The Season So Far
After two successful and thoroughly uplifting seasons in the Premier League, 2017-18 has been a somewhat disappointing and very difficult campaign to endure for Eddie Howe and his Bournemouth side – not because they’ve crashed and burned, but because it has become apparent that so many of Howe’s stalwarts, and indeed Howe’s ideas, are past their sell-by-date. This is a small, family club with heartfelt ties between fans and long-serving players and it has been agonising for all concerned to realise that so much of the squad has had its day and is no longer fit for purpose.
To his credit, Howe is doing the absolute best he can and he’s getting the absolute maximum out of what he has. Just when it looked like he himself had run out of ideas, Howe has sprung a change of system on the rest of the division and finally reinvigorated Bournemouth’s tired, predictable attack, inspiring a mini-surge up the table, out of the relegation zone and into the now-perpetually relegation-threatened bottom-half.
This may not sound like much, and it certainly isn’t much of a masterplan to be only two points above the drop zone more than halfway through a Premier League season, but for a while it looked as though Bournemouth were going to sink without trace, and at least now they have a fighting chance. Their recent comeback win at home to Arsenal demonstrated how successfully Howe has rejuvenated his side, and confirmed why Howe has been so well respected and highly rated for so long.
The Season Ahead
If there’s reason to belief Bournemouth can stay up it’s because Eddie Howe knows what he’s doing and because the squad definitely has goals in it: the likes of Callum Wilson, Josh King, Jermain Defoe, Junior Stanislas, Jordon Ibe and Ryan Fraser can most certainly produce the goods for the Cherries, especially under Howe’s able guidance, and the rest of the squad would run through brick walls to avoid relegation.
Furthermore, Bournemouth’s fixtures between now and the end of the season are actually pretty favourable. Of the fourteen games that remain, only four are against Big Six opponents and only two of those are away from home. That’s an awful lot of winnable games for them to take points in. While their present position is far from perfect and their season so far has had more than its fair share of agony, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
In terms of tactical objectives, Bournemouth have stuck resolutely 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 also providing their attackers with space to play in in the opposition half. Recently, however, Howe has switched to a Conte-esque 3-4-2-1, aimed at solidifying their often-exposed defence, and getting their attackers the ball in more promising and exploitable central zones rather than driving them wide all the time.
While the defence remains basically symbolic – their last clean sheet was in November and they’ve conceded sixteen goals in their last seven games – their attack has woken up, and even with a defence as porous as this they’re now unbeaten in five, with wins coming against Sam Allardyce’s briefly resurgent Everton and an Arsenal side which looked to have recovered something approaching acceptable league form.
This is not to say that Chelsea should fear them, of course, but Bournemouth certainly look more likely to survive playing a 3-4-2-1 which asks unexpected questions of their opponents than the 4-4-1-1 everyone worked out how to beat over a year ago.
Their level of tactical organisation is always impressive and it’s worth bearing in mind that without the scaffolding and support that Howe gives his players with his set-up and his instructions, most of his players would look out of their depth at this level. In that sense their biggest strength is, at it has always been, their manager.
Aside from that they have the aforementioned hot-shot finishers, with Wilson leading the scoring charts with six and overperforming admirably against Expected Goals. In recent weeks, following their change of system, they’ve looked much more dangerous than in the first half of the season: Chelsea should be wary of allowing their third-band attackers too much space in which to receive the ball and if the ball falls to Callum Wilson or to Josh King in Chelsea’s penalty area, it’s probably going to end up in the net or at least work the keeper.
Bournemouth’s primary aim has always been very 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 doesn’t matter all that much – what matters is the quality of the passes their opponents were allowed to make versus the quality of Bournemouth’s passes, and consequently the quality of the shots created by both sides.
Over the first half of this season that looked to have gone to pieces: Bournemouth were getting hugely outshot, which was nothing new, but crucially, they were performing worse than their opponents in both boxes: in simple words, they were making bad chances and shooting inaccurately, while at the same time giving away good chances and being punished by them.
Their performances over the last couple of months have gone some way to righting that wrong and the stats make much better reading than they did in October and November, but it’s still not great: Bournemouth have the fourth worst Expected Goals ratio in the Premier League; they still have a below-average conversion rate for the season as a whole; it’s still the case that only two teams have played more football in their own half this season.
Factor in the gulf in individual quality and it becomes clear that Chelsea have very little to worry about.
Assuming Howe keeps faith in the 3-4-2-1 we can expect Bournemouth to line up with a familiar-looking eleven. Any two of Josh King, Junior Stanislas, Jordon Ibe and Ryan Fraser could start behind lone striker Callum Wilson.
Antonio Conte has much to consider given Michy Batshuayi’s impressive form in Álvaro Morata’s continuing absence. Even Conte must be tempted to keep Batshuayi in the eleven at this point, though the Belgian looks likely to be heading out on loan instead on the same day. If Willian cannot play (which is what Conte was expecting after Saturday’s match), Pedro or Barkley would deputise.
The Blues will have too much for Bournemouth here. Expect Eden Hazard to light up Stamford Bridge and send everyone home happy.