The Season So Far
Far from being one-season wonders, Bournemouth’s work in the transfer market showed they mean business in the Premier League. Highly rated manager Eddie Howe sold and reinforced wisely, with the departure of Matt Ritchie coming as a shock and the subsequent capture of Jack Wilshere raising eyebrows even more. Sensibly, Howe didn’t carried away, keeping the core of the squad intact, reasoning that if it ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it. Bournemouth are aiming for another safe, mid-table finish in the short-term and slow, incremental growth in the long-term and their squad is clearly capable of making that a reality.
That said, it’s worth remembering that this is a team mostly made up of unheralded journeymen and Championship success stories, and that without Howe they’d probably be shipping five goals each week and worrying about going back to playing Barnsley away on a Wednesday night. While they’ve made headlines by beating the likes of Liverpool and Everton and hammering Hull, they’ve also lost to Burnley and Middlesbrough and been pulverised by Manchester City.
Bournemouth are a good side, undoubtedly, but they’re inconsistent – and there’s every chance that when they come up against a superior team, they’ll get made to look stupid. Chelsea should be aiming to do just that.
The Season Ahead
Currently occupying a top-half spot, playing sophisticated, enjoyable football and occasionally bloodying the noses of bigger boys, Eddie Howe will surely be delighted if the season carries on exactly the way it is. There’s almost no danger of relegation and it’s arguable that European football would be too much, too soon for the Cherries. Slow, steady, incremental progress is what Howe wants and it’s what he’s achieving.
There’s always the danger that a bigger club will tempt Howe away and in that case Bournemouth would be well-and-truly screwed, but for now they’re living the dream and there’s no reason to anticipate nightmare scenarios just yet.
The beauty of Howe’s tactical work is its simplicity. Bournemouth almost always play a straightforward 4-4-1-1, although the acquisition of Jack Wilshere has seen them at times field a more dynamic 4-2-3-1 and it’s this shape Chelsea should probably expect on Monday.
The Cherries’ aims are typical for their system and for a club of their stature: first and foremost, they look to keep things very tight without the ball, filling or covering spaces between the lines and forcing turnovers. Their defence keeps a very disciplined line, their midfield sits in front of the back four and they look to cut off the opposition's passing angles. If the opposition is sufficiently frustrated to give the ball away, they then get the ball down the flanks quickly and give the strikers chances to work the keeper, or feed Wilshere and allow his developed football smarts dictate their play.
While Wilshere’s work on the South Coast has received an arguably disproportionate amount of credit due to his profile, it’s undeniable that his guile and game-management has given Bournemouth’s bow another couple of strings.
While the stats can make it look like Bournemouth do next to nothing without the ball – they make 16.1 tackles per game, among the Premier League’s lowest figures, a similarly low 12.5 interceptions per game and block only 7 passes per game, the division’s second lowest average – it’s all because they’re so focused on keeping their shape and closing passing angles, thereby making sure their opponents can’t play forwards and get the ball into decent shooting positions.
Their home victory over Everton in September was a masterclass in passive-aggressive midfield play, and the Toffees had absolutely no answer. That performance should serve as a warning for Chelsea, as well as a perfect example to be shown to aspiring managers on UEFA coaching courses throughout Europe.
Never in a position to outright dominate opponents week-in, week-out, Howe’s gameplan has to be much more modest. They are David vs Goliath every weekend, and it’s all about avoiding getting hit and landing their punches (or slingshotted stones, if we’re keeping the Biblical analogy intact) when it matters. They did this pretty well last season, but this time around it’s been a different story.
While they’re almost always outshot – average of shots taken per game, 12.1; shots against, 14.2 – there’s nothing wrong with that if they shoot more efficiently than the opposition. This season, however, they’re generally failing at doing that to the sufficient degree.
86 of Bournemouth’s 205 shots have been taken from inside the box (42%), while only 68 have been on target (33%) and only 23 have been converted (11%), 6 of which were scored in a single game against Hull, inflating their figures somewhat. No player has scored more than five goals, and two of the three to have scored more than twice – Junior Stanislas and Nathan Aké – are out of favour and unavailable to face his parent club, respectively.
Bournemouth are a decent, admirable outfit capable of bloodying any nose, but they’re also significantly worse than Chelsea and Antonio Conte and company have nothing to be afraid of.
The loss of in-form Aké is a huge blow to Howe, and he’ll have to reshuffle his defence accordingly. That said, it shouldn’t be an unfamiliar unit – far from it. The Cherries boss has several options in midfield and it’s difficult to predict which of his unconvincing wide-men will make the cut, or whether he’ll play with two strikers.
As for Chelsea, Diego Costa and N’Golo Kanté are suspended and Eden Hazard is still carrying a knock, so that’s arguably the Blues’ three most important players out or in doubt. Nonetheless, they should still be massive favourites here.
Even considering Chelsea’s relatively weak line-up, approaching fixture congestion and the fact that they’re due a shock defeat, it’s impossible to see anything other than a Blues win here. I’m saying 2-1.