche in that category, alongside Pulis and Allardyce? Well, Burnley have evolved slightly. The summer signing of the underrated Jack Cork means Burnley deploy a reliable passing midfielder in every game, while they've played some neat passing combinations down the flanks. They've mixed patient build-up with direct play; there was plenty of focus upon the "24-pass move" that resulted in Jeff Hendrick's winner against Everton, but these 24 passes included a booming 50-yard crossfield ball followed by a hopeful cross, with Burnley inevitably winning that aerial battle to keep the move going.

There's little evidence, though, that Dyche's system is compatible with top-class technical players. He hasn't attempted to recruit an explosive centre-forward who might lack defensive discipline, but contributes outstanding moments in the final third. He seemingly has little interest in playing an outright playmaker to roam between the lines.

Yes, Burnley's budget is relatively limited, but Dyche has spent more than £10 million three times since Burnley's promotion 18 months ago: buying bustling forward Chris Wood, technical utility man Robbie Brady and scheming box-to-box player Hendrick. All three have fitted in excellently, all are good footballers, but a manager with Champions League ambitions would be a little braver.

Ultimately, it would be a huge leap of faith for a big side to appoint Dyche. Even Everton, for example, have a squad overloaded with No. 10s; what would Dyche do with them? We simply don't know, and while Dyche would doubtless make the Allardyce-esque claim that his sides would play better football if he had better players, until we see evidence, he can't reasonably have a claim to one of those jobs.

A switch to a midtable club remains a realistic goal, but it's worth considering how many of these clubs demand "good" football too; Dyche wouldn't fit in at Stoke, who have deliberately moved away from Pulis' approach, or West Ham, still peculiarly fixated upon the idea their club traditionally play good football. Even Bournemouth and Swansea have built themselves around positive play.

There seems only one obvious option: Leicester, whose defensive-minded, counter-attacking mentality would fit nicely. Otherwise, Dyche might be better staying put; for as long as Burnley remain in the top half, his reputation will continue to grow.

Michael Cox is the editor of and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.

Tottenham have been boosted by the return of long-term absentees Erik Lamela and Danny Rose to team training.

Lamela has not played for nearly a year due to persistent problems in both hips, while Rose has been sidelined since January with a knee injury.

Both players have undergone surgery since they last played but the duo joined group training on Wednesday, with the club confirming that they were continuing their rehabilitation alongside the rest of the first-team squad.

Danny Rose and @ErikLamela train with the rest of the team at Hotspur Way today as they continue to progress with their rehabilitation.

Since featuring against Liverpool in last season's League Cup fourth-round defeat on Oct. 25, Lamela has spent time in his home city of Buenos Aires on compassionate leave after his brother was injured in an accident, as well as in Rome, where he was treated for his hip problem at his former club Roma.

Rose, meanwhile, is now a controversial figure at Tottenham after giving an interview on the eve of the current season in which he questioned the club's ambition, said he should be earning more money and admitted he was open to offers from other sides.

Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.

Dani Alves has opened the door for Alexis Sanchez to join him and Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain in the future after Brazil ended Chile's hopes of qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

A youthful Brazil side, captained by Alves' current PSG teammate Marquinhos and featuring Neymar, beat Sanchez's Chile 3-0 in Sao Paulo on Wednesday.

Alves, who has scored two goals and assisted two more across all competitions since joining PSG in the summer, was asked after the match if Sanchez could join him in Paris once his Arsenal contract ends next summer.

"He is wanted by many teams," Alves told reporters in the mixed zone. "It would be good if he came with us. I will always appreciate him. I want what is best for him wherever he goes."

When asked if he had spoken with former Barcelona teammate Sanchez, Alves added: "I didn't want to speak much because I know how tough it is and also because I didn't want for people to interpret things in a way that would have put my professionalism in doubt."

Reigning Copa America champions Chile finished sixth in the South American qualification zone behind Peru, who now face a playoff to confirm their World Cup spot.

Alves, Neymar, Marquinhos and Thiago Silva, who missed the game against Chile because of injury, will now all return to France and all will be assessed before Unai Emery picks his squad for Saturday's trip to face Dijon.

Silva injured his right thigh during the 0-0 qualifying draw away at Bolivia in La Paz and had to be substituted after 29 minutes.

Although he decided to remain with the national team until the end of the international break, he could be rested by PSG this weekend with an Anderlecht double header to come in the Champions League and then Le Classique away at Marseille and Nice at home before the end of the month.

Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.

The nominations for the Ballon d'Or served as a healthy reminder that David De Gea is still at Manchester United.

Well, perhaps that's a ridiculous exaggeration -- it's just that a casual observer, looking at the regularity with which United are running up 4-0 scorelines, might think that being their goalkeeper is not the most challenging of jobs. To some extent, they might have a point -- De Gea's workload is significantly less than that of, say, Everton's Jordan Pickford. But it's notable that De Gea is the club's only nominee for the award, which shows how high he kept his standards during Jose Mourinho's first season.

That season, some might point out, was one where he found himself under particular pressure, and so he had more opportunities than most to prove his worth. Yet in a season where Mourinho and United just about emerged with credit, his contribution was vital. This was a campaign, after all, where his forward line again struggled for pace and goals, and his defence struggled for consistency -- so much so that Marcos Rojo eventually ended up as a crucial member. Though Rojo's efforts in central defence were superb, his prominence was a sign of how makeshift United's backline had become.

And behind them all was De Gea. Even though Sergio Romero did very well under Mourinho, even keeping goal in the Europa League final win over Ajax, De Gea again played almost 50 matches. During that time, he turned an immeasurable number of moments of panic into safety, and helped his goal-shy team to salvage draws. It is possibly easy, as he begins his seventh season for United, to understate his importance to Mourinho's team, to become complacent about it. If so, that is because De Gea has become so good in his position that he is no longer someone United have to worry about.

There was a time when this might have been unthinkable -- when he first arrived at Old Trafford, say, and looked less than comfortable under high balls. But then he grew, in both muscle mass and self-confidence, and was soon seen getting the best of some of English football's most physical forwards in their aerial duels. Now, he is routinely regarded as one of the top five goalkeepers in the world, and may one day go on to be viewed as one of the game's greatest.

The fact that he still only has 26 caps for Spain is due to the brilliance of his predecessor, Iker Casillas, more than anything else; the good news for him is that he looks set to wear that shirt for years to come. At United, too, it looks like he once again has the elite team that his talents deserve, and which he was -- recently and perhaps understandably -- looking to join at Real Madrid.

This season, De Gea is not so often under a barrage of shots from the opposition, but he continues to make exceptional saves at key moments. Of course, there is far more to him than keeping the ball out, but it remains his key strength. We can see this by comparing his performance every 90 minutes with that of the goalkeepers from some of United's closest rivals in the Premier League -- Manchester City's Ederson, Chelsea's Thibaut Courtois and Tottenham's Hugo Lloris. At first glance, he seems most confident in coming to claim high balls. Ederson punches the ball 0.62 times per 90 minutes, followed by Lloris (0.43), then De Gea and Courtois (both 0.14). By comparison, De Gea catches the ball the most (2.86 times per 90 minutes), compared with Ederson (2.15), Courtois (1.71) and Lloris (1.14).

In terms of passing statistics, Ederson stands out, which you would expect from a coach with Pep Guardiola's attacking philosophy. Ederson has so far completed 85 percent of his passes, some way ahead of Lloris (77 percent), Courtois (69 percent) and De Gea (64 percent). In De Gea's defence, it could be argued this is because he is expected to pass over greater distances -- Mourinho being a greater fan of the pragmatism of the long ball. Whatever the case, De Gea and Courtois both have an average pass length of 42 metres, with 32 metres for Ederson and 29 metres for Lloris.

Where De Gea distinguishes himself, though -- and where you can see the clearest evidence of the form that saw him nominated for the Ballon d'Or -- is in the category of shots saved per goal conceded. Here, per 90 minutes, Lloris makes 1.4 saves for every goal he concedes; Courtois, 2.8; Ederson, 4.5 and De Gea, 7.5. This is a statistic which suggests United's large margins of victory are not as convincing as they look. It also suggests that De Gea is remarkably good at remaining a high level of concentration even though he is not occupied for long periods. This recalls the old anecdote about Peter Shilton, who was so focused during one particular game that when he left the field, though not having made a single save, he was drenched in sweat.

Though De Gea may not be catching the eye as much as he was last year, he is still a crucial foundation of any success that United promise to enjoy. It is his consistently outstanding play that has helped Mourinho to rebuild his squad's confidence so quickly -- and, should he ever be pursued by Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain, they would most likely have to offer a fee more commonly associated with an elite centre forward.

Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.