Guardian writers’ predicted position: 13th (NB: this is not necessarily Ben Fisher’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 16th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 1,000-1
Eddie Howe certainly now has the answer to a question posed to him on the eve of Bournemouth’s promotion to the top flight 14 months ago. “Is this a club ready for the Premier League?” he was asked, and Howe, always polished, smiled wryly before pausing, lost for words. “I don’t know. I really don’t know the answer to that question,” he said.
Bournemouth bulldozed suggestions that their style of play would lead to an immediate return to the Championship by securing a 16th-placed finish, five points above the relegation zone. Even those who predicted safety had not assumed it would happen in such style, winning at Stamford Bridge and beating Manchester United at Dean Court along the way. Bournemouth were not raffle winners either but worthy winners.
They should be and have been commended for their punchy, attacking football and their tireless work ethic is admirable. “That first team I inherited had an outstanding team spirit and, when I look at all my Bournemouth teams through the years, that has been the consistent factor: the attitude of the players, the togetherness, that has never gone from League Two, League One to the Championship,” said Howe in April last year. “The fact they are willing to die for each other on the pitch is so important.” The 38-year-old can safely add his evolving Premier League team to that list.
Bournemouth are gearing up for their second year in the top division after surviving a hugely testing first campaign. The club’s second successive pre-season tour to the United States, the £15m club-record signing of Jordon Ibe from Liverpool and Howe’s status as one of the game’s best English coaches are appropriate markers of the club’s progress. While in Chicago, the players enjoyed a spot of paddleboard yoga on Lake Michigan by day and swayed to Adele by night. The season Howe returned to Bournemouth from Burnley, the club’s pre-season tour revolved around Dorset and they played friendlies against Poole Town and Wimborne Town. In 2013 the club’s record transfer fee was £2.5m, for the South Africa striker Tokelo Rantie. A lot has changed.
Bournemouth are a dangerous, relentless force under Howe and should not be underestimated, though he has never been one to reflect on or bask in past successes and as a result there have been personnel changes. Tommy Elphick and Matt Ritchie, key cogs in Bournemouth’s rise from League One under Howe, have left for traditionally bigger clubs, now in the division below – Aston Villa and Newcastle United respectively.
In terms of new faces Bournemouth’s work in the transfer market this summer has arguably been some of the most exciting in the country. Before the arrivals of Ibe and Brad Smith from Liverpool Howe landed his long-term target Lewis Cook, an England Under-19 international from Leeds United, and the France Under-20 striker Lys Mousset for a modest £5.4m from Le Havre, who have a habit of nurturing a good player or two. Dimitri Payet and Riyad Mahrez excelled in Normandy and Paul Pogba spent two years in their youth team.
“It does not hurt when their pedigree is a good one and you know they have come from a good home,” said Howe. “Lys does not speak fluent English yet – it’s bitty – but we have a few French-speaking players in the squad so he’s not alone. He is an exciting player, a lovely lad and he wants to achieve success. He has got the raw ingredients: he’s strong, powerful and he knows where the goal is; he’s got a ferocious shot on him. I think the future looks very bright for him.”
The signings are typical – young and hungry – but Howe will hope they make a significantly bigger impact than last year’s, with Glenn Murray, Lee Tomlin, Christian Atsu, Sylvain Distin and Adam Federici making 24 league starts between them. Of those only Federici starts this season at the club, as back-up to Artur Boruc.
Bournemouth were naive at times last season but quickly grew in stature. There is always room for improvement, though, and Howe, meticulous and thorough, would say so himself. At times they lacked a Plan B and defensively there is work to do.
Only Villa, who finished bottom, conceded more goals last season and another relegated side, Newcastle, kept more clean sheets than Howe’s men. Bournemouth’s backline was too often leaky and frail. They were hit for five twice – in consecutive matches – by Manchester City and then Tottenham Hotspur. Worryingly, Howe is yet to sign a central defender this summer, with the versatile loan signing Nathan Aké understood to be keen on being deployed as a midfielder, after spending much of last season on loan at Watford at left-back. The departure of the club captain Elphick has left Steve Cook as the only recognised centre-back, although Simon Francis, who has taken over the armband, was a standout performer after shifting inside from right-back to play alongside Cook for much of last season.
Another option is the England Under-20 defender Baily Cargill, whose loan spell at Coventry City was disrupted by injury last season but is highly rated by Howe. Tyrone Mings is close to full fitness after picking up an anterior cruciate ligament injury six minutes into his debut last August. Although considered a left-back, it would be no surprise if the 6ft 5in Mings were preferred in the centre of defence. Bournemouth’s rise has made the gap between the first team and the development squad bigger than ever but the youngsters Matt Butcher and Corey Jordan are interesting options within the squad.
Bournemouth are well stocked in midfield, with Andrew Surman, who played every minute in the Premier League, and Harry Arter deservedly earning plaudits last season. Dan Gosling, Eunan O’Kane, Shaun MacDonald and the new signings Cook and Emerson Hyndman provide Howe with options in the middle. On the flanks the club’s longest-serving player, Marc Pugh, was at his industrious best last year, while Junior Stanislas, Max Gradel and Ibe ensure pace there.
Attack may still prove to be the best form of defence, though. Callum Wilson is desperate to prove he can perform at the highest level over the course of 38 matches, after succumbing to a cruel injury in September last year, and Joshua King was the club’s best performer in the second half of the season. Benik Afobe, who scored three times in his first four matches, should return a savvier striker too, after a disappointing end to the season.
Manchester United at home is possibly both the most exciting and most difficult opening game they could have, although Bournemouth have a habit of upsetting the odds. United and Bournemouth are much changed since May but there will be an air of familiarity after the teams played each other on the final day of last season – albeit in bizarre circumstances after the initial fixture was postponed because of security fears.
After that it is West Ham United at the Olympic Stadium. A good start would naturally make life a little easier. After losing at home to Aston Villa on the opening day last year, they won only two matches until kickstarting their season with a brilliant December. Quite what Zlatan Ibrahimovic will make of the 11,464-capacity Dean Court, a stadium with still only three permanent stands, following the decision to delay the redevelopment of the South Stand, remains to be seen.
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