It has been a difficult restart to Premier League life for Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth in 2017/18, and the gaffer himself will have needed no telling.
The Cherries went into their weekend clash away at Stoke City with a meagre four points from their opening eight top-flight matches, having netted just four times, with an away record of one win in 13 away matches stretching back to last season.
With both Joshua King and Jermain Defoe – the duo who had provided two of their four goals up to that point in the current campaign – were ruled out through illness and injury, the travelling contingent of Cherries supporters, just shy of 1000, must have feared the worst.
Instead, their side mustered up a sensational first-half display to stun Mark Hughes’ Potters with two goals in 133 seconds, with Andrew Surman curling home a wonderful 16th-minute opening goal, before Junior Stanislas slotted home from the spot after Benik Afobe was upended in the penalty area by Stoke skipper Ryan Shawcross.
Mame Biram Diouf made the away supporters slightly hotter under the collar in the second-half after pulling a goal back for the hosts, but Howe’s men dug in for a priceless second win that leaves the South Coast club a point shy of Stoke, and of safety, with the Potters only out of the bottom three on goal difference following Everton’s 5-2 defeat to Arsenal the following day.
Defeat at the Bet365 Stadium would have equalled Bournemouth’s worst ever start to a league campaign, but Surman’s beautifully taken strike – coming at the end of a wonderful team move involving Adam Smith and Junior Stanislas – did much to settle any early nerves, as well as sending the travelling Bournemouth supporters into raptures early on.
Surman’s curling left-footed effort beyond the despairing dive of Jack Butland marked the former Southampton and Norwich midfielder’s second goal in his last five Premier League matches – as many goals as he has netted in his previous 81 top-flight matches.
Even when not on the scoresheet, he has proven a consistent performer for the Cherries thus far this season, and may well prove an influential part of the equation if they are to steer the ship clear of relegation trouble.
In fact, Surman’s goals are proving something of a lucky omen for Eddie Howe’s side, with his last strike coming in their only other win in the campaign so far: a 67th minute leveller against South Coast rivals Brighton, in a match they would go on to win 2-1 at the Vitality Stadium, thanks to Jermain Defoe’s winner.
In that game, Surman proved his worth to the Cherries as a presence in the centre of the park, linking play by completing 85% of his passes, winning 50% of his tackles and 67% of his aerial battles, besides creating one key opportunity and putting in one crucial block to help his team.
Even in Bournemouth’s only other positive result of their league season thus far, a goalless draw with Leicester City, the midfielder still completed an impressive 83% of his passes, won an improved 67% of his tackles and also managed to come out on top in 25% of his aerial battles. He also gave a helping hand to his defence with two clearances from inside his own box to help secure a point.
The statistics suggest that he is growing in influence for Bournemouth game by game, with the away victory at Stoke his most impressive overall performance yet.
Although he only managed to complete 71% of his passes during their battle in the Potteries, he created ten chances, made 34 crosses, managed ten interceptions and a whopping nine clearances from inside his own penalty area. Meanwhile, he succeeded in 38% of his attempted tackles, and won 48% of his aerial duels as the Cherries were made to dig in as the match wore on.
With an ability to contribute going forward, as well as having an aptitude for being in the right place at the right time when it comes to defending, Surman is undoubtedly becoming one of Eddie Howe’s more important players, and he has stepped unto the breach particularly well since being made to fill the void vacated by Harry Arter in two of the last three games.
With Lewis Cook occupying the centre-midfield spot alongside him in those games, Surman has been given greater licence to support the attack and operate as the primary playmaker, whilst also dropping back when required to help out the back four.
With Arter now fit for action having come on as a substitute at Stoke, it remains to be seen as to whether Bournemouth can continue their form with both Arter and Surman operating in midfield, with greater defensive responsibilities likely to fall the way of the latter.
Surman’s form during his absence, however, has certainly been of encouragement. It has also meant that Bournemouth haven’t suffered too greatly without a player whom many supporters will perceive as their most important midfielder, Based on current form, Surman may well be in line to usurp that accolade.
The conundrum that Eddie Howe will need to solve is how to get the best out of his midfield and ensure that it remains well balanced. Surman and Arter as a duo has worked over the previous two seasons, but with the Cherries having so far struggled for momentum, the inclusion of Cook next to Surman in Arter’s absence may have given Howe reason to re-think his starting line-up.
The fast start they made at Stoke suggests that the Surman-Cook partnership can complement the side well.
However, considering Arter’s importance, it is down to the manager as to whether he opts to upset that balance and persist with the Ireland international in the hope that the combination works as effectively as previous seasons, or continue to go with what has become a seemingly successful formula so far this campaign.
With the Surman and Cook duo bringing about Bournemouth’s three best results so far, some may think Howe a fool were he not to omit the club’s fan favourite once again.
Considering Surman is now the Cherries top scorer for the season, with two, his inclusion is a must. He will undoubtedly prove critical in weeks to come in order to help Bournemouth put breathing space between themselves and the relegation trap door.
With Chelsea next on the agenda, another stern test is sure to come, and Howe will certainly be scratching his head over his team selection in order to coax the best from Surman and the rest of his squad.