Organizing Burnley’s desired first return to the Premier League is Manchester City’s greatest defender.
Vincent Kompany was a four-time title winner for 11 seasons as a rookie but now, having turned to management, is just looking to join him. And behind and in the center of Kompany’s plan is a current citizen of great repute; Taylor Harwood-Bellis who, at just 20 years old, was at the center of one of the most frugal defenses in the championship.
With 18 games over, Burnley sit proudly top of the division, with a last-minute winner against Reading on Saturday sparking delirium at Turf Moor. Defeated just once in the league – an unfortunate 1-0 loss at Watford in August – they are unbeaten in 16 in all competitions.
And Harwood-Bellis has been a virtual ubiquitous, missing just two of the possible 1,620 minutes of league action. Only a pair of guardians can beat that. He leads Burnley – by some margin – in blocked shots, interceptions and clearances. Of his teammates, only full-back Connor Roberts has dispossessed more dribble forwards.
He has the third-most blocked shots in the league, while also ranking highly in interceptions. A Rolls Royce defender, therefore, whose preference is to anticipate rather than react, to stay upright rather than go to the ground.
Paul Harsley oversaw City’s elite development team between 2018 and 2020: “Taylor was a first-year apprentice and we took the U18s and U23s to Croatia in pre-season,” he recalled. “He was 16 but caught our eye and slowly moved into the elite development team more and more. At City, everything is accelerating so they play against the U23s at 16 or 17 and then go on loan around the age of 19. It soon became apparent to the technical staff that Taylor would move on to big things.
On what basis did Harsley make this judgment? “His understanding of the game, his ability on the ball and his willingness to really defend stood out,” says Harsley. “It’s quite common with players at the bigger clubs for the defensive side to be secondary, but Taylor was really willing to defend. He’s excellent in the air and on the ground.
And, as Harsley points out, Harwood-Bellis is also more than comfortable playing at fullback.
It’s not a trait synonymous with the Burnley of yore, but it’s a new iteration. The days of fries and spikes are over. Under Kompany, they average 63.6% possession, up from 40% en route to relegation.