The Season So Far
For Eddie Howe and his beloved Bournemouth, this has been a strenuous and unpromising start to the campaign: six defeats in the first nine games, with only six goals scored, and with their only victories coming over newly promoted and spectacularly terrible Brighton and away to frankly abysmal Stoke City. They sit 19th in the table – and, sadly, such a poor start to the season was foreseeable.
The second half of last season indicated that the other Premier League clubs had figured out how to pop these particular Cherries (ahem), but despite significant investment in the spine of the team over the summer, there have been precious few signs of rejuvenation. Late, late defeats at home to Manchester City and away to Everton were undoubtedly unfortunate, but Bournemouth’s responses to those setbacks – and Howe’s clearly devastated reaction to Oumar Niasse’s winner at Goodison Park – have shown that morale is painfully low.
An obvious worry is that a feeling of stagnation has set in at Dean Court. Although Howe’s squad have performed heroics over the last few years and almost all have earned legend status at the club, the truth is that it seems their cycle has come to an end. An even bigger worry is what happens next if this is indeed the case: does Howe stay and oversee an overhaul aimed at consolidating Premier League status in the long-term? Or does he jump to a more stable ship, leaving Bournemouth and their hardworking but limited journeymen to sink back to the murky depths of the Football League?
After two successful and thoroughly uplifting seasons in the Premier League, this is a disappointing and difficult situation to be in. It’s without question that Howe will have the support of everyone at the club to turn things around, but whether Howe himself will have the patience to do so remains to be seen.
The Season Ahead
Unless they get points on the board in the next month, Bournemouth are in real danger of being sucked into a season-long relegation battle. In their favour are the epochal awfulness of Crystal Palace’s start to the season and the fact that several bottom-half teams have found it hard to get results or inspire confidence this season. While one retains confidence that the likes of Stoke and Everton should pull clear of their current positions, the likes of Chris Hughton’s turgid Brighton, Paul Clement’s frail Swansea and Slaven Bilić’s directionless West Ham will almost certainly be down there for the long haul. There’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel Bournemouth are stuck in.
It’s also worth mentioning that for as long as they’ve been in the top flight, the Cherries have been a team which wins points in spurts and then goes months without registering too many. Such dismal runs of form as the one they’re enduring now shouldn’t be too disheartening as long as they can be arrested, and there’s reason to think this one will end soon: after this game, Bournemouth have six extremely favourable fixtures in a row, which should give them a good chance of putting together a run and surging away from the drop zone.
Counting against Bournemouth are the possibilities that Roy Hodgson sorts Crystal Palace out (we’ve already seen that process beginning), that Brighton start attacking occasionally (uh-oh…) and fellow goal-shy relegation candidates Swansea start to fill their boots and pull away from trouble (gulp). If those stars align, Bournemouth are going down.
Bournemouth have stuck to their template from previous seasons, almost always playing a positionally conservative 4-4-1-1, aimed at closing off passing angles and protecting territory without the ball, while providing their attackers with space to play in the opposition half. They have clear aims in all phases of play and no player can be in any doubt as to what’s expected of him at any given time during the game.
So far this season Bournemouth have shown a clear preference for attacking down the left: 40% of attacks have come down that side, compared with 33% for the right and 26% down the middle. The overlapping Charlie Daniels has been heavily involved in attacking phases of play, creating more chances than any other Cherries player and also scoring their most spectacular goal of the season to date, a bona fide screamer against Manchester City.
Football is a ruthless business, and it often seems like the higher one ascends, the more ruthless it becomes. There’s nothing wrong with Eddie Howe’s gameplan on paper – indeed, it has worked for the majority of the time his side has played Premier League football – but it seems like his ideas have now been sussed out by his peers and he has thus far had no answer.
For a manager so highly thought of in the English game, it’s surprising that Howe has been so passive as his side has slipped into a very foreseeable malaise. Given his reputation, one would think that taking a bold step forward and posing his counterparts a different challenge shouldn’t be beyond him. Howe could perhaps argue that it’s not beyond him, but rather beyond the players he has at his disposal, but then that begs the question why he hasn’t bought other, more talented players.
At the moment, there’s not much to write home about as far as strengths are concerned. They’re obviously really organised and that’s always a plus, and they have talented players capable of creating and finishing chances: on the flanks, Junior Stanislas, Jordon Ibe and Ryan Fraser almost always catch the eye even if they don’t produce the goods, while up front Jermain Defoe, Josh King and Benik Afobe all know where the goal is.
That said, apart from individual talent, there’s nothing going for this team at the moment: their system doesn’t make their attacking any better or any easier, and they’re labouring with the basics in a way that they just didn’t before.
Bournemouth’s ultimate aim has always been simple: to create more high quality chances than their opponents can, while allowing their opponents to discernibly outplay them. Being out-passed or out-shot didn’t matter – what mattered was the quality of the passes their opponents were allowed to make versus the quality of Bournemouth’s passes, and consequently the respective quality of the shots created.
This season that has gone to pieces: Bournemouth have taken a nothing-y 9.4 shots per game and hit the target with a measly 2.7 of those; on the other hand, their opponents have taken 14.3 shots per game and worked Asmir Begović 5.0 times per game. They’re making bad chances and giving away good ones: 5% of their shots have been in the opposition six-yard box, the third lowest average in the league, while 10% of shots against have been in their six-yard box, the division’s second highest average.
Far from withstanding a barrage of jabs in order to land the occasional knockout blow, Bournemouth have recorded the second lowest expected goals ratio in the division. They’re simply allowing themselves to be pummelled. Perhaps even worse than all of this is the sense that one can see the morale sapping from the players and the manager, little by little, more and more each week.
It’s likely to be a familiar starting eleven, but there’s always the chance Howe could decide to ring the changes, given that his team are in the doldrums. When the Cherries faced Tottenham, for example, who also play 3-4-2-1, Howe experimented with a 3-5-1-1 formation aimed at closing off the centre of the pitch. We shouldn’t be surprised if he tries again here, but really on his home turf we should expect the regular Plan A.
Bournemouth 1-2 Chelsea with the class of Álvaro Morata and Eden Hazard making the difference.