Unfortunately, Jordon Ibe’s early career would collide with Raheem Sterling’s acrimonious departure from Liverpool. As is often the way in that type of situation, in the wake of Sterling’s departure the native supporters scrambled for consolation and stumbled hastily onto Ibe.
Manchester City were accused of overpaying for Sterling and anyway, went the logic, Ibe was destined to be the better footballer.
While that thinking is easily explainable as generic fan one-upmanship, the comparison itself has always been ugly. Sterling and Ibe have never been particularly similar as players and, irrespective of trajectory, their careers were never likely to intertwine. Sterling is a finesse player, all tight turns and quick bursts, whereas Ibe is more of a thruster. He’s equipped with plenty of technique, but framed by a forcefulness which Sterling isn’t known for.
Obviously, Sterling also exists at a different level of the game, too. Re-imagined by Pep Guardiola as a more subtle, tactical weapon, he’s evolved to become one of the best players in the country, whereas Ibe has more often struggled under the weight of the large fee which took him to Bournemouth.
He hasn’t always been popular on the south-coast, either. After a desperately fallow first season at the Vitality Stadium, supporter patience looked to have bottomed out at the beginning of 2017/18. The home game with Watford back in August, which Bournemouth would lose 2-0, saw him subsituted after sixty ineffective minutes and jeered off by his own fans. Not underservedly, either. He looked like a player devoid of confidence, whose plummeting self-belief had stripped his game of all its strengths. Crosses were being mishit, runs would invariably end in defensive cul-de-sacs, and his end product was none existent.
On Sunday, Bournemouth defeated Arsenal. This is not Arsenal in the traditional, perennial contender sense, but a flimsy, Alexis Sanchez-less imitation would were there for the taking. Nevertheless, it was a superb result for Eddie Howe’s team and Ibe was central to it. His performance didn’t represent any high watermark or demand that his reputation be dramatically re-evaluated, but it did bookend a period of sustained improvement.
Ibe has produced sporadically encouraging performances before – his pair of assists against Brighton, his dynamic display against Huddersfield – but this is the richest vein of form he’s experience under Howe. Bournemouth are unbeaten in their last four Premier League games and he’s been central to that run.
Post-game on Sunday, his manager didn’t quite glow with pride, but Howe was clearly pleased for a player who has battled hard to reclaim his momentum. He presented it as a mental challenge rather than a technical one and, on the basis of how inhibited Ibe has often looked, that’s probably accurate. He’s been prone to moments of self-admonishment on the field and, at times, has clearly chosen to take fewer risks with the ball to avoid the crowd’s ire. Gradually though, the reticence is beginning to melt away.
Ibe remains a flawed player, capable of influencing games and frustrating within them, but there’s clear growth towards the sun. His winning goal against Arsenal was actually just his first for the club and consistent, measurable output is still something which eludes him, but this is an evolving player – one who is now more concerned with what he can make happen rather than the consequences of being seen to visibly fail.
The player himself warrants recognition for that, but so too does his manager. Howe is regularly praised for his effect on Bournemouth and the achievement of elavating the club to the Premier League and keeping them there. What escapes notice, however, is the gentle improvement of players who arrived with him to this level and have gradually adapted to it over time. Simon Francis, Steve Cook and Ryan Fraser were nobody’s idea of top-flight footballers a couple of seasons ago, neither were Callum Wilson or Josh King, but all of have been integral to finding stability at this new level.
Ibe is a different case, as he seemed destined for a Premier League career from a young age. The reclamation – or salvage – which has taken place, though, and which continues to embolden what once looked like a tenuous career, is great testament to both Howe’s man-management and also to his perseverance in age characterised by short-termism.
Jordon Ibe has a playing pulse once again.