Amid the almost countless names mooted as potential successors to Arsene Wenger, one has started to slip under the radar simply because it’s been around for so long – Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe.
Ever since the Cherries first came to the Premier League and proved teams can not only stay up playing positive football but in fact establish themselves as a dependable mid-table side, largely because of their ability to dispose of more agricultural divisional rivals, the 40-year-old has been discussed as the most natural candidate to step into Wenger’s shoes, sharing his idealistic ethos of attacking football, albeit with a hint of English bias.
There’s no disputing the job Howe’s done at the Vitality Stadium. From personally clearing out turnstile tills to make sure he can pay his players in League Two to beating Manchester United in the Premier League, the Cherries have completely transformed under his guidance.
He’s taken them up every rung of the English football pyramid to its very summit, all in the space of a decade – 20 months of which was actually spent enduring an unspectacular spell with Burnley. During an era in which the Football League is littered with former Premier League giants, such a feat is beyond exceptional – it’s legendary, something most of us can only dream about doing over endless sessions of Football Manager.
But the real hook for Arsenal is the manner in which he’s done it. Although there has been inevitable elements of pragmatism about them at times in the Premier League, particularly when they slip a little too close to the drop zone, the vast majority of the 574 points Howe’s won for Bournemouth have been sourced through positive, expansive, forward-thinking football.
That’s the kind of philosophical stubbornness which has allowed Wenger to leave such a distinct identity behind at Arsenal, one that most fans would like to see the club sustain into their new, post-Wenger era, even if dash of defensive shrewdness needs to be added to the equation as well.
Howe’s time in the Premier League, too, has claimed some impressive scalps. Their 4-3 victory over Liverpool remains an iconic encounter that won’t be forgotten quickly, but Arsenal, Chelsea and United have all suffered defeats to the Cherries too, while Tottenham have conceded points to them as well.
That not only highlights the incredible faith and belief in Bournemouth’s philosophy that Howe has managed to build on the south coast, but also his ability to out-think and outmanoeuvre talented managers over the course of ninety minutes. This season alone, Howe has fielded his side in eight different variations of formation, largely revolving around 4-4-1-1 and 3-4-3. When including in-game changes, his level of tinkering is probably far higher.
And yet, there are some important caveats to consider here. While nothing should be taken away from what Howe has achieved, his elevation of Bournemouth was supercharged by the financial backing of Russian billionaire Maxim Demin, who bought the club in 2011.
In fact, since arriving in the Premier League alone, Howe has spent around £117million on new signings. Indeed, Howe hasn’t quite created the Roy of the Rovers fairy tale in the purist manner we all imagine – that’s just simplistic yet naturally appealing narrative.
In many ways too, that highlights perhaps the biggest concern with Howe – whether he can actually replicate what he’s managed with Bournemouth on a larger scale. After all, for all that money spent, Howe’s still working with a core of players who have been at the heart of the club’s formidable rise.
Ten of the 21 players to represent Bournemouth in the Premier League this season were with them in the Championship, nine of those arrived in 2014 or earlier, five of those made their Cherries debuts in 2012 or earlier and two key elements of their defence – Simon Francis and Steve Cook – first turned out for the club during Howe’s first spell in 2010.
While that’s an endorsement of Howe’s ability to continually improve players, even those whose talent appears to have a glass ceiling, it also questions the efficiency of the money Bournemouth have spent.
There have been some success stories amongst the late arrivals to Bournemouth’s bloom, the likes of Joshua King who enjoyed a fantastic end to last season, busy striker Callum Wilson and former Chelsea youngster Nathan Ake, but plenty of signings have struggled to hit the mark as well.
The south coast outfit are still yet to get the best out of Jordon Ibe, £11.97million signing Benik Afobe finds himself back on loan at Wolves, Asmir Begovic hasn’t particularly convinced since arriving from Chelsea, Tyrone Mings has been thwarted with injury and Lewis Grabban has endured three loan spells in the Championship since re-joining the Cherries. There have been other disappointments too – Lee Tomlin, Juan Iturbe, Marc Wilson and Brad Smith.
Of course, every manager will have their own collection of good and bad signings – that’s simply the unpredictable and speculative nature of the transfer market these days.
But it does question whether Howe can replicate what Lee Johnson refers to as the ‘buy in’ – the point at which the players are convinced enough to buy into your methods – at a club of Arsenal’s size and pedigree, without that core or original personnel to rely on.
Although the likes of Francis and Cook have grown with Howe, only a few of those brought to the club during their Premier League period have truly embraced the project in the same manner – a significant chunk have fallen by the wayside and left the Cherries pretty much as quickly as they’ve arrived.
And that concern only multiplies when you consider the dressing room politics at a club like Arsenal, even if they are often seen as meeker than the rest of the Premier League’s Big Six. While Football League talents looking for a path to the top might be allured by Howe’s enigmatically humble aura, millionaires with egos even bigger than their bank accounts are a different category of footballer and personality altogether.
Howe won’t have that group of players who have been with him from practically the beginning, who he can rely on to give their all in every game, and it remains to be seen whether he can so easily find allies at another club.
Perhaps with time and money to spend, Howe can win the majority over – and toss the ones he can’t by the wayside. But patience isn’t a name on the lips of the Arsenal faithful right now; after so many years of treading water before inevitably falling behind their divisional rivals, Gunners supporters will want immediate signs that the club is moving forward. There’s no doubting Howe’s talent as a manger, but his ability to make that impact right away is somewhat less convincing.
Should Arsenal swoop for Howe? Let us know by voting below…