AFC Bournemouth – a club at a crossroads?

AFC Bournemouth: The Premier League club with an average weekly attendance of around 10,500. The club with an average league position of 7th in League one over the previous 50 years and the club who don’t even own the stadium they play in. The club, who have been living the dream in the Premier League, and are now gearing up for a 4th consecutive season in the top-flight. All of which seemed unthinkable, when just over 10 years ago, they started a League two season on -17 points and facing the real prospect of going out of existence. Even Eddie Howe was collecting spare change in a bucket on Bournemouth pier, to stave off the possibility of the club going bankrupt.

Due to it’s meteoric rise, many smaller clubs in the Football League now use Bournemouth as the benchmark on how to run a football club. They’ve  shown that with the right blend of skills, hard work and smart recruitment, getting to the Premier League is achievable for almost anyone. They’ve not only made up the numbers in the Premier League, but have humbled each of the ‘top 6’ (apart from Manchester City) during their stay, and have played, by common consensus; attacking, attractive and entertaining football.

Emerging from such humble recent history has ensured that fans and players at Bournemouth alike, have kept their feet firmly on the ground. Cherries fans; particularly those who have supported the club for a long time, still pinch themselves that they are mixing it in the big time with England’s biggest names. However, the novelty of being in the top flight might, for the first time, be starting to wear off. Whilst Eddie Howe has been doing his upmost to remind everyone at the club that complacency could be a killer, their end of season form, combined with their final league positions in the last two years should be a cause for concern for Bournemouth supporters.

A rollercoaster season

The Cherries final day fixture away at Crystal Palace resulted in an amazing 5-3 victory for the hosts, and was a rather fitting reflection of the clubs season as a whole. Up-and-down, entertaining and fearless; but ultimately disappointing. A final position of 14th in the Premier League table should represent a good season for a club like Bournemouth, but in reality it represents a second season of regression, based on the finishes of 9th (2016/17) and 12th (2017/18) in the previous two campaigns.

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The sense of disappointment in a 14th placed finish is derived from the fantastic early-season form that had fans dreaming of something more spectacular. After banking 20 points in the first 10 games of the season, Bournemouth were sitting in 6th place and dreaming of a European push similar to Burnley’s the previous year. Fans could rightly be forgiven for thinking that their highest ever league finish (9th) could be bettered. Unfortunately November and December produced a bleak set of results and they never really managed to regain the early-season momentum. At times they poured on the quality: victories against Spurs and a particularly memorable 4-0 drubbing of Chelsea showed what they are capable of. Conversely, losses to Fulham and Cardiff showed both their fragility and inconsistency. It was a season where no one really knew what they were going to get with Eddie Howe’s side.

That their season, which started with so much promise, then fizzled out into a damp squib should raise the alarm bells. A lazy analysis could suggest that with Premier League safety all but wrapped up with 8 games to go, they ‘were on the beach’. But Eddie Howe is not the type of manager to allow that to happen, and wouldn’t accept complacency creeping in, as he’s often warned his players against. To add context; the end of the season run also coincided with the blooding of younger players: Jack Simpson, Mark Travers, Emerson Hyndman and Dom Solanke. It would be easy to write off the second-half of last season as ‘taking the foot off of the pedal’ once safety was secured, however evidence would suggest that there is more to it than that.

Loyal servants need replacing

A large chunk of the current squad have been part of the club since before their successful promotion campaigns. Players such as Charlie Daniels, Arthur Boruc and Simon Francis have all been excellent players for Eddie Howe over the years, but are in the very latter stages of their careers and increasingly look sub-standard at the highest level. Marc Pugh, another fantastic servant, has already been released by the club. All of these players will need to be replaced in the next 2 transfer windows. This will be a tough task for Howe, who has always showed great loyalty to the players that won him promotion to the Premier League.

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The club have been actively trying to address the need to refresh and replace their promotion-winners by utilising a model that has worked well for them so far; signing young players from the Championship or on the fringes of the ‘big 6’ clubs with a view to the long term. It’s a brave strategy, as the Premier League is an unforgiving beast, and taking the long term view is not always rewarded. Nevertheless, with the signings last year of Chris Mepham, David Brooks, Dominic Solanke and Jefferson Lerma it appears as though Howe is trying to cover off retirements and drops in performance levels. The club have also quickly this summer to secure the services of Bristol City’s Lloyd Kelly at left-back: another young player with potential to become a good Premier League player.

