Could Bournemouth really go down?
In Bournemouth’s time in the Premier League, they have often hit bumps in the road, but have always found a way to put a good run of results together and look comfortable by the end of the season. Might it not happen this year?
It’s stormy seas for the Cherries right now. Nine losses in the last twelve fixtures have seen them slide into the relegation zone. Now, this isn’t the first time a run like that has happened. Last season, at almost the exact same November-to-January period, Bournemouth lost nine games out of twelve. Eddie Howe’s side have always been up and down. The difference at this point is that Bournemouth started the 2018/19 season with six wins from the first ten, whereas this time around it was only three. Since then, it’s looked broadly the same, with Bournemouth picking up five wins so far compared to eight at this point last season. After that, the Cherries managed five wins and three draws for the remainder of the season, adding another 18 points to a respectable total that saw them finish in 14th. If they do the same again, Bournemouth will end the season on a very knife-edge inducing 38 points. Just being Bournemouth might not be enough right now.
Taking a dig into the expected goals does not bring optimism. In the period since StatsBomb started collecting this data set in 2017, Bournemouth have at no point been a good defensive side. What they have previously done is put up enough on the attacking side to make it work. That really isn’t happening right now. The attack right now is the worst it’s ever been over a ten game period in StatsBomb’s numbers.
This attacking dropoff can be most obviously seen in Callum Wilson’s form. In August and September, he was riding high, getting not a lot of chances but some really great chances nonetheless.
The radar shows what his game was about in this period: working hard, pressuring a lot, and getting on the end of a select few terrific shots.
But from October onwards? The headline is that he hasn’t scored a single goal, and unfortunately we can’t help him out too much in the data. His volume has dropped even further, and he’s had just a single shot with an xG greater than 0.1.
The radar tells the same story. Still working hard, but not getting any shots of real quality.
While this obviously can’t be pinned solely on Wilson, it’s worth noting that Bournemouth’s next most prominent chance-getters Joshua King and Harry Wilson have not suffered similar xG dips.
In terms of working the ball into situations for goalscoring opportunities, it’s impossible to look away from Ryan Fraser’s season, in which his xG assisted in open play has fallen off a cliff. What’s curious is that there doesn’t seem to be that much else different about his game. He leads Bournemouth in open play passes into the box per 90, and his quality from set pieces is unchanged. But he’s not creating good chances from open play anymore.
Bournemouth at their best last season had a really effective front four. Wilson and King would press aggressively as a front two, with Wilson getting most of the good chances. Fraser would offer creativity from the left while David Brooks would often appear to be playing centrally despite very much coming from the right, pressing well and getting shots. Brooks’ injury has meant Harry Wilson taking his minutes, which should be fine as the two have similar skillsets. Dominic Solanke has been rotated in for King, which is also a reasonable like for like change. But all seem to have offered a little bit less this season, and the net result is a non-functioning attack.
Presumably in a failed attempt to tighten things up, Howe has gone with a more combative midfield double pivot this season. Philip Billing and Jefferson Lerma are both solid ball winners, which should be making the side more solid. And yet what we’re seeing is a side just as porous, but seemingly without the ability to move the ball up the pitch. After a long injury kept him out of the side, Lewis Cook is now being reintegrated, and should offer the kind of ball progression option the Cherries need, albeit at a cost with his poor positional discipline having long been an issue. Howe has switched to a midfield three at times, and right now it seems as though permanently fielding Cook alongside Lerma and Billing could cover the most bases, especially as the attacking quartet aren’t exactly functioning as a unit right now.
Even Howe’s biggest champions have never really put up a compelling case for his defensive record. The curious thing is in how they do it. Traditionally a side that show up in the metrics as one of the lower pressing teams in the division, Bournemouth somehow started the season blazing into a higher press, before dropping off again. On the radar below, Bournemouth played up until mid-November with a defensive distance much higher up the pitch, allowing opponents fewer passes before attempting to win the ball back. Since then, they’ve scaled it right back to their usual rate. Whatever any of this was supposed to do is a mystery. It might not matter how high Bournemouth press when, however they play, they’re prone to poor defensive shapes and offering ample opportunities for individuals to make mistakes.
Howe unquestionably has a lot of strengths as a coach. Bournemouth’s trajectory during his time in charge speaks for itself, as does the improvement of many players he’s worked with. But what he’s never shown much evidence of producing is cohesion. The Cherries will go on good runs and bad runs largely for reasons difficult to discern. They’re going to need to find a good one in their back pocket soon, because it’s not like there’s a clear plan in the football they’ve played for how this side will find the results they need.
Stats of Interest
Norwich are probably dead and buried. Their league position along with the dreadful stuff they’ve played for most of this season tells us what to expect. But might there be a small glimmer of hope? In recent weeks, their numbers have been broadly league average. It’s very unlikely to materialise, but if there is to be some miraculous revival, well, stranger things have happened.
Harry Kane’s injury potentially opens up a spot for another English striker to start at the European Championships this summer, and Danny Ings is going hell for leather to get it. It’s recently that the goals have really been flowing, but the former Liverpool man has produced excellent form all season.
It’s been a month since we last checked in on David McGoldrick. Since then he’s taken another 11 shots that have led to zero goals. The day he eventually fumbles one over the line should be declared a bank holiday.