Two games, two losses, zero goals. Are Bournemouth in trouble?
The correct answer, of course, is ‘it’s too soon to tell’, but the Cherries have been poor in their first two outings, so it’s worth a look at their performances to see where the issues lie.
The side isn’t very different from the one that finished 12 points clear of relegation last year. There have been three main acquisitions: Jermain Defoe, Asmir Begovic and Nathan Aké. Defoe has only been available as a substitute so far, but the other two have started both games.
Begovic is a decent but not exceptional keeper, more consistent and a lot younger than former incumbent Artur Boruc. Bournemouth have let in three goals, and Begovic might have done better on two of them, but there’s no guarantee that Boruc, or even one of the top keepers, would have kept them out. He’s made a few good saves as well.
Aké, about whom I was sceptical, has been excellent. He got away with an obvious handball against Watford (referees seem to have given up in that regard), but otherwise has been composed and consistent. He even leads the team with eight tackles.
And that’s the problem. If a centre-half leads the team in tackles, someone’s not doing their job, and at the moment that’s most of the rest of the side. Charlie Daniels, Adam Smith and Simon Francis are good attacking full-backs, but not Premier League level defenders. In midfield, Andrew Surman and Harry Arter have been either bypassed (at West Brom) or overwhelmed (home to Watford).
The bottom line is that against West Brom and Watford, neither one a top attacking side, they’ve allowed 35 shots, compared to 22 in the equivalent fixtures last year. Defence isn’t Bournemouth’s strong suit under any circumstances, but except at centre-half, with Steve Cook doing his usual thing beside Aké, they’ve been significantly below par.
Just as big a problem is the attack. Bournemouth live and die with scoring goals, but so far they’ve not only fired blanks, they’ve barely loaded the gun. In last year’s equivalent fixtures, they took 25 shots, in this year’s only 15. Nor is it bad luck: the opposing keepers have made a few decent saves, but they’ve all been ones you’d expect them to make. Bournemouth’s expected goals so far are at 0.9, less than one goal for both matches combined.
They’re doing pretty much the same thing as always: Benik Afobé running the channels, Josh King trying to find space, the wing players pushing up as much as possible. They’re just not doing it as well. King, last year’s leading scorer, has had particular difficulty getting on the ball in good positions. Not to overdo the stats, but it’s telling that over half of the team’s shots have been blocked.
That won’t last, but it’s evidence that they need to get sharper. On the whole, and especially against West Brom, the attack has moved much too slowly. Bournemouth rely on speed of passes and speed of thought, and it’s just not there yet.
Their two best chances have come the way you’d expect, from Ryan Fraser getting to the byline and sending the ball into the area. On the first, Afobé seemed sure to score, but was denied by a brilliant sliding deflection from Miguel Britos. On the second, Afobé was maybe an inch away from connecting with the cross and putting it into the net. But look back at the numbers: overall the margins aren’t that fine. They need to create more opportunities.
Which brings us to the other wing, and Jordon Ibe. A notable failure last year, he knuckled down in pre-season, brought his game up, and looked ready to contribute. He replaced an ineffective Marc Pugh for the second half at West Brom, then got the start against Watford.
Nothing. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but he looked a lot like the Ibe of last season, except maybe worse. The stats are grisly. Dispossessed more often per 90 minutes than anyone on the side (and it’s not close); one shot from outside the area, blocked; no chances created from open play. Anyone who saw the games doesn’t need the stats.
It’s unfair to single him out, because most of the side has underperformed. But that was one position where the club had hoped for significant improvement. It doesn’t help that Junior Stanislas is out with a groin injury, and won’t be ready for a few weeks. Jermain Defoe should be just about ready to start, but he’ll need service, and at 37 is no guarantee of a significant upgrade anyway.
Two losses don’t ruin a season, but look again at the opposition. West Brom and Watford are teams around Bournemouth’s level, the kind of matches where you need a result. Plus they’re polar opposites. West Brom sit back, Watford press. Against the Baggies, Bournemouth were frozen out, against the Hornets, deluged.
Unless Eddie Howe has gone a bit stale at the club – and after well over 300 games in two stints, that’s not out of the question – the side should improve. But the next two league games are home to Manchester City and at Arsenal. Bournemouth lost both fixtures last year, scoring one goal and allowing five. A similar pair of outcomes, which is very possible, and next time the answer to our opening question will have to be ‘yes’.