Those of you that follow me on Twitter and have listened to my occasional ramblings on the ‘all departments‘ podcast, will know that I am incredibly positive about the football we play, our players and the management. I will champion Eddie Howe as the best young English manager around who has consistently made players better and performed miracles in his short, but productive coaching career. You’ll know that I follow the team up and down the country, and fly the flag for the Cherries in my current home town of Milton Keynes. But, I’m sure that you also know I will be critical when I think it’s deserved. Most often, that just happens to be about our defending. And also about our player recruitment.
Now, some of you will know I got it spectacularly wrong last season, with my reflections on the January transfer business of our direct rivals for promotion (most notably Derby) and our reluctance to improve the squad. I often get reminded of those podcast and twitter comments, and can laugh them off now. But, being a grumpy old so and so, those same concerns have arisen again. Have I learnt my lesson? Once bitten, twice shy? Not a bit of it – and here’s why.
I felt compelled to put something down in writing after Saturday’s game against Stoke. Not because of a knee jerk reaction to what many would agree was our worst performance of the season, but numerous defensive errors over the course of two seasons and a frailty that’s there for all to see that is really starting to concern me now.
We were the best team in the Championship last season. Fact. We won the league. But we made life incredibly difficult for ourselves due to defensive frailties that were always evident. We should have won that division by 8-10 points with the quality of the football we played (I’m not complaining by the way – just highlighting how bloody good I thought we were). Some will throw the ‘goals against’ stat at me, citing the fact we had the second best defensive record. But, let’s not forget the possession and territory stats that we enjoyed – relatively speaking, our goal was under so little pressure for most games – the concession of 45 goals was about 10 too many. In a nutshell, it was just too easy to score against us when we came under any sort of pressure.
I worry that a similar pattern is emerging this season – we don’t make it hard enough for the opposition attacking players. Stoke was a case in point. The first goal was a great strike, but it was Stoke’s first foray into our penalty area (after a shocking cross field pass from Francis that gifted them their first spell of possession). The second goal came from a huge individual error from Cook, compounded by absolutely no-one taking any responsibility in picking up Afellay. And the third was just rank bad poor marking from a cross. Interestingly with the third, it was similar to the goal conceded against Palace – we dealt with the initial ball in, but then a complete lack of organisation meant nobody picked up the goal scorer on the second phase. That’s schoolboy stuff. And it was all far to easy for a Stoke side that have been playing very poorly recently.
We have a back four that have played together for 3 or 4 years – they should have familiarity that makes them more solid. I know the skipper is out, and I think we miss his leadership and organisational skills. But, I just worry that playing at this level is a step too far for them. I also appreciate they may not get the best protection from the midfield. Playing a three in central midfield should afford them that additional protection. On too many occasions, it simply doesn’t. I love Surman to bits – when he plays well, we invariably play well – but he’s a simple passer of the football, not an enforcer or defensive midfield player. He plays the deeper role of the three, but his job is not to protect, more to keep things ticking over – which he does incredibly well mostly. So, I’m certainly not ‘blaming’ him – he’s asked to do a job and does it.
As we know, Gosling is more of a box to box type midfielder whilst After provides more attacking threat and also has a great engine. But, even so, with these three in midfield and essentially attacking players either side of them, the back four are rather left to do things on their own.
As as side point, I thought we were bloody fantastic defensively at Leicester. With ten men. With eleven we weren’t so good – the back four were exposed by Vardy’s pace and our midfield struggled to deal with Mahrez’ roaming in behind. The interesting thing about that game is that basically we played without the ball at all times after the sending off – Eddie said in his post match interview that he wanted Leicester to have the ball. He didn’t want transition phases of the play when our midfield would be out of position and our back four could be caught a little disorganised (which is when we concede numerous of our goals). It worked – we had two banks of four in place at all times and were very difficult to break down.
I know we play an expansive, attacking game and I wouldn’t want it any other way. But you can add an ‘enforcer’ type player or a ‘ball winner’ (a la Makelele at Real Madrid – but probably a little cheaper!) to add that protection without comprising those principals. Why don’t we? Or for those situations described above (the Palace goal and Stoke’s third), why don’t we have defenders that can, well, defend better? Having a more defensively minded centre half also wouldn’t compromise the attacking and passing beliefs.
