How can Bournemouth avoid 'second season syndrome'?
In any other season, Bournemouth’s survival in the Premier League would have been one of the major stories of the year. Unfortunately for them, Leicester City’s march to the title had football’s chattering classes well and truly distracted, meaning the Cherries’ achievements didn’t quite receive the attention they deserved. Having narrowly avoided relegation from the Football League in 2009, Bournemouth were flourishing in the richest league in the world less than seven years later, with some of the smallest gates ever seen in the Premier League. A more than respectable total of 42 points was good enough for a 16th placed finish, though for a while they threatened to finish higher.
In truth, the end of last season came at the right time for Bournemouth who endured an alarming descent in 2016. They won just six of their final 21 league matches, including six defeats in their final eight games.
In Bournemouth’s defence, they were sitting comfortably in 13th with eight games to go and perhaps could be forgiven for slacking off with safety all but secured. They also conceded 67 league goals, 34 of which were shipped at Dean Court. Only Aston Villa conceded more.
Bournemouth, therefore, are not ‘trending’ in the right direction and if those numbers are repeated this season they could find themselves in the mire. When likely relegation candidates are discussed, special attention is usually paid to the three newly promoted teams, understandably. Bournemouth are not featuring in too many pundit’s relegation predictions for the new season.
Again, they are flying slightly under the radar. Perhaps it is because people are reluctant to give doom-laden predictions about a club they feel they should be sticking up for; Bournemouth are punching above their weight just being in the Premier League, they have a likeable English manager and play football ‘the right way’.
Their saving grace could be the return of Tyrone Mings, Max Gradel and Callum Wilson from long-term injuries. Mings and Gradel were two of their major purchases last summer and to lose them so early in the season to severe injuries was a sickening blow.
The pair of them will bring some pace and athleticism at both ends of the pitch. It appears Howe is trying to give Bournemouth a speedier edge; he favours a pressing game, and the pace and power of Premier League opponents would have been the most notable contrast with the Championship. Out have gone Glenn Murray, Tommy Elphick, Lee Tomlin and Sylvain Distin, in have come Jordon Ibe and Nathan Ake among others.
It is Wilson though, who Howe and Bournemouth fans will be investing their hopes in this upcoming season. Wilson bagged five goals in nine league starts before getting injured, with a number of top clubs said to have their scouts trained on him.
With Benik Afobe recruited in January, Bournemouth have the firepower to improve on the 42 goals they scored last season on which they relied to stay up. Wilson is a poacher in the traditional mould and has a sharp turn of foot over five yards; expect plenty of comparisons to Jermain Defoe or Ian Wright.
His return is a major boost, but Bournemouth might also have to rethink their defensive strategy. As the ever-insightful Adrian Clarke explains in this video, the Cherries struggled to integrate their defenders into the pressing game Howe prefers. Steve Cook and Simon Francis were reluctant to push up behind their midfielders due to their lack of pace. When they did, Bournemouth were vulnerable to balls over the top. When they did not, this left too much space ‘between the lines’ where the opposition’s creative types could wreak havoc.
Bournemouth carried the element of surprise last season, a positive ingredient they will be unable to summon this year. Many will claim that they need to be less open, less naïve and to stop conceding so many goals. However, the Premier League does not really value rigorous defending and Howe might have surmised that Bournemouth are better off ‘strengthening their strengths’ than trying to work on their weaknesses. They seem to be shaping up to go down swinging if nothing else.
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