One of the criticisms of our top ten Premier League managers of 2016 was that Eddie Howe (fifth, below Antonio Conte) should have been placed higher. After all, his side was ‘facing a battle for a top-ten spot with established Premier League clubs like West Brom and Stoke’ from a position of fighting relegation at the onset of the calendar year.
There were three reasons Howe was not given the effusive credit many thought he deserved: 1) A lack of consistency with no back-to-back wins since April, 2) A poor record in the transfer market and 3) A terrible run of one win in eight Premier League games at the end of last season leaving them 16th rather than gloriously mid-table.
It’s far too early for the top ten Premier League managers of 2017, but Howe would rank ninth reserve on such a list; only Leicester have been worse since the New Year, and Claudio Ranieri might well argue that he did not send his reserves to get battered by Millwall in the FA Cup. No side has conceded more goals than Bournemouth in 2017, only Leicester have picked up fewer points in 2017, they are one of only four teams yet to win a Premier League game in 2017. They are unquestionably, undeniably, incontrovertibly in relegation form.
From facing a battle with West Brom for a top-ten spot, Bournemouth have allowed the Baggies to pull ten points clear while they look over their shoulders. Again. Last season’s collapse came late enough to keep them clear of relegation, but this time the calendar says February and there is so very much time for 2016’s excellent work to be forgotten in the misery of 2017. And it’s little wonder – the same players who ‘boasted’ the Premier League’s joint-second-worst defensive record of last season are in place to repeat the trick. That’s not the kind of consistency that leads to long-term membership of the elite.
Of the 11 players who started against Everton on Saturday, only one – the borrowed Jack Wilshere – was not a Bournemouth player at the start of their first season in the Premier League. Over £33m of newer recruits were sat on the bench in a tacit acknowledgement that Bournemouth have bought badly. Barring their unlikely England international, their team still screams Championship.
Amidst all the Match of the Day talk of Bournemouth “being fine” and graphics showing two points separating the supposed mini-league of the bottom six, Howe is presumably the one man who knows that Bournemouth are in danger of sleepwalking their way into serious relegation trouble. Below them are three teams showing genuine fight, another with one of the division’s best defences, another with Sam Allardyce and, to complete the set, the Premier League champions. There is not a dead duck in sight.
So step forward Eddie Howe, the great white hope of English management. To survive, Bournemouth simply need to get better. And in the absence of new recruits, Howe has to somehow find a formula that works. The signs are that he is floundering.
Against Everton on Sunday, Howe addressed his centre-half problem by simply playing more (three), his central midfield problem by simply playing more (four), his full-back problem by simply playing none, and his goalscoring problem by naming an XI that boasted only two players who have scored thrice in the Premier League this season. It was a baffling selection that screamed ‘I have tried everything, how about this?’.
There will be plenty of sympathy for Howe, who has lost Nathan Ake to his parent club and Callum Wilson to injury, but the latter has been far from prolific, while no Premier League club’s defence should fall apart at the loss of an on-loan player. Their losses have merely highlighted the deficiencies of a really poor squad that has not lacked investment. Having tried to buy or borrow upgrades on players like Marc Pugh and Dan Gosling, Howe has turned back to his Championship favourites when things have once again become difficult. Those players are no better equipped than they were back in August.
Some believe there is a glass ceiling for English managers while others – admirably Howe among them – accept that English managers need to achieve success before being considered for bigger jobs. For this bright young thing with his unpatriotic insistence on ‘playing the right way’, the test is coming now: Can he halt a slide with only bright ideas, hard work and a limited squad?