To say it has been an eventful 15 months at Bournemouth would be an understatement.
When Scott Parker was sacked in August 2022 following a 9-0 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool, there weren’t many who would have seen Gary O’Neil as a realistic candidate to replace him. But after a period as caretaker manager, he was given the job on a permanent basis in November when the league broke up for the World Cup, though he was still seen by many as a risky appointment. When he got the job, Bournemouth were three points above the drop zone with just four wins from 15 games.
Then, a poor run in the early part of 2023 saw Bournemouth sink to the bottom of the table by early March. Everyone who had said O’Neil was a poor appointment nodded their heads in smug contentment. They should never have got rid of Parker – the manager who won them promotion to the Premier League – they said.
But then came an unexpected upturn in form and fortunes in the spring, and a run of six wins in nine games that took them not quite to mathematical safety, but as good as with four games of the season still remaining. It was an extraordinary turn of events, and neither the first nor – crucially – the last of a turbulent year at the Vitality Stadium.
In the final few games of 2022-23, O’Neil told his players not to rest on their laurels and keep up their form, and also spoke openly about how he was already planning for next season. Meanwhile, the Bournemouth hierarchy were plotting a change. In June, O’Neil was sacked to pretty much universal shock. A few days later, Andoni Iraola was installed as the new manager.
Iraola was largely unheard of in England. It was a huge gamble, but as we’d learned over the previous year, Bournemouth are a club ready to take risks.
Results under Iraola haven’t been very promising so far. Bournemouth find themselves back in the relegation zone, second-from-bottom of the table as one of only two teams – along with Sheffield United – yet to win a single game. According to the latest update to our relegation Premier League predictions for the season, Bournemouth’s most likely final position is 18th, which would of course spell relegation once again.
The sight of O’Neil’s Wolves tearing it up against Manchester United on the opening weekend of the season, racking up the second-most shots by a visiting side at Old Trafford (23) in recorded history (since 2003-04), or them beating a previously perfect Manchester City a couple of weeks ago, won’t have done much to convince those who doubted Iraola’s appointment that the club made the right decision.
Bournemouth’s risk-taking in appointing O’Neil paid off, though, and those of a more optimistic persuasion might believe the club has a higher ceiling under Iraola than they did under the former Portsmouth midfielder. The Spaniard was an extremely exciting appointment in the summer.
Basque-born Iraola spent almost his entire playing career with Athletic Club, and played under some recognisable names, including Ernesto Valverde and Javier Clemente, while he was also the captain of Marcelo Bielsa’s impressive side that made it to the final of the 2011-12 Europa League final. More recently, he has built up a reputation as a progressive young manager in Spain’s second division. He took Mirandés, newly promoted to the second tier, to the semi-final of the Copa del Rey, beating top-tier sides in Sevilla, Celta Vigo and Villarreal along the way, before moving to Rayo Vallecano, who he led to promotion to La Liga in his first season with the club.
Iraola guided Rayo to 11th place in the Spanish top flight last season, beating both Real Madrid and Barcelona along the way.
He brings an attack-minded style of play to the south coast, but there is also a pragmatism to his philosophy.
“I want our games to always have two directions,” he said while in charge at Rayo. “So even if at times you feel you’re being dominated, as will happen against [the likes of] Barcelona and Madrid, they’re always worried about us.
“I’d love to play in the same way all the time, but we’re not good [enough] to do that. [Depending on] how the opponent pressures us, we’ll take more or less risks… if the opponent allows us to build, we prefer to play out on the ground. Because at the top level, only playing direct, only playing on the counter, isn’t going to cut it. It’s not enough. You need something more.”
It is fair to say that, so far at least, we are yet to see much return on the promise he brought to England, at least in terms of results. But there have been some positive signs, at least.
Iraola has put a lot of focus on pressing in his early days at Bournemouth. His side rank second in the Premier League for pressures in the final third (641, or per game 80.1) behind Newcastle (81 per game), showing that they have at least been trying to win the ball back or force mistakes high up the pitch. They drop down the league when it comes to the effectiveness of their press, though, ranking fifth for final-third pressures resulting in a turnover (118, or 14.8 per game).
