The big feature: Burnley boss Sean Dyche talks about 'top talent' Dwight McNeil - the jewel in the Clarets' crown - amid Crystal Palace links
Burnley boss Sean Dyche has labelled Dwight McNeil as a ‘top talent’ and believes the young winger deserves all the respect and attention he is receiving.
The 20-year-old is now reportedly at the top of Roy Hodgson’s wishlist should Crystal Palace star Wilfried Zaha get his big money move in January.
The Ivorian had handed in a transfer request in the summer amid interest from Everton and Arsenal, but the Eagles rebuffed offers from the Premier League pair and their prized asset remained at Selhurst Park.
Chelsea could be in line to test Palace’s resolve this time after the Court of Arbitration for Sport lifted the club’s transfer ban following an appeal.
Any movement on that front could force the South London outfit’s hand with England Under 21 international McNeil considered to be the ideal replacement.
The Rochdale-born revelation, who has doubled Zaha’s goal contribution so far this campaign, is regarded as the jewel in the Clarets’ crown.
He’s level on four assists with the likes of Bernardo Silva, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez and Roberto Firmino while McNeil (108) has made the top five of a list of players that have so far supplied the most crosses this season.
Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold (172) currently heads that group and has Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne (161), Everton’s Lucas Digne (144) and Leicester City midfielder James Maddison (119) for company.
“The great thing for Dwight is that he is playing a lot of football, a lot of regular Premier League football and that is a massive thing for someone at such a young age,” said Dyche. “He’s just turned 20.
“He deserves any respect he is getting, he is a young player enjoying his football and you want to see that, I certainly do.
“He is learning and improving all the time. His mentality is getting stronger and stronger and I think he is a top talent. I have said it all along, the main thing for me is that he is enjoying himself.
“It is not easy, there is stress and pressure in the Premier League but I just want him to keep playing with a smile on his face.
“He is a quiet lad who enjoys coming in and he is a humble lad. I sense he is from a good family who look after him.
“He is going about his business really well at the moment, self learning as much as us guiding him because I think that is important in young players.”
Dyche has tipped McNeil for the top and is of the opinion that the former Manchester United academy player isn’t far away from earning a senior Three Lions call.
The in-demand number 11, who signed a new long-term deal with the Clarets at the start of the year, which runs until June, 2023 – with the option of an additional 12 months – has been invited to train with Gareth Southgate’s squad on a number of occasions.
And, having already featured for Aidy Boothroyd’s group, when making his competitive debut in a 5-1 win over Austria at the Stadium MK, laying on the third goal for Leeds United loan man Eddie Nketiah, Dyche has backed McNeil to make the step up.
He said: “When I see some of the other young players who are getting called up and are in and around it then he can’t be far away in my opinion.
“But I am bound to say that as I see him every day. I have never really questioned the national side of things and certainly not Gareth who I have a good relationship with.
“It is not easy picking the players but we will see. I know Aidy likes him in the 21s and he hasn’t always played him but he is aware that he is playing regularly in the Premier League.
“Not all of the Under-21s are playing regularly whereas Dwight is so when he has been able to leave him out he has done that.
“If Gareth sees fit to have him in and around it, he has trained with them, then it wouldn’t surprise me.”
McNeil is already illustrating his ability to shine at the highest level, giving international full backs Alexander-Arnold, Seamus Coleman and Cesar Azpilicueta the runaround at Turf Moor.
Former Paris Saint-Germain defender Serge Aurier, an international team-mate of Zaha’s, also felt the full force of McNeil’s class at the weekend.
The right back had his work cut out when McNeil and Robbie Brady switched flanks at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and was reluctant to get forward as much in support of Lucas Moura.
McNeil, who has now had a hand in 14 goals for Burnley in the Premier League since coming in to the side just under 12 months ago, deserved to upgrade those numbers against Jose Mourinho’s men, but Brady and Jay Rodriguez were off target in the first half.
“Dwight McNeil was the biggest positive,” Dyche said. “Dwight’s a joy I think, I told the more mature players afterwards, that used to give me energy.
“When I was at Millwall playing with Timmy Cahill, Steven Reid, Richie Sadlier, Neil Harris, they used to give me energy, and I was an older pro.
“I used to look at them and marvel at what they were doing, so I think sometimes you can use that as a source to continue your journey.
“I think we need to do that with Dwight at the moment, I think he’s been absolutely terrific.
“People are taking him a lot more seriously, but he keeps wriggling and finding a way. He was terrific.
“The standard of a player, for me, is when it’s going right against you, he’s still getting the ball and still trying to open up the opposition, with that open-mindedness and belief, that naivety a player can have at a young age.”
The recent defeat against reigning champions Manchester City was a sure sign of McNeil’s development as a player.
Though he didn’t see the ball anywhere near as much as he would have liked, and the bulk of his work revolved around tracking back to protect Erik Pieters, Dyche stressed that it’s all part of his learning.
It’s an invaluable tier in his education. The Clarets chief said: “That’s all part of your learning, we all know he can play, definitely.
“How can you operate when you haven’t got the ball as much, how can you operate on those tough days, they’re all part of your development, they’re all part of your learning.
“How is he learning from them? I don’t over-coach him, just horse-whispering to him, saying ‘look how quickly they see the picture, look how quickly they’re able to operate, look how quickly they work in transition’.
“They are the things we look at, I look at Manchester City in a completely different way. I’m looking at their technical ability, I’m looking at their structure, I’m looking at how quickly they work in transition, how quickly their focus changes from attack to defence and from defence to attack.
“They read those kind of situations incredibly quickly. That’s something that Dwight will continue to master in seeing the picture.
“It all comes from doing it, it’s not just from coaching. Some of it is with analytics and getting a view of it, but a lot of it’s from actually being out there and doing it.”
He added: “Those experiences will still be good for him. He’ll be thinking about the tempo they play at, they shift the ball quickly, using limited touches, then find the marvellous moment of having seven or eight touches. They’re shifting it quickly and then choosing the right time to drive at someone.
“Man City do it great, they choose the time when they’re going to travel. They do it fantastically. That little fella Messi does it. He [Dwight] gets it and I like that about him.
“He gets what we are, he gets us, he’s starting to get the division, he knows it’s tough for us, he knows we’re not going to walk into games and have 70 percent possession.
“The good side of that for a young player is that he knows when he has got the ball he’s got to really take care of it.
“He does take care of the ball and he can drive at people when it’s needed, but he’s learning how to pop it off and play it simple when it’s needed. I think he’s continuing to mature nicely.
“I think Dwight is adaptable, I could see him playing in a number of different positions. He’s doing a great job for us on the left, but I could see him playing inside, I could see him playing in a two in midfield in the future, I could see him in a three, which he has done for us and England.
“I think he’s got a lot of different strings to his bow. There are a lot of good things coming from him and, most of all, he’s not affected by it and he’s just getting on with it.
“That’s a key thing in the Premier League, getting through the highs and lows, and that’ll definitely be part of his education because we do have highs and lows here during the season. He’ll definitely learn from the resilience that comes from that.”