As the final whistle blew at Dean Court on Saturday and a 2-1 victory over Stoke City was confirmed, Bournemouth climbed into the Premier League’s top ten. Four wins and three draws in their last seven matches have moved them clear of relegation worries, five points away from seventh placed Burnley and even dreaming of European qualification. It illustrates the volatility of the league outside of the established top six, as the Cherries entered the new year inside the bottom three and battling for survival.
Their unbeaten run started with an injury time equaliser from Callum Wilson against West Ham, a portent of things to come. That tenacity and willingness to fight through adversity was apparent again the following week when they scored late on to beat Everton. In fact, they’ve retrieved points from losing situations in four of their last six games – a testament to their team spirit and togetherness.
The highlight of their season so far was a 3-0 victory at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. They went toe-to-toe with the champions impressively and dominated for large chunks of the game, mixing confident spells in possession with rapid counter-attacks. Eddie Howe was understandably thrilled afterwards and described it as the best win of his tenure. “It’s the best performance we’ve managed at this level and the result has matched it.”
A key to their upturn in form is a newfound adaptability. They are no longer exclusively a possession based team and are quite happy to sit deeper and play on the break. Their 4-0 defeat against Liverpool was surprising for that very reason, as it was a rare example of them getting the balance wrong this season.
Defensively they’ve also improved. In each of their first two top flight seasons, they conceded 67 goals – an average of 1.76 per game. This term, they’ve limited that to 1.46 goals per game and are on course to finish with a better goals against record. Summer signings Nathan Ake and Asmir Begovic have certainly helped, but the collective shape and organisation of the side has noticeably strengthened.
Another key factor is the return of Wilson. When they’ve managed to keep him fit the 25 year-old has scored prolifically, but having suffered two severe knee injuries there was always going to be a question mark over him. A hat-trick in his first game back against Huddersfield dispelled such worries and Wilson hasn’t looked back since.
Supplying the Bournemouth attack is Jordon Ibe. Ibe initially struggled after making the £15 million move from Liverpool and was left out of the team on multiple occasions. He returned as a substitute against Brighton in September and changed the game in Bournemouth’s favour. The former Liverpool winger has six assists – a record in Premier League season for the south coast team. His ability was never in doubt, but now he looks an assured player at this level.
Arguably one of Bournemouth’s best performers this season though has been Lewis Cook. Signed from Leeds United in 2016, he was captain of England’s victorious Under 20 World Cup winning team during the summer. Supporters were eager to see more of him and Howe has entrusted him with more responsibility. Cook has responded and grasped his chance, looking at home against much vaunted opponents.
It says much about the Bournemouth hierarchy’s trust in Howe that even during that difficult period, there was never any hint of them dispensing with their coach. Nearly every other club in similar situations have pulled the trigger and appointed English football’s old guard – Everton with Sam Allardyce, West Brom with Alan Pardew, West Ham with David Moyes – but Howe clearly has the backing of chairman Jeff Mostyn.
Howe turned 40 recently and has passed his most difficult few months as a manager with flying colours. Touted as a future England coach, he surely has ambitions to work at a higher level. Achieving 16th and 9th placed finishes in the past two seasons, Bournemouth are primed to improve their league position once again but it remains to be seen how much more can be achieved considering how much they are already punching above their weight.
It’s a similar dilemma Sean Dyche will face at Burnley soon. Eventually an opportunity to progress up the coaching ladder will present itself, but choosing the right job is critical. One wrong move and a perceived failure could undo all of their diligent work in building their CV. Howe has already experienced troubles when he left to join Burnley in 2011, so his next move is crucial. As things stand though, Bournemouth is the right place for him.`