Some of those turnovers would have come in defensive parts of the pitch after, say a Bournemouth forward pressures the ball-carrier into a misplaced long pass that a defender gathers. When it comes to regains made high up the pitch, Bournemouth rank even lower, with their total of 68 high turnovers (regains made within 40m of the opposition’s goal line) the 11th highest total. There is intent there, and the players are working hard to try and win the ball back, but too often that hard work is going unrewarded.
However, when they do regain possession, they often do good things with it. Iraola’s side rank sixth for high turnovers leading to a shot (13) and third for high turnovers leading to a goal (2). Given they have only scored five goals in total all season – making them the league’s lowest-scoring side – 40% of their goals have therefore followed a high turnover. No other side has scored more than 19% of their goals after winning the ball back high up the pitch.
Only Newcastle (2.0 xG) have generated more expected goals from chances following a high turnover in the Premier League this season than Bournemouth (1.9) – meaning they are more or less matching their xG following high turnovers – while only Newcastle (0.18) and Aston Villa (0.17) are averaging a higher xG per shot following a high turnover than Bournemouth (0.15). Pressing was always going to be a big part of what Iraola did, and there are plenty of signs of growth on that front.
Bournemouth have failed to find the net often enough this season, but their underlying numbers give further reason for positivity. That’s because they are creating far more chances than their goal tally suggests. Only Everton (-5.9) and Chelsea (-4.2) have underperformed compared to their expected goals (xG) to a greater extent than Bournemouth (-3.9), suggesting that with some better finishing, their fortunes might pick up a little.
Those numbers provide little context, though. There is no allowance for game state, for example. Bournemouth have gone behind at some point in all but one of their matches – the goalless draw with Chelsea – and will have therefore been chasing the game for large parts of the season. And all five of their losses have been by more than a single goal – other than Burnley (also five), no other team has lost more than three games by two or more goals, even Sheffield United, who lost one game 8-0.
They are underperforming their xG by roughly 0.5 goals per game. Creating enough chances to score between zero and one goal more than you should have is all well and good, but that isn’t going to make a great deal of difference if you’re losing 4-0 to Arsenal one week and 3-0 to Everton the next.
Which brings us on to the biggest problem for Iraola’s Bournemouth: the defence.
They have the third-worst defensive record in the league, shipping 18 goals so far, and the second worst when it comes to expected goals against (18.8), behind Sheffield United (19.8). It will come as no surprise that they rank third from bottom for shots conceded (147) and shots on target faced (52).
They are committing men forward to their press and getting picked off too easily when the opposition beat that press which, as we’ve established, is happening rather often. And because they have been chasing games so much this season, they have to throw players forward. It’s a recipe that just isn’t working so far.
But we may be about to find out a little more about Bournemouth’s survival credentials under Iraola as they come into a crucial – and easier, on paper – run of games.
Before the start of the season, we used our Power Rankings to chart which teams had the easiest and hardest first five and 10 games of 2023-24. Bournemouth, who faced West Ham (H), Liverpool (A), Tottenham (H), Brentford (A) and Chelsea (H) to kick off the campaign, had the second most difficult opening five matches. With Arsenal (H) and Brighton (A) in their next five games, they were also deemed to have the second-hardest opening 10 matches.
The defeat at Everton last time out will have been particularly disappointing because Iraola would have been looking at it as an ideal opportunity to show that tougher opposition has been the main reason for his slow start on the south coast. What transpired, though, was Bournemouth being totally outplayed and deserving their loss.
That result makes the next two games even more important. Wolves travel to the Vitality Stadium on Saturday – the reunion with O’Neil adds to the narrative – before Burnley come to town a week later. With Manchester City (A), Newcastle (H), Aston Villa (H) and Manchester United (A) all to come in the six fixtures that follow, it’s not an exaggeration to say Iraola needs wins in at least one – if not both – of the next two games.
It may be that this run of matches tells us whether Bournemouth were right to ditch O’Neil and bring Iraola in.