Bournemouth rarely do things the easy way.
This is a club that secured automatic promotion to the Premier League last year through a Kieffer Moore goal in the penultimate game of the regular season, did their summer transfer business in the winter window and, perhaps most notably, avoided settlement at the end. 2008 time.
But this season Bournemouth worked differently. After Gary O’Neil was appointed permanent manager in November, the team went on a nine-game winless streak in all competitions. Despite improvements during that run, culminating in a 1-1 draw at Eddie Howe’s Newcastle last week, Bournemouth were unable to convert those improvements into the three points they desperately needed.
O’Neil named a full-strength team against Wolves on Saturday, just to see how his side worked.
But after weeks of losing beautifully, Bournemouth finally found a way to win ugly.
Marcus Tavernier returned to the starting line-up for the first time since the World Cup in place of left-back Jaidon Anthony and while that seemed the obvious change for O’Neil on paper, it quickly became the first sign that Bournemouth were ready again to the hard things before they got better.
Anthony and left-back Jordan Zemura went through Bournemouth’s academy together and developed an almost telepathic understanding of each other’s game. As Anthony turns inside with his stronger right foot, Zemura thunders over the overlap, forcing the opposition scorer to commit.
But with Tavernier, that connection with Zemura seemed non-existent. Both players prefer to use their left foot while playing down the left, so variation in attacking movement has been sorely lacking for a side that relies on creating chances through counter attacks.
Bournemouth’s chances at half-time in the first half disappeared in a flash: 14 minutes into the game, goalkeeper Neto caught Joao Moutinho’s corner and looked to counter, but regretted the lack of progress in front of him and was obliged. to go short instead.
Just a few minutes later, Tavernier broke through in a similar situation and played a pass to Dominic Solanke. But the forward looked overwhelmed by the options around him, beating the ball just as Zemura was entering the box on his left.
The epitome of Bournemouth’s first-half frustrations came just before the half-hour mark as two separate chances were wasted, allowing Wolves to start a counter of their own. Midfielder Hamed Traore and Tavernier were in a two-on-two situation in transition, but neither looked comfortable holding up Wolves’ goal. They exchanged a couple of fumbled and misplaced passes before the play ran out of steam. Usually a moderate presence on the sideline, O’Neil threw his arms in the air and kicked the turf.
As Wolves recovered, winger Dango Ouattara’s pass missed Traore’s outstretched leg, but Tavernier looked strangely letting the ball roll past him and into the path of Adama Traore, who rose from one area to the other before Philip Billing cut it back to halt Wolves’ momentum.
Bournemouth’s sloppiness was not limited to attacking situations either. Billing and Tavernier turned the ball over in their own third, which only increased the pressure on their goal. After taking European-bound Newcastle to the limit seven days earlier, Bournemouth struggled to get even the basics right against fellow relegation strugglers Wolves and completed just 76.2 per cent of their short passes in the game, his lowest percentage this season.
Wolves smelled blood and finished the half sprinting after loose balls that looked destined to go out of play, while Bournemouth could only weather each storm. Had the hosts been more clinical, the game could have been out of sight long before Bournemouth had a chance to turn things around.
But five minutes into the second half, a trademark Solanke cut-back met Tavernier’s thigh and Bournemouth scored with their first shot on target. The question now was whether O’Neil would look to hold on to a one-goal lead as he did in the 1-1 draw against Nottingham Forest in January or capitalize on it as he did against Newcastle a week earlier. He decided to go with a little bit of both.
Anthony came on for Tavernier just before the hour mark and Zemura’s attacking appetite instantly increased, making Bournemouth much more threatening down the left flank. Striker Antoine Semenyo replaced Ouattara soon after and did brilliantly to draw free-kicks, protect the ball in advanced areas and continue to be an outlet in the latter stages, proving he is exactly the type of player Bournemouth need from the bench to maintain the quality of their attacks. .
Wolves made five substitutions in 15 minutes and Bournemouth were in danger of letting another lead slip away. But the introduction of defenders Chris Mepham and Matias Vina in the final 10 minutes saw the team withdraw into an impenetrable low 5-4-1 lock as Wolves desperately launched crosses into the area to no avail.
In the end, Bournemouth won a Premier League game in which they had just one shot on target for the first time since September 2016 against Everton (1-0). Despite other results not going their way, O’Neil’s side moved a point above the relegation zone. With Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool arriving in the next three weeks, this was the perfect opportunity for Bournemouth to return to winning ways.
But if Saturday’s game taught us anything, it’s that if Bournemouth can win after a performance like that, they have a fighting chance of avoiding relegation.
(Top photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)