What is behind Bournemouth's dramatic upturn in form?
On Christmas Day, Bournemouth were sitting in the relegation zone.
Winless in more than a month, their slide from the relative comfort of mid-table had been alarming.
The doubters were chirping and the pressure mounting. Was this the beginning of the end of the Cherries’ unexpected stint in the Premier League?
Fast-forward six weeks and the landscape is altogether different.
Bournemouth, in ninth position, are on their longest ever unbeaten Premier League streak, currently standing at seven games.
In fact, they currently top the form table.
In their past six matches, the Cherries have claimed 14 points – the highlight undoubtedly being their stunning 3-0 triumph over Chelsea, which Eddie Howe described as the ‘best result’ since his appointment.
It has been an astonishing turnaround and one for which Howe deserves immense credit. Modest as ever, however, he would accept it only begrudgingly.
Despite increasing criticism from pundits who urged him to revise his philosophy or risk relegation back to the Championship, from where they were promoted as champions in 2015, the 40-year-old has steadfastly stuck to the approach that has brought him such unprecedented success.
Many managers may have panicked and gambled on new signings during the January transfer window, but Howe resisted, with a couple of outgoings the only business done on deadline day.
He has always favoured a tight-knit squad over a bloated one and improving the players at his disposal, rather than relying on recruitment.
Perhaps this stems from when the club was cash-strapped during his formative years as boss and he had no alternative.
Despite being the only Premier League club not to strengthen their resources, Bournemouth’s progress has been unchecked.
The recent sequence of results has not been plain sailing, though.
Controversy kick-started the run when Callum Wilson equalised against West Ham United on Boxing Day, despite strong suspicions of handball.
Other late goals against Everton and Arsenal have underlined the character in the squad.
In previous seasons, the Cherries’ fast starts were often the prelude to collapses in the final stages, but no longer is that the case.
In light of Chelsea’s recent troubles, Bournemouth’s performance in that game has largely and unfairly been overlooked. Victory was no fluke.
The visitors were magnificent and not flattered by the three-goal margin of victory.
Intricate passing and movement, solid defending and predatory finishing were all on display at Stamford Bridge, which amounted to make the reigning champions look very ordinary.
Although his philosophy has remained unaltered, a tactical switch has paid dividends.
Howe experimented with three at the back earlier this season, especially against the top sides when he felt outnumbered in midfield.
This has evolved into a 3-4-3 that maximises Bournemouth’s strength of pace down the flanks, while also offering more protection in central defence, an area in which they have traditionally been vulnerable.
By luck or judgement, Howe has identified his preferred front three of Junior Stanislas, Jordon Ibe and Callum Wilson.
Stanislas is prone to muscle strains but is a creative fulcrum.
Ibe’s transformation from the timid, indecisive player of last season whose confidence looked shot has been remarkable. He now has more assists than any other Cherries player this term.
With eight goals to his name, Wilson is the club’s leading scorer and has benefited from Jermain Defoe’s enforced absence.
After suffering two cruciate knee ligament injuries, Wilson is back to his fearsome best and speculation of an England call-up is growing.
Now seven points clear of the drop-zone, three wins from their final 12 outings should guarantee Bournemouth extend their Premier League stay for at least one more campaign.
As ever, Howe, who has been nominated for the January manager of the month award, will not get carried away.
His focus will be devoted entirely to Sunday’s televised encounter away to Huddersfield Town.
Win or lose, one thing is for sure; Howe’s demeanour and belief in his methods will not change.
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