Bournemouth beating Leeds United to Andoni Iraola could be a heartless masterstroke

Wanted by Leeds and respected in Spain, Bournemouth have sprung a shock by appointing Andoni Iraola. Will it a brilliant move, or simply cruel for Gary O’Neil?
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To say it came out of the blue was an understatement: Bournemouth have fired Gary O’Neil - a key figure at our end of season awards ceremony - and immediately appointed in-demand Spanish manager Andoni Iraola in his place on a two-year deal. It’s as bold as it is cruel – a statement of intent and a cold-hearted dismissal in the same breath.

Iraola, once a fine right-back who spent most of his career at Athletic Bilbao, has been making waves since the moment he started his managerial career – waves which led to Leeds United trying to appoint him to replace Jesse Marsch and again following their relegation. Instead, it’s the Cherries who have taken a chance on a relatively inexperienced manager with a burgeoning reputation. It could be a masterstroke.

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O’Neil will disagree, one imagines. He took over a Bournemouth side who were newly promoted, expected to struggle and had just been dismantled to the tune of nine goals by Liverpool. He shored them up, solidified them, gave them purpose and in the end helped them to survive relatively comfortably. He did the job he was appointed to do when the odds were stacked against him. To fire him when he has done so little wrong is unquestionably cruel – but then football is an uncaring game.

It’s often said that football is a results business – these days, as the money flows ever faster and the battle for an international audience intensifies, it’s more accurate to say that it’s an entertainment business. Results are still the baseline, but swashbuckling football places backsides on seats and sells replica shirts. O’Neil’s Bournemouth were pragmatic and reliable, but not exciting. In removing him, the Bournemouth board are showing precisely where their priorities lie.

Iraola’s brand of football is unquestionably thrilling. His teams press harder and higher up the pitch than almost anyone else in Europe. His is heavy metal football with the amps turned up to 11 – quick, direct, passionate and fierce. If it comes off, there is no question that Bournemouth will become a joy to watch.

Of course, no amount of free-flowing, rollicking and frolicking football will make up for relegation if it all goes pear-shaped. The most entertaining football in the Championship still generates less revenue and gets fewer fans through the turnstiles than the dourest team in the Premier League. On paper, O’Neil was the safe pair of hands who reduced the chances of that happening.

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That doesn’t make this a bad decision. Iraola has been hugely impressive in the early years of his coaching career. After a brief spell in Cyprus, he took over CD Mirandés, newly promoted to the Spanish Segunda and took them to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, beating Sevilla and Villarreal along the way. He then took over at Rayo Vallecano, the Madrid team who were pushing for a return to La Liga, got them promoted at the first attempt and lead them to mid-table safety in both of his season in charge – making another run to the semis of Spain’s premier cup competition along the way.

His teams play an extreme version of gegenpressing – attacking the ball hard and in numbers as high up the field as possible. Few teams in Europe win the ball in the opposing half as much as Rayo have these past few years, and few teams commit so many men to the press at all times. When the ball is won back, the attacking methodology is relatively simple - get it wide quickly, get it to the byline quickly again, and cross it in.

Helping to achieve the aim were some of the paciest players in La Liga – including winger Álvaro García, clocked on the speedgun as the quickest man in the division – and some fine full-backs, encouraged to get into overlapping positions as often as possible and learning to hone their craft from a man who was one of the best in Spain himself in his pomp.

Bournemouth do not have the same extreme pace in wide areas – the only player who could hold a candle to García on the running track is Joe Rothwell, and he mostly plays through the middle. They will surely need to invest in players who match Iraola’s style as well as in the manager himself if they want to reap the rewards of beating Leeds to the punch to sign the Spaniard.

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Iraola also puts his players through a hell of a lot. All that endless pressing and unceasingly high-octane football is immensely hard work, and attitude and athleticism haven’t prevented his sides from having a noticeably high number of injuries. His football is high-risk, high-reward, and given Bournemouth’s resources, they will likely find themselves on the receiving end of the occasional thrashing. Equally, a Bournemouth side that buys into Iraola’s methods will likely pull of some big upsets along the way – his Rayo side beat both Real Madrid and Barcelona in the 2022/23 campaign.

So this is a high-risk, high-reward decision by Bournemouth. Their statement welcoming Iraola specifically stated this the stylish play his sides are noted for was a significant factor in the decision to appoint him in O’Neil’s place – this is their attempt to become more than just a club that can survive, but to become a club that can thrill. There is enough about Iraola’s sides to suggest that they aren’t just tilting at windmills, but they will undoubtedly look very foolish if things don’t get off to a good start.

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Right now, the response from Bournemouth supporters appears to be a combination of bafflement and trepidation. They should, probably, be excited – but it would be understandable if any such excitement is tempered by a little sadness at the departure of a manager who probably deserves more gratitude than he has got. This is a move made to turn Bournemouth into a team that stirs the emotions – and in making it, they could hardly have shown fewer feelings. That’s the modern game for you, Gary.

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