Erik Lamela scored the goal of the Premier League weekend, but the effort from Dwight McNeil wasn’t far behind. His brilliant strike in Burnley’s 2-1 victory over Everton was important too, moving Sean Dyche’s side nine points clear of the bottom three and within touching distance of survival. Dyche has once again worked his magic at Turf Moor, and Burnley will soon be able to celebrate securing a sixth successive season of top-flight football.
McNeil will have played a key role in that achievement. His headline numbers this season do not look particularly impressive: in 27 Premier League appearances, the winger has scored two goals and provided three assists.
Yet his importance to this Burnley team should not be underestimated. Like every other member of the squad, Dwight McNeil buys into Dyche’s demands for hard work and commitment. That is a prerequisite at Burnley, whose manager lives by the mantra “the minimum requirement is maximum effort”.
Crucially, though, McNeil provides craft as well as graft. Burnley are a team defined by their defensive organisation. For the most part they look to get the ball forward quickly, with little in the way of midfield elaboration. Even Dyche would admit that his is not the most technically gifted squad in the division.
Dwight McNeil provides an essential dash of guile and creativity in the final third. He is a fine crosser of the ball, which is a vital asset for a team that heavily relies upon the aerial ability of Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes. He is also comfortable receiving possession in tight areas, which cannot be said for all of his colleagues at Turf Moor.
“He’s a very, very good player and can only get better,” Dyche said after Saturday’s success at Goodison Park.
“He works incredibly hard. We’re not blessed with the riches of others to buy true, true quality – I believe we’ve got quality without a doubt – but we ask everyone to work hard and he certainly does a shift.”
“I believe one day he’ll go on to bigger and better than Burnley, not because I don’t think we’re a big club or a good club, but maybe the super power clubs (will buy him). And I think they’ll marvel and the fact he works so hard for the team, as well as the fact he can deal with the ball.”
It will indeed be interesting to see where McNeil’s future lies. The 21-year-old is likely to still be at Burnley next season but his current employers will have to brace themselves for enquiries at some point in the future. Dwight McNeil would no doubt welcome the chance to test himself at a higher level, even if he seems to be settled in Lancashire for now.
McNeil’s role at Burnley is unique in that he probably would not be used in the same way at any other club in the Premier League. Dyche is not the only manager to employ a 4-4-2 formation, but most of his peers in the top flight would field a player like McNeil as an inverted winger rather than on the left-hand side of the pitch.
The type of goal that Dwight McNeil scored on Saturday is relatively common in 2021. Not all such strikes are as spectacular as his but the concept of a wide man drifting infield onto his favoured foot and unleashing a shot at goal is no longer alien. It is now rarer for wingers to be used on the flank that corresponds with their stronger side.
At Burnley McNeil is primarily tasked with carrying the ball up the pitch and getting crosses into the box. Were he to move to a top-half club, that would probably not be the case. His ball-carrying skills would still be important but McNeil’s future manager would expect him to drift into central areas and look to play through-balls in behind. Getting to the byline and swinging in a delivery is usually the preserve of full-backs these days.
Dwight McNeil has the talent to excel in such a role but he may reach the age of 22 or 23 without ever having been used in that way. That need not be a bad thing, though. He will be a more rounded player on account of his experiences at Burnley and he may look back on this period as the making of him.
McNeil is good enough to score goals like Saturday’s stunner against Everton on a more regular basis. But because of his role at Burnley, we might have to wait until he is plying his trade elsewhere to see it.
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