The Season So Far
Far from being one-season wonders, Bournemouth’s work in the summer transfer window showed they mean business in the Premier League, and their season has played out accordingly. Far from flirting with relegation or doing a Sunderland and sinking without trace, the Cherries have been safe at all times. The main reason for their continued safety is the smart and sensible management of the highly rated Eddie Howe.
Looking at their squad makes their achievement all the more remarkable. They have a team mostly made up of unheralded journeymen and Championship success stories, and one that without Howe would probably be shipping five goals each week. None of their players is set for a big career at the top of the game, although obviously future Big Brother contestant Jack Wilshere has been there and done it, while no-one will be surprised if Josh King moves to a better paying midtable club in the summer.
Theirs has been a season of highs and lows: they’ve made headlines by beating the likes of Liverpool and Everton and hammering Hull, they’ve also lost to Burnley and Middlesbrough and been pulverised by Manchester City, while going on an eight-game winless run and throwing away a three-goal lead against an Arsenal side totally lacking in cojones.
On their day Bournemouth are a good side, undoubtedly, but they’re very inconsistent – exactly the kind of side Mauricio Pochettino’s side are famous for crushing with absolutely no mercy shown.
The Season Ahead
The second half of the season hasn’t been anywhere near as kind to Bournemouth as the first, and while there’s still almost no danger of relegation, the picture is far less rosy than it was a few months ago. The objective for the rest of the season is obviously to reach the magic 40-point mark and turn “almost no danger of relegation” into “absolutely no danger of relegation”. Subplots include the futures of Wilshere, King and Howe himself, while several other first-team players have underperformed and are going to have to prove themselves worthy of their place at the club.
None of this will matter to Pochettino and company, of course: they will quite correctly see a small fish ready to be eaten by a bigger one and think “not my problem – give me some”.
The beauty of Howe’s tactical work is its simplicity. Bournemouth almost always play a straightforward 4-4-1-1, although the acquisition of Jack Wilshere has seen them evolve and use a more dynamic, fluid 4-2-3-1, with varying degrees of success. Lately they’ve gone back to 4-4-1-1, and it’s this shape we should expect on Saturday.
Regardless of the starting shape, the Howe’s men look to keep things very tight without the ball, filling or covering spaces between the lines and cutting off passing angles. Their defence keeps a very disciplined line, their midfield two sits in front of the back four and skillfully look to direct opposition play down dead alleys. 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, or feed Wilshere in the number ten spot and allow his significant football smarts to dictate the rest of the move.
While Wilshere’s work on the South Coast has received an arguably disproportionate amount of credit due to his profile, it’s undeniable that his guile and game-management has given Bournemouth’s bow another couple of strings. There’s a noticeable contrast between pre- and post-Wilshere Bournemouth, and the more recent version is far preferable.
The stats can make it look like Bournemouth do next to nothing out of possession – they’ve made 15.8 tackles per game, the Premier League’s second lowest figure, and a similarly low 12.2 interceptions per game, and blocked only 7.2 passes per game, the division’s third lowest average – but this is one of those instances where the stats don’t tell the full story.
Rather than being because they’re inactive or passive, it’s because Bournemouth are 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. It’s defending in the classic Serie A style, rather than the more hyperactive post-Guardiola/gegenpressing style we’re more familiar with now. Their home victory over Everton in September was a true masterclass in passive-aggressive midfield play, and the Toffees had absolutely no answer.
This style of play would be unsustainable were they not good at creating and finishing chances. They’re far from the most prolific shooters – 11.6 shots per game ranks just below the league average – but they definitely know how to finish, converting 34.1% of their shots on target. That’s a better figure than Spurs and Everton this season.
Never in a position to outright dominate opponents week-in, week-out, Howe’s gameplan has to be much more modest. They are 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. This strategy has obvious limitations, and the Premier League’s giants have made Bournemouth look especially minuscule at times.
While they’re almost always outshot – average of shots taken per game, 11.6; shots against, 14.4 – there’s nothing wrong with that if they shoot more efficiently than the opposition, effectively restrict the opposition’s chances and avoid individual errors. They’ve shot effectively but not more efficiently than their opposition, while too many games have been surrendered due to embarrassing individual blunders. At times their squad of Championship journeymen looks exactly like what it is, and only then do we realise just how good Howe is at his job.
In short, they’re a a decent, very admirable outfit capable of bloodying a nose, but they’re also significantly worse than Spurs, both as a collective and as individuals, and Spurs should be looking for another big, thumping win.
The loss of in-form Aké is a huge blow to Howe, and he’ll have to reshuffle his defence accordingly. That said, it shouldn’t be an unfamiliar unit – far from it. The Cherries boss has several options in midfield and it’s difficult to predict which of his unconvincing wide-men will make the cut, or whether he’ll play with two strikers.
Spurs are at their absolute best at the moment and they’ve made destroying teams like Bournemouth their MO. Expect another comfortable win and a deluge of ‘Stop! Stop! He’s already dead!’ tweets.