The 20-year-old has already become a key player for Burnley and is now being monitored by Three Lions boss Gareth Southgate
There is a tendency in modern football to get carried away when a team puts a string of results together, good or bad, and draw lasting conclusions from a small sample that – over the course of a season – will even out to produce an average, expected outcome.
The industry’s short-termism, particularly in regards to managerial appointments, plus the 24-hour news cycle and social media analysis make it all too tempting.
But where the likes of Bournemouth or Crystal Palace attract attention for their yo-yoing form, Burnley appear to have avoided the same sort of scrutiny, almost as if we are too used to their erratic form – perhaps even a bit bored of it – to notice.
And yet ironically Burnley’s 2019-20 form deserves the sort of scrutiny, and praise, that we are withholding.
Burnley, having lost just once in the league since New Year’s Day, are on course for 51 points this season – just three shy of their total in the 2016-17 campaign when Dyche’s side came seventh.
It should not be forgotten that Burnley are a relatively small club, financially speaking, and Sean Dyche should not be a victim of his own success.
A willingness to play long balls up to a big man while using a 4-4-2 inevitably invites assumptions Burnley are an old-fashioned and unsophisticated side. This is simply not true.
Dyche’s side sometimes sit 10 men behind the ball but more often they press relatively high, disrupting the opponents’ rhythm all over the pitch.
It speaks volumes that Burnley catch more offsides, 2.4 per game, than any other team in the Premier League.
Their off-the-ball positional play is more complex than most teams in the league, as are the detailed passing combinations played once the second ball is won in the opposition half.
Dyche’s narrow 4-4-2 deploys the two wingers in narrow positions, which helps to both add bodies in central midfield (to win the second balls, and to create passing options to get the ball wide) and free up space on the overlap for the two full-backs.
Burnley are only seen as a defensive, hoof-ball side because most only watch their televised games against ‘Big Six’ sides, when a deep block is generally more appropriate. Although not always.
Burnley’s 1-1 draw against Tottenham on Saturday exemplified their aggression, bravery, and ability to hold territory in the attacking third.
Yes, the first ball is often a long pass up for Chris Wood, but once the second ball is won – and it invariably is, by Jay Rodriguez or Matej Vydra – Burnley look to carefully work the ball out wide for crosses into the box.
Amid all this structure, with its diligently crafted attacking lines, Burnley have been boosted to another level this season by one maverick element; a disruptive presence whose performances have started to gain him widespread attention.
Dwight McNeil tops the Burnley charts for dribbles completed (2.1 per game), key passes (1.5 per game), assists (five), and crosses completed (1.8 per game).
Most significantly, he ranks among the Premier League’s top five players for xG chances created, a statistic that suggests with better strikers in the box McNeil would have considerably more assists to his name.
It is no wonder that, after playing in 19 games in his breakthrough campaign last year, he has started every Premier League match so far in 2019-20.
McNeil’s key strength is clearly running with the ball and whipping dangerous crosses into the box, attributes that improve all the time while Dyche works to ensure his players play with a smile on their face (something of a buzzword for the manager this season).
The 20-year-old’s relationship with Charlie Taylor is blossoming, too, and the pair tore through Japhet Tanganga in that Spurs game.
What gets less attention is how McNeil drifts infield in possession, adding a more chaotic quality to the Burnley attack and helping to draw defenders away from Rodriguez and Wood.
Burnley’s 4-4-2 can occasionally look a little flat, which is why when McNeil cuts diagonally across the pitch he helps shake his team-mates into action, recalibrating the angles.
Of course, still learning his trade McNeil has his off days, and certainly working on his consistency is the next step for the young winger.
It is telling that whenever he plays poorly – crosses wayward, touches hesitant – Burnley barely register a shot on goal and slump to defeat. He is already the club’s most important player.
There are already rumours of a big-money move this summer and yet McNeil might not have to leave to get European football, with Burnley a mere four points off sixth.
Europa League qualification is definitely on the cards; winning points against the likes of Spurs, Chelsea, and Man Utd in recent weeks, where previously Dyche’s side were the whipping boys of the ‘Big Six’, it is fair to assume Burnley really have turned a corner.
And McNeil could be rewarded for his part in that with an England call-up this month. Gareth Southgate has been attending a lot of Burnley matches in 2020, presumably to assess the left winger.
However, these Euro 2020 preparation games may have come a little too early what with Jack Grealish the next in line to play on the left side.
But it won’t be long before McNeil is seen in an England shirt, and perhaps a Manchester United one too, although the consensus would surely be for him to stay in the comfortable and nurturing environment of Turf Moor for the time being.
He could a very special player. With Dyche trusting him to play every week, McNeil is in the right place to fulfil that potential.