The Season So Far
If, at the start of the season, Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe had been offered 17th place with a dramatic final day escape that would have taken years off his life, he'd have accepted the offer without a second thought. If the same deal had been on the table after big summer signings Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings, as well as then-top-scorer and potential England call-up Callum Wilson, all went down with torn cruciate ligaments before autumn, he'd have traded his soul for it. It's to Howe's immense credit, then, that Bournemouth are miles clear of the relegation zone and have been comfortably safe for some time.
That’s not to say it’s all been plain sailing for the south coast side. In fact, it has been an absolute rollercoaster, full of unforgettable highs - victories over Chelsea, Manchester United and a wonderful run of only four defeats in 16 games - and devastating lows - the aforementioned losses of Gradel, Mings and Wilson, a terrible subsequent run of two wins up until December, and, worst of all, the tragic stillborn birth of Harry Arter's child.
Nonetheless, the Cherries have not popped (sorry). It's easy to see why Howe is seen as a strong candidate to go to the very top of the game, but he must feel he has a lot more to do at Dean Court before he can move on to pastures new and/or greater things.
The Final Few Games
As with all safe teams at this stage, there's no pressure on the players whatsoever and it's all about finishing as high up the table as possible. Premier League survival may have been achieved, but it's still important to end the season on a high note. That may not be easy, with games against Chelsea, Everton and Man Utd among their last four. Admittedly, those teams are at various stages of disintegration/disinterest/open mutiny (or at least could be by the time Bournemouth play them), so the fixture list may not be as bad as it seems at this moment in time.
It’s also worth mentioning that Gradel and Wilson are back and it’s evident from their performances that they feel the need to make up for lost time. Chelsea will have to be very wary of both, although the latter will probably start on the bench.
Bournemouth almost always play a straightforward 4-4-1-1, with typical aims for that system and a club of their stature: keep things tight, cover the spaces between the lines, force turnovers, get the ball down the flanks and give the strikers chances to work the keeper. Their defence keeps a relatively deep, disciplined line, their midfield sits in front of it and looks to cut off the opposition's passing angles, and then supply the wide-men or strikers with quick passes forward.
This may sound like the gameplan of a typical promoted side - all long-balls, physicality and "giving 110%", whatever that means - but Howe's approach is notably different. His side is full of unheralded, British ball-players and discarded academy products from much bigger clubs, and he has used his squad's good level of technical ability and football intelligence to play a more sophisticated brand of football than the Allardyces and Pulises (Pulii?) of this miserable, depressing Premier League world.
As previously stated, the danger of Gradel on the flanks is one that has to be taken seriously. Bournemouth will look to supply him in dangerous areas and Chelsea's defenders have repeatedly suffered against speedy, inventive tricksters like him this season.
The coherence and effectiveness of Howe’s system is proven by the numbers. Their attacking output is, for a club of this stature, excellent: they’ve taken 398 shots in total, of which 213 have been from inside the opposition box, for an overall total of 127 on target. Their overall conversion rate is 9.1%, marginally below the league average, and the conversion rate of their shots on target is 29.3%, just above the league average.
These are extremely respectable numbers, and by far the best set produced by this season's three promoted sides, and markedly better than the four teams adrift at the foot of the table. In an era in which positivity - well, balanced positivity, at least - is rewarded with success, Howe has built an unequivocally positive and productive side which punches way above its weight.
It's worth stressing the 'balance' aspect here: this is not a team that goes attacking gung-ho and forgets to lock the gate before the horse bolts, in the manner of Roberto Martínez’s teams, for example. Especially for a newly promoted team, Bournemouth have played a very intelligent and progressive defensive game. Their defensive actions figures are relatively low: 18.6 tackles per game, 16.9 interceptions, and 9.7 fouls make them look comparatively lax off the ball. However, their positional play is generally excellent: they sit deep, cut off the angles and keep them closed, forcing opponents to play sideways and backwards. It’s usually not easy to find a way through.
This means they've faced the fifth lowest number of shots in the league this season (368), the seventh lowest number of shots on target (131), and the fifth lowest number of shots from inside their own box (222). Such defensive solidity, combined with a very coherent attacking plan, explains how Bournemouth have stayed well clear of the relegation dogfight and, again, speaks extremely highly of Eddie Howe.
All of the above said, Bournemouth remain a newly promoted team and as such they have the same obvious weakness that all newly promoted teams have: they have a lot of players who simply aren't very good - or rather, aren't as good as the players that other Premier League teams have. While they're an undeniably excellent unit tactically, they are a very limited set of individuals: not one of them is especially fast (bar Gradel), not one is especially strong (bar Benik Afobe, who is out of this game), not one is especially talented technically (bar Gradel again). On a man-by-man basis, they're sub-par and sometimes this has been exploited. On a few occasions they've been outplayed and on even fever they've been destroyed.
This assessment of their lack of individual quality isn't an observation that can be backed up by many stats, but it's telling that Bournemouth have recorded by far the lowest save percentage of any Premier League side: tasked with doing something basic, repeatable and measurable like 'stop the ball from hitting the net', their individuals come up short in comparison to those that the other teams have over a period of time.
In short: Chelsea have much better players than Bournemouth. Furthermore, if they shoot and it’s on target, there’s a good chance Artur Boruc will get out of the way.
Bournemouth's side has been rotated rather heavily of late, partly out of necessity and partly because Howe will be casting his eye over various players and wondering if they have any future beyond this season, and planning his summer shopping. This makes predicting certain starters difficult, but there remain others who are absolutely nailed on to play.
As for Chelsea… it hurts to even think about it at the moment.
Boruc is so bad and enough of Chelsea’s players are so obviously past the point of caring that almost anything is possible. If the real Chelsea turn up and put together a few nice phases of play and get a good number of shots on target, they’ll win easily. If they don’t, Bournemouth will win. Or, who knows, it might be a draw.
Now please excuse me while I go and sit on this fence.