Bournemouth’s biggest top-flight battle

In this piece of ‘The Opinion,’ I turn the spotlight on a Premier League club who seem to be sliding dangerously towards the trapdoor. With eight defeats in their last 10 league outings, AFC Bournemouth have slipped from seventh place in early November into the relegation zone. A series of poor displays and a crippling injury list mean the pressure is increasing on the Cherries. Have they and Eddie Howe gone stale? Do they need further investment in January? I analyse what might happen next at The Vitality Stadium.

In 2008, AFC Bournemouth nearly went out of business before being saved from going into administration. A year later, they nearly dropped out of the Football League but turned around a 15-point deduction into a dramatic final day survival. A decade on, Bournemouth supporters have enjoyed the riches of Premier League football for five successive seasons.

However, for the first time since earning promotion to the top-flight in 2015, they look like a team in trouble. Eight defeats from 10 games and just one point gained from the festive programme saw the team drop into the relegation zone. They are leaking goals and also, lacking confidence in creating and taking opportunities.

Manager Eddie Howe has won major praise for the work he has done at Bournemouth but has he gone stale in the post and can he turn their season around?

The rise of Eddie Howe

This is Eddie Howe’s second spell as Bournemouth manager and following Arsene Wenger’s retirement in May 2018, he became the longest-serving manager in the Premier League. He’s been back at the club since 2012 after ending a tricky spell in-charge of Burnley.

Howe has enjoyed some glorious times and is still one of the youngest managers in the game. His philosophy is simple – play good football, create opportunities and outscore the opposition. It was a tactic that was simply perfect for the Football League. The Cherries enjoyed two promotions in three seasons and in 2015, won the Championship title to earn promotion to the Premier League.

Throughout their Premier League journey, Bournemouth have enjoyed some eye-catching results. They’ve beaten Chelsea three times in five years at Stamford Bridge, produced a fabulous comeback to see off Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool FC 4-3 in December 2016 and also beaten Manchester United twice. Whilst defending has never been a strong strength of Howe’s characteristics, Bournemouth have never been under serious relegation danger.

In each Premier League season, they’ve always had sticky, winless sequences but the neutral always believed they’d go on a winning run to claw themselves away from danger. They’ve finished 16th, 9th, 12th and 14th in their first four seasons. Howe has earned his reputation and deservedly so. His name is often linked with higher-profile jobs when they become available. When they often go to a foreign candidate, many journalists question why he doesn’t get a look-in.

He’s more than happy at Bournemouth and owner Jeff Mostyn is more than happy with him too. They are a partnership that works really well together. Howe is probably still slightly scarred by his defection to Burnley in 2011. That was seen for him as the next level but it didn’t quite work out for him in Lancashire. Returning to The Vitality Stadium was the perfect fit for him and he’s benefited from it. He is still only 42 and if he wants it, Howe can enjoy another two decades at least in management. He maybe feels these opportunities will come up again in the future.

Unfortunately he has now entered a comfort zone area which is worrying. He’s under no real pressure from supporters or the board and I’m sure that is a nice factor to not have someone breathing down your neck if results aren’t going your way.

I get the feeling though that Howe is a bit stale in his current position. One of 10 British managers in the Premier League, Eddie is often seen as the natural next-big British boss. In my view though, he has been overtaken in these stakes by the fresher Chris Wilder and Graham Potter – both doing fine jobs at Sheffield United and Brighton & Hove Albion respectively.

A weak December

Bournemouth’s gameplan and formational tactics are pretty predictable now. There doesn’t seem to be much willingness to shake this approach off and show off a ‘Plan B’ motive. Sometimes, it is good to have an approach to change tactics and systems if the preferred option is not working.

December was nothing short of calamitous for the club and naturally, performances have been hit as confidence levels have dropped in the playing squad. Aside from a fine and surprising 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge over Chelsea, the Cherries claimed just one further point from their other six Premier League fixtures in the month.

Their weakest performance came at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace. Palace were down to 10 men from the 21st minute when Mamadou Sakho was sent off. The onus was on Bournemouth to go and win the match. However, they barely threatened all evening in a confusing performance. On the touchline, Howe stuck to his tactical system and got it wrong. He was outfought on the evening by one of the experience guard in Roy Hodgson. Palace got a matchwinner through Jeffrey Schlupp in the 73rd minute and richly deserved the victory.

After the match, Howe looked emotional and incredibly downbeat and that was a shock to see. He’s always refreshingly honest in press conferences and post-match interviews but you could tell he was hurting in a game which showed Bournemouth’s general shortcomings.

It didn’t get any better in the recent South Coast Derby at Brighton. No shot on-target in the second half and well-beaten by similar opponents. On New Years’ Day, they were beaten 4-0 by a West Ham side that had lost their last five fixtures at The London Stadium. If December’s evidence was anything to go by, the writing seems to be on the wall for Bournemouth and their highly-rated manager.

Crippled by injuries

There is no doubt that Bournemouth’s squad has been stretched to the limit during this period due to a crippling injury list. Skipper Simon Francis has only just returned a couple of months ago after 10 months on the sidelines. Fellow defender and consistent performer Charlie Daniels sustained a serious knee injury in late August which means his season is already over.

Welshman David Brooks – one of the team’s impressive performers last season has not featured all campaign and is likely still to be out for at least another 10 weeks due to ankle trouble. He will be struggling to make Ryan Giggs’ plans this summer following Wales’ qualification for EURO 2020.

Nathan Ake damaged a thigh muscle against Liverpool FC on 7th December which has kept him on the sidelines for a month. Adam Smith is another defender currently on the treatment table where he has been joined recently by youngster Jack Stacey who damaged a hamstring at Brighton. Steve Cook has had to play through the pain barrier with a broken wrist whilst both King and Callum Wilson have also had their injury problems during the season.

Injuries are part and parcel of the game and Bournemouth are often one of the unlucky sides when it comes to this. However, a number of players have also underperformed when fit. Wilson has endured one of his longest goalless droughts of his career. Ryan Fraser has become a bit-part player and with a contract dispute ongoing, the talented Scot looks set to walk away on a free transfer in the summer. Even when he has been fit, Ake needs to show leadership qualities. He’s experienced enough to demonstrate this now.

Liverpool’s bank manager must also been pleased with the £33 million they’ve received from the Cherries for Jordon Ibe and Dominic Solanke. Both have sadly turned out to be dreary flops. Solanke recently ended a staggering 31-game goalless spell with a strike in a 4-0 victory over Luton Town in the FA Cup at the weekend.

Can the Cherries avoid the drop?

Bankrolled by Russian businessman Maxim Demin, Bournemouth have never been shy to splash the cash and may have to do so again in January – more to solve an injury crisis which like Crystal Palace, shows no sign of major relenting. The biggest battle could be trying to hold onto Ake. Bournemouth are a better defensive team when he is playing at the heart of their backline, despite concerns over his leadership qualities.

If Callum Wilson is able to rediscover his goalscoring touch and they get the likes of King and Brooks back to full fitness, the Cherries definitely have the attacking numbers to score the goals to climb away from danger. This next sequence of games though is crucial. They face fellow bottom-three club Watford on Super Sunday, before travelling to bottom club Norwich, then back-to-back home encounters with Brighton and Aston Villa. Points need to start being picked up in these fixtures against fellow struggling teams.

I’ve really enjoyed the story of Bournemouth’s rise through the division and they are a side I do like. However, this is their biggest battle to avoid the Premier League abyss. Will they do it? I think the next few weeks will be critical in determining which division they will play in next season.

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