Bournemouth catch fire in the cold

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 31, 2019

Maybe Tony Pulis had it right – maybe the more of the ball a team has, the more vulnerable they actually are. Chelsea certainly spent Wednesday night trying to prove that theory, controlling the ball against Bournemouth, packing players into their opponents’ half at Dean Court, and yet still suffering a humiliating 4-0 defeat.

For Maurizio Sarri, it was more of the same. We know what he’s trying to build at Stamford Bridge and what he’s trying to fashion his Chelsea into, but never – not even in those awful losses to Arsenal and Tottenham – have they looked further away from his Napoli ideal. Those who know best insist that the Italian isn’t vulnerable to Roman Abramovich’s axe, but it won’t take too many more results like this for that to change; really, this was awful.

However, that line of thinking represents the great and common injustice of the modern Premier League. Whenever these results occur, whenever one of the elite is humbled, the reaction is always one-sided. As it will be here: what’s wrong with Chelsea, why are they stuck in this single-geared inertia?

But it would be a gross injustice not to dwell on what Bournemouth did well. Eddie Howe followed the tactical blueprint of other managers who have defeated Sarri this season, ensuring that Jorginho felt continuous pressure, but Bournemouth’s unique characteristic is becoming their counter-attack, which is growing increasingly lethal. The old association with this team used to be the quality of their ball-retention and their patience. Now, they’ve retained that quality, but supplemented it with the ability to move south-to-north at great pace.

On Wednesday, three of Bournemouth’s four goals came from bursts of direct play which they wouldn’t have been capable of a season ago. Not necessarily counter-attacks by true definition, but breaking moves featuring two or three players, bound together by quick and correct decisions and as few touches as possible. The intent to play like that may have shown itself in the past, but never with such accomplishment. Their first goal was more structured and depended on a fabulous reverse pass from David Brooks, the second relied on a litany of errors from David Luiz, and the third drew its pace from a driven pass out of defence. A crucial ingredient in all three was composure and class, shown in the various finishes and final balls, but the animating factor was that rapid change in field position.

Howe is never too up or too down. In fact, it’s hard to tell the result of a game on his press-conference demeanour alone. He didn’t come bouncing in on Wednesday. He was satisfied rather than delighted and didn’t rise to the bait of proclaiming this as his club’s finest Premier League result to-date. He was careful to apportion credit evenly, too. His side, he thought, had defended excellently – the centre-halves, the full-backs and the wide midfielders. He was also complimentary of Brooks’ and King’s work in shackling Jorginho.

That tactic is no secret. At the root of every recent Chelsea loss has been that same dynamic and so, really, Howe was just replicating a formula which has been proven to work. It had clearly been stressed in the days prior and, because of their long break between games, Bournemouth had presumably devoted plenty of time to that specific issue. Josh King even mentioned it in his post-game interview and it didn’t escape notice that Junior Stanislas assumed those hassling duties once he replaced Brooks in the second half. These players have been schooled heavily over the past ten days.

But the standard of the overall defending was evidence of another triumph. Just as retention of possession has been a Bournemouth staple, so, in the negative, has been their fragile backline. Following the victory over West Ham, this was the first time since October that Bournemouth have won back-to-back in the Premier League and only the second occasion on which they’ve kept consecutive clean-sheets. Clearly there remains work to do in that area, but this was a confident step forward.

Part of that success must be attributed to Chelsea’s lack of thrust. Despite Gonzalo Higuain’s inclusion, they presented all the same failings, enjoying over 68% of possession but forcing Artur Boruc into just two notable saves. No matter how much praise Bournemouth are due, that kind of dysfunction can’t be ignored. Nevertheless, their resistance was organised rather than frantic, depending on structure rather than heroics. Chelsea were repeatedly ushered into relatively ‘safe’ areas, the pertinent spaces inside the penalty box were methodically blocked up – sometimes by up to eight home players – and move after move broke down. Eden Hazard was allowed plenty of touches, but only in certain positions. Higuain was involved, but only in areas from which he rarely has an effect.

It was clearly what Howe had prepared for. Before the game and again at half-time, he had reassured his players, telling them not to be worried by their lack of possession. A necessary step, perhaps, because sides who seek to control the ball rarely react well to being without it. But not here. It was telling and really a measure of how stable their side’s defending was that rarely, if ever, did the Dean Court crowd transmit any sort of anxiety. Nights like that one can often become self-fulfilling, with supporters bracing for calamity in response to an elite opponent’s territorial superiority. In those games, the fear from the stands can bleed onto the pitch, making mistakes – and goals – inevitable. But there was none of that. Partly because of Chelsea’s established issues, but also because Bournemouth’s performance inspired trust.

The tangible method which bred that confidence was perhaps best exemplified by the treatment of N’Golo Kante. The decorated French midfielder has made headlines this season for the adjustment to his role and the many problems that has bred. Howe took advantage of that, too, understanding that while Kante may be a rare player with unnatural instincts, he is neither a provider of assists nor an efficient taker of chances.

During Chelsea’s various occupations of the final-third, he repeatedly found himself on the edge of the box and under little duress. But he was evidently being allowed those positions and given time on the ball on the basis that he wouldn’t be able to exploit whatever opportunities lay ahead. His instinct is always to protect the ball, not to put it at risk, meaning that Bournemouth were able to make great capital simply by forcing him to fight his own habits. When space presented itself, he invariably would not force a pass, preferring to defer instead to a more regular creator or simply push the ball to overlapping full-back.

Intelligent footballer that he is, he still makes telling runs into dangerous positions – he does read a game extremely well – but he doesn’t possess the attacking refinement to capitalise on that movement. Given Bournemouth’s strategy, it wasn’t surprising that he had his side’s best chance of the game, when he moved beyond the last man and onto Pedro’s lofted pass early in the second-half. Had Hazard, Higuain or even Pedro himself found that position, the score would have been level soon after. As it was, Kante’s first touch was poor and the ball dribbled through to Boruc.

These are fine lines, clearly, but it was a smart gamble that paid off and the kind of calculated risk that managers like Howe, who work against a big technical deficit in these matches, are forced to take.

The greatest triumph, though, was really in Bournemouth’s balance. For long periods, every Chelsea outfield player was camped in the attacking half and that showed just how much of the ball Howe was willing to cede. But that was less negativity and more of a trap; at a second’s notice, King, Brooks and the often excellent Ryan Fraser were primed to snap forward and, as the game developed, Chelsea became increasingly unnerved, unable to build any significant momentum but equally incapable of attacking with proper security. Their midfield is a mess, that’s been obvious for a while, but the ruthless exploitation of their various flaws was, at times, really quite startling. It was certainly impressive.

The literal implications of the result are described by the league table. Chelsea have been overtaken by Arsenal and have fallen a full seven points behind Tottenham. Bournemouth are now back in the top-half. But beneath the surface of this game lay another example of just what a good manager Howe is becoming and what he may be able to achieve. So – yes – the story is still Chelsea and what they can’t do, but the more important observations concern Bournemouth and what they and their manager are beginning to show that they can.

What are you looking for?