Some of you may have been wondering why the title of this article is such. Well, on Saturday, I was airing my views on Twitter and I got called out by a fellow supporter, who contrary to his usual well considered and intelligent posts, suggested that I must think Eddie is useless because he didn’t sign a defender in January. I was advised that signing players is not like ‘shopping at Argos’. The inference being that Eddie may have tried to sign a defender or a central midfield player but wasn’t successful due to reasons outside of his control. That could, of course, indeed be true. But it does seem a little strange to me.
I can’t help thinking that we do seem to be able to shop in the UK’s premier catalogue shop for attacking players. We spent (reportedly) £17m on two central strikers (one of whom appears to be fourth choice at the moment) and another £1-2m on a loan signing, whilst picking him up a big chunk of his (reported) £80k per week wages. Why haven’t we put work into signing defenders or midfield players? Maybe we have, there was lots of talk about the lad Cook from Leeds, but ultimately he decided to stay at Elland Road and there probably wasn’t a lot we could do about that. But what about a back-up plan? And we didn’t hear any serious rumours of a bid for a centre half.
Yes, it’s tough to sign players that will improve a premier league squad. But, we seemed to have had around £20m to spend in January. The £10m on Afobe was probably a no-brainer – we needed a new, central attacker who can score goals. But why add a winger and another striker? And if that other £10m had been used to sign a centre half or central midfield player, then having that sum of money available meant that we could have picked up a top quality player (or two). I’m not forgetting wages – Grabban cannot be on much less than £25-£30k a week after his short spell in Norfolk, whilst Iturbe’s wages are substantial (albeit we are not paying all of them). If we had prioritised signing a more defensively minded player instead of these two, wages shouldn’t have been a stumbling block to a signing.
Most of the readers of this will also be fortunate enough to live in or around Bournemouth – one of the most desirable places to live in the UK. So, all in all, a move to the South Coast to play your football is hardly a tough sell. Especially when compared to a move to Sunderland (anyone with recent experience of visiting Wearside will know what I mean).
I also appreciate that January is not the easiest time to do business. Fees can be over inflated (Grabban??) and teams don’t want to sell. But what about last summer? I was not the only one asking for a new centre half, claiming it would be vital to our survival this season. We ended up with Distin, who now appears to be fourth choice centre half (behind Cook, Elphick and Francis). What was the point? We had over three months to identify and get our targets last summer. What happened? Either Eddie thought what we had was good enough, or our recruitment and scouting network is flawed. I know we signed Mings, and some have said that was maybe with a view to moving him into the centre of the back four. I can see that argument, but not this season – no way was a young, raw left back going to go up against Aguero, Costa et al (or even Agbonlahor) in his first season in the Premier League.
I’m not forgetting the horrendous injury problems we’ve faced this season. I reckon with Wilson and Gradel fit, we’d have scored enough goals to get us comfortably mid-table – even with those same defensive concerns. What Eddie has done since the realisation at half time at St Mary’s that something has to change is nothing short of remarkable. The quite marvellous run in December and performances since then have generally been good. We’ve spent a pittance compared to other sides in the division, and yet without our top goalscorer, captain and two record signings (before January) we’re still clear of the relegation zone. That’s down to good coaching and belief instilled in the squad that we are good enough. The players are obviously the ones that do it on the pitch, but Eddie is the catalyst for all that – he is a quite brilliant coach.
But, I still think we could be better. That’s not overly critical, but based on what I’ve seen and much of my comment above. I honestly don’t think any fan wouldn’t want us to be better. And looking at our squad at the start of January, ask yourself how could we have got better?
- Sign a new striker. Tick
- Sign a new (and possibly different type) central midfield player. Fail
- Sign a new centre back. Fail
Did we need to sign a new winger? Probably not, although as a loan signing, there’s possibly an argument for doing it. Although it has probably taken around £3m in fees and wages to do it.
Having said all of that, I still think we can stay up with the players we have. We have some very winnable games between now and the end of the season and assuming we don’t put in too many performances as poor as Saturday, then we’ll be just fine. Albeit, we could have made it a bit easier for ourselves!
I’ve never been on the inside of a football club (apart from Corfe Mullen United juniors in the early 1980’s – which was probably more political than AFCB) and I don’t believe for one minute that things are easy. But I do have an opinion on what I see from the outside. That opinion may or may not be considered correct by some people, but I just sincerely hope people can see that all I want is the best for AFC Bournemouth.