There were just 25 minutes remaining when the home fans at the Vitality Stadium turned towards the fourth official last Friday night to see who was coming on. 1-0 down to Brighton & Hove Albion and staring at a fifth consecutive Premier League defeat, Bournemouth and Eddie Howe needed a hero. Up the board went, with a green No.33. It was time for Jordon Ibe to deliver – and he did.
The introduction of the 21-year-old winger completely changed the game and within two minutes the Cherries had equalised, with Ibe having backheeled into the path of Andrew Surman. Just six minutes after that, Bournemouth were leading 2-1 and again it was Ibe providing the assist, this time with the outside of his boot for Jermain Defoe. They held on for the victory and Ibe was the man of the moment, even if he still hasn’t scored a goal for the club he joined last summer to the tune of £15m and even if these assists were his first in a Bournemouth shirt, 31 games after making his debut.
It had been a difficult first season on the south coast for Ibe, following his big move from Liverpool. He arrived in Bournemouth as the club’s record signing and there was much expected from him, especially after he’d scored four goals and set up the same number in 41 appearances during the 2015/16 season, earning high praise from both Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp. However, he had a first season which he himself has admitted he was not happy with and which he labelled as “poor”. Not once did he complete all 90 minutes in the Premier League, while the only occasion he didn’t spend any time on the bench was in the 3-0 FA Cup defeat to Millwall, after which his manager Howe said he had been “disappointed” by the summer arrival. Speaking midway through the 2016/17 season, Howe explained that inconsistency was one of Ibe’s main issues. “The only thing Jordon has struggled with has been consistency,” the coach told reporters. “He’s had some great moments, some good 10 or 15 minutes or half an hours, but he’s not really put that together for any real consistent period.”
Now, at the beginning of a new season, Howe has repeated his desire for Ibe to show what he can do on a weekly basis. “He has shown glimpses of what he is capable of before,” Howe said after last Friday night’s match. “This time you had some end product which is the pleasing thing. He is a player of immense potential and I think the challenge for Jordan is to find that consistency.”
So can Ibe live up to his manager’s expectations and show the rest of the country that he truly does have what it takes to become a Premier League great? Well, he has all of the tools necessary, as he’s quick, powerful and can send any opposition defender this way, that way and out the stadium over the English Channel. His main problem is poor decision-making in the final third, which is something that can be worked on over time – just ask Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored just four goals and had just four assists in his first 29 Premier League games for Manchester United, before taking his finishing to a ridiculously efficient level.
While Ibe may not have shown much improvement in his decision-making over the past year, it is worth remembering just how much his understanding of the game improved during his half season of regular football at Derby. Furthermore, young players’ progression is rarely lineal and they go through good years and bad years on their way to reaching the peak of their powers. The fact that the winger is only 21 means that he is still developing as a player and his football brain is due another growth spurt or two before he fully comes of age. Some seem to have written him off already, but it would be foolish to expect Ibe to be the finished article already, something his manager also mentioned in Friday’s press conference. “I do think there is a temptation to forget how young he is,” Howe said. “Everyone naturally assumes that because he has been around for a long time he is older than he is.”
Also worth keeping in mind when evaluating Ibe’s difficult 2016/17 season is the fact that he had to deal with being robbed at knifepoint last November, the after-effects of which cannot be underestimated. It would make complete sense for a young kid threatened in that way to carry that experience with him onto the football pitch.
Now, though, things are looking up for Ibe and, consequently, for Bournemouth. The next time his No.33 appears in the starting lineup or on the fourth official’s board, the Vitality Stadium will sit up in anticipation.