Keeping hold of star players

Quite simply, the Cherries have to keep hold of their best players this summer to reverse their recent regression. There are rumours that Arsenal are interested in the clubs’ player of the season, Ryan Fraser, who is out of contract in 2020 and has yet to sign a new one. Similarly, Callum Wilson has long been linked with Chelsea and his profile has risen steeply after such a good season that resulted in his first England caps. Nathan Ake too, is speculated to have admirers from several big clubs, with rumours of a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that Chelsea could buy him back for £40 million if they so wish. It is also conceivable that David Brooks, who was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award, will attract suitors this summer after his stellar debut season in the Premier League. Bournemouth will find it very difficult to fend off off such interest in each of their best players should firm bids be tabled.

Money for nothing

For a club that plays in front of a maximum capacity of 11,450, Bournemouth are spending big money on both transfer fees and particularly, wages. As they release the players who saw them promoted from League 1 and the Championship and replace them with more established players, this is only likely to increase. The problem is: to make this model more sustainable, Bournemouth need to be playing in a bigger stadium in years to come.

This is a situation that the club are eager to address, and had originally planned to build a new stadium next to the existing one, in time for 2020. Eddie Howe himself insisted that the club wouldn’t truly benefit from Premier League football, unless the club could own and play in, a bigger stadium than their current one. Those plans have now fallen through without any credible and proposed alternative for the near future. Nevertheless, Bournemouth are likely to siphon off at least some, of the riches gained by being a part of the Premier League for their future pursuit of a bigger stadium. Money for a new stadium is likely to have an impact on their spending power over the next few seasons, particularly after a few seasons of heavy investment in the playing squad. Balancing the financial demands for a new stadium and keeping a competitive squad will be difficult, but will be key to Bournemouth’s success over the next few seasons.

Good recruitment

It’s somewhat stating the obvious; summer recruitment is key. As with all sides outside of the top 6, recruitment this summer will go a long way to deciding the fate of upcoming seasons. In recent seasons, the club have a mixed record in this area. On one hand they have managed to unearth gems like David Brooks and Josh King who have performed well above expectations when they were signed, and were able to hit the ground running. On the other, some expensive acquisitions have proved to be big disappointments: Jordan Ibe, Brad Smith and Diego Rico. Although Jermain Defoe was signed on a free transfer, his reported wages of £70k ensured that he should be added to the category of disappointments.

Based on last season’s evidence, it would appear that the main areas that require addressing are the goalkeeper and defense. Asmir Begovic has largely been a disappointment during his time at the Vitality, and Artur Boruc isn’t of a standard befitting regular Premier League starts. Although Mark Travers played towards the end of the season, it would be a huge call to give him the gloves on a permanent basis. Finding a reliable last line of defense in such an attack-minded team should be a priority.

Similarly, with Simon Francis in the twilight of his career and Nathanial Clyne having headed back to Liverpool, the position of right-back is an urgent priority. In wide positions and up front, the Cherries are well stocked – that is, if they are able to keep hold of their star players. The return of Lewis Cook, who missed almost the entire 2018/19 campaign, will provide a much needed boost in the centre of midfield – another area in which they look well covered.

Eddie Howe

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If you were to cut Eddie Howe down the middle, he would bleed red and black. He is ‘Mr Bournemouth’ and has performed miracles with this team since rejoining the club as manager. The Cherries fans have been spoilt both by the results he’s delivered and the style of football his sides have produced. It would be a fair to reflect that the team, the playing style and in many ways, the entire club are shaped in his image. Whilst he is at the helm, Bournemouth fans can be assured that their club is in safe hands. But looking ahead, it’s highly probable that his departure could have as big, if not bigger, impact on Bournemouth as Wenger leaving Arsenal, or Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United did.

He has a great reputation within the game, with other managers quick to shower praise on him. In particular, both Arsene Wenger and Brendan Rodgers have been effusive in their praise of the job he’s done. Given that he is one of the most talented managers in the Premier League, he will surely want to test his skills out at a more grandiose setting; despite his loyalties to Bournemouth. Could ‘the right move’ come at some point next season?

Crossroads – where next?

Both Eddie Howe and Bournemouth are at a crossroads. Have they gone as far as they can together? How do they guard against complacency? Should Eddie Howe look to ‘cash in’ on his stellar reputation, for a move to a bigger club if they come knocking? Where do Bournemouth want to be in say, 3 years time – and how are they going to make that happen? Is the improvement of the infrastructure at the club going to be at the detriment of the playing side? How will they replace their star players if they do end up leaving this summer? Will their current transfer model of bringing in young, unproven players with potential continue to pay dividends? There are many questions to be answered over the next few months. This really feels like a crossroads moment in the future of AFC Bournemouth.

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