F365’s early loser: The unscrutinised Eddie Howe

Date published: Wednesday 4th December 2019 11:43 - Seb Stafford Bloor

Amazon? Amazon was fine, Bournemouth were not.

Tuesday night was baffling. There was a point in the second half when Harry Wilson was dispossessed by Wilfried Zaha and then Jermaine Jenas, who was doing co-commentary, remarked upon Bournemouth’s slow circulation of the ball. He was right. Their fundamental problem was that, with the exception of a 15-minute period after half-time, there was so little craft or conviction in the construction of their attacking moves that even a side who suffered a first-half red card found it easy to contain them.

Mamadou Sakho’s sending-off created a different type of challenge – that’s fair to point out – but sometimes the recognition of how difficult it is to play against ten men goes too far. Yes, Palace gradually retreated in response and, under normal circumstances, Bournemouth would have been far happier playing on the counter-attack. But that inconvenience shouldn’t be misrepresented as a disadvantage. Palace still played with a man less for 70 minutes and still lost (arguably) their best centre-half on the night – as well as Patrick van Aanholt to injury a few minutes later – and yet Bournemouth never provided any examination of the resulting weaknesses. They enjoyed 69% possession, made 578 passes to Palace’s 258, but were still out-shot seven to six.

And that was against a defence which entered the game disrupted and who were in mini-crisis before Sakho studded Adam Smith and Van Aanholt limped off. No Dann, no Cahill and no Ward; this was nowhere close to Roy Hodgson’s first-choice side.

Eddie Howe was honest in the aftermath. Immediately after the game, he conceded that “the feeling coming off is the probably the lowest I’ve ever been as Bournemouth manager”. Understandably so, because his players created – realistically – maybe one good chance in the game and ended up losing to a very preventable goal which, among others, Aaron Ramsdale definitely won’t want to see again.

So this wasn’t really a smash and grab. If it were, its sting would be easier to draw. If, for instance, Bournemouth had spent the entire night banging away at Vincent Guaita’s goal and conceded while over-pursuing a winner then, fine, that could have been attributed to football’s wicked sense of humour.

But Bournemouth seemed oddly determined to make themselves the punchline. It’s a strange thing to say of a game of so few opportunities, but from around 60 minutes onwards, Palace’s goal began to feel inevitable. Not because they fashioned that many chances of their own, but because the visiting players exhibited a futility which implied that they really felt the same way.

It showed in how they shuffled the ball artlessly around the home box, terrified of exposing themselves to a quick break. But it was also evident in the cheap giveaways as they worked into position, when they somehow conspired to turn the ball over in the face of no press and no opposition. There was no appetite to take advantage of their luck – no eagerness to exploit the extra space or to isolate defenders and work their overlaps.

It was strange, particularly because it challenged the received wisdom surrounding Howe’s side and his style of play. They are the possession team. They want a lot of the ball. This may have been their fourth straight loss and the winning habit has clearly been on the wane for some time, but Palace hadn’t won at Selhurst Park since September, so there were no advantage to be drawn from any intangibles. This was just a rotten performance.

Tonally, it was very similar to one they gave at the end of last season, at home to a Tottenham side who played with nine men for an entire half. After Son Heung-min and Juan Foyth had been dismissed, Bournemouth actually became more cowed and more fearful, as if fundamentally ill at ease with being expected to win. They did get over the line, Nathan Ake scored from a stoppage-time corner, but they were dreadful in all the same ways that they were at Selhurst Park. They moved the ball slowly and predictably and showed no comprehension for how to defeat a deep-lying opponent.

Combined, those kind of results feed a more general concern about Howe: where is the variation in his style? Sometimes inhibition, low confidence and injuries disrupt a natural way of playing, but Bournemouth don’t appear to have a contingency for that. Or the capacity to pivot whenever circumstances change. It doesn’t in itself mean that Howe’s reputation is built on fallacy, but then neither does it portray any dexterity. That’s odd for someone spoken of as the great English coach of the future.

As is particularly odd for a manager continuously linked to positions further up the table. To an extent, there are some similarities here to pre-Manchester United David Moyes. Howe is not coaching the same football in the same style and their personalities aren’t even vaguely comparable, but the attention paid to his work is familiarly selective.

When he wins, he’s terrific; he’s doing brilliant work on a budget and enabling a traditionally smaller club to achieve beyond their means. When he loses, it doesn’t matter because…he’s doing brilliant work on a budget and enabling a traditionally smaller club to achieve beyond their means.

Howe is due plenty of praise, but if this habit of putting him forward for other jobs persists – or, in some cases, he continues to be used as a cypher for the plight of the British manager – then there needs to be a more honest assessment of his strengths and weaknesses. He’s not David Moyes, let’s be clear, but there’s the same failure to apply proper scrutiny.

Why, for instance, have Bournemouth suffered a protracted slump every season since promotion? What does that problem reveal about his management style? We know that they’ll recover their form and that, at some point, Howe will revive them, but what puts them in that situation in the first place?

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.

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