As they prepare to face the manager they sacked - why is it all going wrong for Bournemouth?
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Those who watched Andoni Iraola’s Rayo Vallecano last season thought it would be an exciting appointment, if a rather cruel one – the former Spain international had earned a reputation for high-tempo, gung-ho football and for overachieving with one of La Liga’s less pecunious teams. It looked like a great fit, a manager used to wheeling and dealing on a budget and playing entertaining football at the same time.
It hasn’t worked out that way, at least so far. Iraola’s Bournemouth are winless and sit second from bottom in the Premier League – and this weekend they face Wolverhampton Wanderers, led by Gary O’Neil, the man who was so harshly removed from his post on the south coast after guiding the Cherries to safety. In pre-season, there was optimism in Dorset and doom and gloom over the Black Country, but now Wolves are two wins and five points better off than their opponents.
Iraola’s Bournemouth have only scored five goals all season, fewer than anyone else in the Premier League, and have conceded 18, with only Burnley and Sheffield United shipping more. The defensive issues were perhaps anticipated – Iraola’s sides had a reputation for playing high-risk football and looking to score one more rather than keep it tight – but the promised goals have yet to materialise. It doesn’t help Iraola’s image that Rayo, under Francisco Rodríguez, are even further up the table now than they were last year.
The big question is whether the attacking problems are down to Iraola’s system or to the players. If Iraola wants some vindication for his methods, the chances his players have missed will probably be the first thing he points too. Bournemouth have scored 0.6 goals per game but missed 1.1 big chances, by Sofascore’s numbers. Not every chance can be put away, but the conversion rate is pretty shocking.
And none of Iraola’s forwards, with the exception of Dominic Solanke, have been able to perform consistently well. Injuries have played a part, but even when available wide forwards like Justin Kluivert, the once heavily-hyped son of Dutch legend Patrick, and Luís Sinisterra, who was one of Leeds United’s best players last season, have failed to produce. Dango Ouattara, who shone in flashes last year, is another player who has been in and out of the team without putting much of a dent in opposing defences.
And while they probably should have more goals than they do (their collective xG is 8.8, better than four teams in the division, at least), they have still been outplayed by teams they should be able to go toe-to-toe with. Everton hammered them 3-0 at Goodison Park in the last round of games, registering more than twice as many attempts on goal and twice as many on target. Neither players nor system seem to be working as intended.
The injury problems Iraola has endured are, in fairness to him, substantial. Aside from the several forwards who have missed gametime, key midfielders have been missing. Two summer signings intended to bolster the midfield, Tyler Adams and Alex Scott, have yet to start a match due to injuries, with recent failed hamstring surgery putting Adams out for another four months. The dynamic and industrious Scott, one of the best players in the Championship last season with Bristol City, is at least back in full training and may make his debut against Wolves.
But regardless of injuries, the midfield has not worked well. Philip Billing, Bournemouth’s most important player under O’Neil, has struggled for form, especially in front of goal, and has been giving the ball away more often, and in more dangerous areas, than he once did. Bournemouth aren’t just failing to control periods of matches – a criticism of Iraola’s teams in the past – they’re failing to find the dynamic spark that they need to counter-attack effectively and turn time on the ball into chances.
They’re also struggling at full-back. One of the key elements of Iraola’s scheme at Rayo was having wing-backs make a big impact in the final third, bombing on down the flanks and joining attacks – Miloš Kerkez and Max Aarons, brought in from AZ Alkmaar and Norwich City respectively to play that part for Bournemouth, have struggled. They are failing to make an impression up the field while still offering space in behind for opposing attacks, and both have been in poor form in recent games, Aarons especially. They are currently offering Bournemouth the worst of both worlds – the vulnerabilities of Iraola’s tactical set-up without the pay-off.
Wolves, meanwhile, have been better than expected after a difficult summer which saw them lose several key players. They still lack goals under O’Neil, which was as expected given their failure to add any new faces to a lacklustre front line, but the former Bournemouth manager has got the best out of his new-look midfield and out of Hwang Hee-Chan, who has sparkled. They have beaten Manchester City and Everton, drawn with Aston Villa, and given Manchester United a serious scare at Old Trafford.
While Wolves are a long way from being clear of the relegation battle many expected them to be sucked into, they are still showing signs of the industrious identity that O’Neil imparted on Bournemouth towards the end of the 2022/23 season as they battled to stay up – rigidity, tireless work across the field, and dynamic, direct play in midfield. Iraola, by contrast, has thus far failed to implement his own blueprint.
Either he is failing to communicate his ideas, the playing staff he has doesn’t line up with his requirements, or his players are simply so badly out of form that he is left powerless. The first reflects poorly on Iraola, the second on Bournemouth’s recruitment (and, lest we forget, they spent £110m on new players this summer) and only the last option could be described as one that is somewhat out of the manager’s control – but then, the most successful managers find ways to get players back to their best when times are tough.
Iraola said in his pre-match press conference that his side were “too slow” and lacked confidence against Everton. He has had two weeks to work with his players, only a handful of whom were on international dity, since that damaging defeat and to console and uplift them, to get them singing to his hymn sheet. If there are no tangible improvements against Wolves, then there will be very just cause for concern.
We are, of course, just ten games into Iraola’s spell as Bournemouth manager, including two wins in the EFL Cup. In a fairer, more patient world, it would be considered too early to pass judgement. But if they fail to win at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday or at least fail to put up more of a fight, then they will sink further into the mire, and already-hanging heads will likely drop further still – and if Bournemouth couldn’t find the patience to give O’Neil a second season after he kept them up, you wonder how long they’ll wait before making another change in the dugout.