With over half of the Premier League’s games played, and with the hectic Christmas period well and truly behind us, now is the time clubs need to dig in and start to grind out results in that long hard stretch up until May.
The start of the season promised so much for Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth, his board splashed the top flight cash in the summer, bringing in Premier League experience in the likes of Sylvain Distin and Artur Boruc as well as exciting talent new to this level in the likes of Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings.
In fact, the team looked like a decent one, if a little light on proven quality. No one expected Bournemouth to be making a dash for the Champions League spots, but there was a very real sense that they could belie their lowly status and stay in the division.
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But disaster struck so very early on this season. Callum Wilson and Max Gradel in particular looked very useful going forward, and staying in the league is always about being able to score the goals to nick important points in tight games that could go against you. Without that pace and prolificacy, Bournemouth were always going to struggle.
They’ve done fairly well, all things considered. Given that the work they competed in the summer in order to get ready for life in the Premier League was undone after only a few weeks, Howe and his team can be forgiven for thinking that they have had to start again, and bringing in Iturbe from Roma and re-signing Lewis Grabban from Norwich will help to ease the injury problems.
Given that Gradel and Wilson are doubts not just to play again this season but even to be named in the squad for the rest of the season (the new squad has to be declared after the January window closes), new attacking recruits are a must, and those coming in look like the kind of players who will hit the hallowed ground of the Premier League running.
But the bigger plus for the Cherries must surely be their form. Beating Chelsea and Manchester United in successive games was a feat of fairytale proportions, but in order to stay in the league you have to do more than slay the giants. In fact, if you’re to truly look like you belong, you probably shouldn’t really think of them as giant killings at all – so it’s important that they followed it up. Only one defeat in seven games – against Arsenal – has really helped, but they’re still only a few points off the bottom three.
Bournemouth have those two great victories to thank, however. When you look at the table, they’re four points off the relegation zone, so the Chelsea and United games were vital to their current position, and that shows two things.
One thing it shows is that Bournemouth’s squad was good enough to win enough games to stay in a reasonably comfortable position in the first half of the season, despite having to deal with an extraordinary injury crisis and having to dig out wins against two of English football’s powerhouses in order to maintain that position.
But it also shows that Bournemouth didn’t get the points that they needed from the games they expected to win in order to be in that position. Before the season started, you can be sure that those in the coaching staff scanned the fixture list and pinpointed the games they felt they could win, and those they felt were probably written off as defeats.
That’s not necessarily pessimism, but rather it’s a pragmatic approach to building your season. If you feel you can beat the teams around you and not the bigger ones, then your aim won’t be to win the league. It’s a way of pinpointing your level and gauging where you need to be throughout the season.
But when you’re relying on games like Chelsea and Manchester United to get you to where you need to be, there’s a little bit of a problem. That sounds harsh, and it shouldn’t belittle those wonderful victories, but it does mean that Bournemouth needed to recruit players in the summer. In order to be on course to stay up, Bournemouth would have wanted to have seen those victories over Chelsea and United as bonus points, rather than the very points keeping them afloat.
Those two wins are already the biggest in the club’s history. But if they stay up by four points by the end of the season those wins will look even bigger.