The Season Just Gone
If, at the start of the season, Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe had been offered a 17th-placed place due to 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 put on the table after his big-money summer signings Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings, as well as then-top-scorer and potential England call-up Callum Wilson, all succumbed to torn ACLs before autumn, he'd have traded his soul for it. It's to Howe’s immense credit that Bournemouth finished 2015-16 in 11th, miles clear of the relegation zone.
That’s not to say it was all plain sailing for the south coast side. On the contrary, it was an absolute rollercoaster, full of unforgettable highs - victories over Chelsea, Manchester United and one unfathomably enjoyable run of only four defeats in 16 games - coupled with devastating lows - the aforementioned serious injuries, a terrible run of two wins up until December, and, by far the worst of all, the tragic stillborn birth of midfielder Harry Arter's child.
Nonetheless, the Cherries did not pop (ahem). After years of honing his craft in the lower leagues, it’s easy to see why Howe is seen as a strong candidate to go to the very top of the game – now put forward as a strong candidate for the England job in this post-Allardyce nightmare – but he will surely feel he has a lot more to do at Dean Court before he can move on to greater things.
The Season Ahead
Far from being one-season wonders, Bournemouth have started 2016-17 as though they mean business. Howe has sold and reinforced wisely, with the departure of Matt Ritchie coming as a shock and the subsequent capture of Jack Wilshere raising eyebrows even more. Equally sensibly, Howe has also kept the core of the squad intact, reasoning that if it ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it.
That being the case, Bournemouth will be aiming for another safe, mid-table finish in the short-term and slow, incremental growth in the long-term. There’s no reason to expect anything else. That said, it’s worth remembering that this is a squad mostly made up of unheralded journeymen and Championship success stories, and that without Howe they’d probably be shipping five each week and worrying about going back to playing away to Barnsley on a Wednesday night. As Spurs showed last season and Manchester City proved a few weeks ago, there’s every chance that when Bournemouth come up against a far superior team, they’ll get absolutely hammered.
The beauty of Howe’s system is its simplicity. Bournemouth almost always play a straightforward 4-4-1-1, although this has sometimes morphed into a 4-3-3 in recent weeks. Their aims are typical for that system and for a club of their stature: first and foremost they look to keep things tight, fill or cover the spaces between the lines and force turnovers. Their defence keeps a very disciplined line, their midfield sits in front of it and looks to cut off the opposition's passing angles, and render the opposition’s domination sterile. If the opposition is sufficiently frustrated to give the ball away, they then get the ball down the flanks quickly and give the strikers chances to work the keeper.
This sounds like basically the same plan used by the likes of Sean Dyche at Burnley and T*ny P*l*s at West Brom, but Howe's approach is notably different. Instead of packing his team with physical hard-workers, hatchet-men and towering strikers, his side is full of humble, unheralded ball-players and discarded academy products from much bigger clubs, and they are capable of much more than the typical kick-and-rush of most promoted teams. Howe has used his squad's good level of technical ability and football intelligence to play a more sophisticated brand of football, and to great effect.
While the stats can make it look like Bournemouth do next to nothing without the ball – they make 14.3 tackles per game, the Premier League’s lowest figure, a very low 12.9 interceptions per game and block only 6.4 passes per game, the division’s second lowest average – it’s all because they’re so focused on keeping their shape and closing passing angles, thereby making sure their opponents can’t play forwards and get the ball into decent shooting positions. Their recent home victory over Everton was a masterclass in midfield passive-aggression, and the Toffees had absolutely no answer. That performance should serve as a warning for Spurs.
Never in a position to outright dominate opponents week-in, week-out, Howe’s game plan has to be much more modest. They are basically David vs Goliath every weekend, and it’s all about avoiding getting hit and landing their punches (or slingshotted stones, if we’re keeping the Biblical analogy intact) when it matters. They did this pretty well last season, but this time around it’s been a different story.
While they’re almost always heavily outshot – shots taken so far this season, 91; shots against, 124 – there’s nothing wrong with that if you can shoot more efficiently than your opponent and make them shoot badly. This season, they’re generally failing at doing that to the sufficient degree.
49 of Bournemouth’s shots have been taken from inside the box (54%), while 32 have been on target (35%) and 12 have been converted (13%), 6 of which were scored against Hull, inflating their figures somewhat. Meanwhile, 69 of the shots received have been taken from inside their box (56%), 40 have been on target (32%) and 12 converted (10%). Bournemouth are still shooting more efficiently than their opponents, but arguably not sufficiently so.
This means they’re often in a straight-up battle of ability against opposition teams, and that’s definitely bad news for them, and very good news for Tottenham.
Spurs should expect to face a familiar Bournemouth eleven, although there are doubts over the fitness of Steve Cook and Harry Arter. Either of the two missing out would be a huge boost to Mauricio Pochettino, who may well decide to rotate his line-up and rest key players.
Spurs should have enough to nick this by a single goal, but Bournemouth’s recent home form has been excellent and Spurs’ away form… hasn’t. Don’t be surprised by a score draw.