It would be more fitting if the English season ended in the depths of winter. For its struggling teams, the Premier League is a long, arduous trudge up an icy ridge and yet, at its critical point, the competition is played in spring’s light sunshine. When clubs are relegated, the cliche dictates that their supporters must clap them from the field with tears running down sun-scorched faces; it rather undermines the situation’s seriousness and denies us the gathering cloud, heavy rain, and the many other convenient, climate-themed metaphors.
Bournemouth and Swansea aren’t quite clinging to cliff face, but the calm skies and perfect lawn at Dean Court diluted the gravity of the situation. This was a game that neither could really afford to lose. There may be stragglers further down the mountain, clubs just waiting for the elements to take them, but a stumble at this point could quickly become a slide into the abyss. Swansea’s stride has steadied since Paul Clement’s arrival and, a week ago on this ground, Josh King’s hat-trick restored some strength to Bournemouth’s step, but – still – watch that footing and don’t look down.
But if the weather framed this as a comfortable evening, the sounds which leaked from the stands betrayed if for what it was: a game everyone was terrified to lose.
Anxiety manifests in all sorts of ways, particularly in this sort of game where even benign situations seem fraught with peril. In between the chanting and posturing, fans grumble and fret, prophesising imminent doom.
“They’ll score now, just watch.”
On the pitch too, there are signs: routine passes go astray and ludicrously overpowered crosses pump through the box, loaded with adrenaline. At the top of the division, games seem more often to be decided by surgical preparation, and lend themselves to that rather joyless form of analysis. Half-space this, transition that. But down here, where the air is thick with consequences, the outcome seems more often determined by the intangibles – or, at least, by those players who manage them best.
And, for a second week in a row, Bournemouth lent on Josh King. The forward gave-and-went thirty yards from goal and, though the return ball wouldn’t reach him, it freed Benik Afobe on the edge of the box, with his shot deflecting off Alfie Mawson and spinning beyond Lukasz Fabianski. It was imperfect and ugly and arrived after just a dash of expression, but it was goal which fit the context neatly: Afobe’s rushed, wayward shot, Mawson’s desperate lunge, and the opening goal in a game in which style points held no weight.
Really, it was perfect.
It was revealing game, too. Players have differing abilities and come with attributes which make them suited to certain styles of football, of course, but their ability to resist the pressure is their great strength in this kind of game. It’s what separated the performances of Ryan Fraser and Jordan Ayew, for instance. Both are of a similar shape and look to play in roughly the same way, but while the former was a bundle of lively intent whenever in possession, the latter was substituted after an hour, having left no impression. Their team’s respective performances naturally helped to shape that, but it was also illustrative of texture: one relished the chance to be a difference maker, the other – to be polite – did not. Regrettably, that was a passivity which ran right the way through the visiting side. Thin squad or not, they were emotionally inferior.
The second goal was much the same as the first. Good work by King pushed a stumbling Afobe beyond Swansea’s defence and the forward steadied before bobbling his shot across Fabianski and in off the post. Nicely taken and a tricky finish, but more force than finesse. Again, perfectly in keeping with the occasion.
In defeat, Paul Clement will reflect that his absentee list helped to determine this result. He’ll have a point, too, because Martin Olsson’s raids from deep were sorely missed and Kyle Naughton’s injury forced Leroy Fer out of midfield and into an unfamiliar right-back role. But while Swansea had their limitations and were blunted by their makeshift parts, this was more of a second-balls and sturdy tackles kind of encounter. Not one in which shape and discipline were irrelevant, but secondary nonetheless. Both sides made mistakes and both took heavy shelling to their penalty box. The difference was in the forcefulness – in the way the ball was hunted and how hard doors were kicked down when they creaked ajar. For Swansea, there was always another pass to make or a teammate in a better position to shoulder responsibility. Conversely, their opponents played individually as if they themselves wanted the chance to determine the game, rather than just to create the opportunity for someone else to do so.
The dynamism of Fraser and King testified to that, so too did Afobe’s barging runs and the lunging interceptions which characterised the defensive effort.
Fine margins, yes, but revealing ones too. Bournemouth are likely now safe for another season and predominantly because they’ve actively chased that security rather than just waiting for it to arrive. Swansea, take note. They’re better than they were and this performance was not indicative of their new standard under Clement, but it was a galling regression nonetheless. Stress it again: it’s dangerous just to wait for other sides to fill up the relegation places.
Keep plodding up that mountain, don’t just make camp and hope for the best.