The Season So Far
Bournemouth’s 2019-20 has been the most trying and unforgiving of their Premier League seasons, and could well turn out to be their last. Performances on the pitch have collapsed, there are reports of financial trouble behind the scenes and for the first time since they won promotion back in 2015, there are serious and well-founded concerns about the Cherries’ future in the long term.
This is not the first time, it must be said, that it has seemed that Eddie Howe’s ideas are past their sell-by date, or that their squad is no longer fit for purpose. They were in a similar position, if not so serious, two years ago, and survived. Howe, along with the likes of Steve Cook, Simon Francis and Charlie Daniels, have gone on to have long Premier League careers.
This makes their current predicament even more painful. Bournemouth remains a relatively small club with heartfelt ties between fans and long-serving players, and it has been painful seeing that so much of the squad has gone over the hill. At the same time, it’s not like Bournemouth haven’t invested money: they’ve spent enormous sums of money on the likes of Jefferson Lerma, Nathan Aké and Dominic Solanke, while their wage bill is now 85% of their turnover, of which 89% comes from the Premier League’s TV deal. They needed to make that investment count for more than they have.
Bournemouth have always been streaky, perennially going on runs of five straight 3-0 wins, followed by five straight 3-0 defeats, or so it seems. Once they get on a roll or stuck in a rut, they tend to stay there, so it didn’t necessarily set alarm bells ringing when they stopped picking up points going into autumn. They had winnable home games on the horizon, and it was assumed they’d win one and then surge up the table.
That winning run never arrived. They failed to beat Norwich, Burnley and Watford at home, taking one point from those games. Their shock wins at home to Manchester United and away to Chelsea were their only victories between September and January, and they only managed to draw three games besides those, losing eleven of sixteen games between the start of October and the middle of January.
Recent home wins over Brighton and Aston Villa have thrown Bournemouth a lifeline, pulling them up to 16th in the table, but they remain firm favourites for relegation with the bookmakers.
The Season Ahead
It goes without saying that dropping back down to the Championship would be financially devastating for Bournemouth. They don’t own their stadium or their training ground and they have been unable to develop and diversify the club’s financial resources in their five years in the top flight. There is a real danger that they will do a Portsmouth if this ends in tears in May.
The good news is they have home games against Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Southampton to come. The likes of Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Josh King are better than what they’ve shown so far this season and if they are to show their true level — and in Fraser’s case make sure his Bosman departure is to a big club — they will have to produce in those games above all others.
The bad news is that Bournemouth are all out of six-pointers, having failed to put pressure on the likes of Watford, Norwich and West Ham when they had the chance. If they do end up going down, a consistent failure to win in these games will be the obvious reason why.
Another reason for Bournemouth’s collapse is that they have become relatively easy to play against. As much as their players haven’t hit the heights of them, it’s also true that Eddie Howe has failed to diversify his tactics enough to give opponents something new to think about. They have for years been consistent to the point of monotony, and analysts working at Premier League clubs will have found them easy to work out and plan for this season.
For almost the entire time of their stay in the top flight, Bournemouth have played a positionally conservative, compact 4-4-1-1 with a medium-to-high defensive line, 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, with the Cherries’ defence especially accident prone and the attack needing reconfiguration and, to put it bluntly, a kick up the arse, Howe has switched to a 4-3-3, but the strategy remains the same as ever. Sit back, keep it tight, wait to win the ball back. Once the ball has been turned over, work it forward into good positions and into the box.
Their defensive strategy is based on brains more than brawn: no Premier League team has made fewer tackles this season than Bournemouth and only one team has made fewer fouls, but by the same token no team has made more interceptions or blocked more crosses, and only Newcastle have made more clearances.
Howe’s ability to coach relatively bad players to play somewhat sophisticated tactical systems has always been very impressive, and we must emphasise that without the scaffolding and the instructions that Howe has given his players over the years, they would have been relegated years ago.
As previously stated, Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Josh King are all good enough to get Bournemouth out of this situation by scoring or making goals. Harry Wilson, on loan from Liverpool, has looked a cut above his teammates and his eye for the spectacular, particularly from free-kicks, is a formidable weapon. The two Wilsons are tied on seven goals this season, but neither will finish on seven.
It’s worth bearing in mind that their threat from set pieces is not limited to Wilson’s shots from free-kicks. Bournemouth are very good from attacking set plays in general, prolifically making chances from corners especially.
Much like Chelsea, they’re underperforming at both ends of the pitch. Only four teams have scored fewer goals than Bournemouth, and even though Bournemouth’s Expected Goals total would give them five more than their actual total, it’s still the fifth worst Expected Goals figure in the division. No team has had fewer shots from open play this season. At the other end, they also have the fifth worst goals against and Expected Goals Against totals, while only three teams have allowed more total shots on their goal this season.
It’s not only their forwards who haven’t shown the best of themselves: Aaron Ramsdale has had a difficult first season as first-choice, Steve Cook’s dreams of an England call have gone up in a puff of smoke, while Nathan Aké’s links with a return to Chelsea or a possible switch to another elite club no longer look realistic. Even Eddie Howe now has a question mark next to his name.
Both sides arrive with doubts over key players and with others unavailable but should still be able to play very strong sides.
Eddie Howe is waiting on news on the fitness of Jefferson Lerma and Nathan Aké, while a host of squad players are out.
Frank Lampard will be without N’Golo Kanté and Christian Pulisic again, while Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi are big doubts.
Bournemouth have won their last two home games and doing the double over Chelsea would be a massive survival boost. Chelsea will be looking to bounce back after a chastening midweek, though, and their superior quality should prevail.