Despite the 4-0 hammering at home to relegation rivals West Ham on Sunday, Gary O’Neil has turned the tide on the south coast and has the Cherries in a solid position to avoid relegation from the Premier League.
When Bournemouth landed back in English football’s top flight back in August, many had them as favourites to go straight back down to the Championship. Pundits, journalists, and content creators alike had written them off before a ball was kicked, and it looked to be an accurate assessment after the club picked up just three points from their opening four fixtures, shipping sixteen goals with a response of just two in the process.
The Cherries had been tasked with an almost impossible assignment as Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool stood before them in the first month of the season. There were whispers of unrest in the dressing room and doubt over Parker’s future in the lead up the 9-0 demolition at Anfield, which inevitably turned out to be true as the former Fulham boss was sacked after calling out the club’s ownership model live on national television.
Shades of a previous regime under Eddie Howe began to resurface as the team lacked direction, purpose, and a clear vision of where they wanted to go and how they intended on getting there. As the club looked for Parker’s replacement, Assistant Coach Gary O’Neil stepped in to take the reins. Initially on a temporary basis, O’Neil’s position was heavily scrutinised by many segments of the media and even the club’s own fanbase, but it didn’t take long for the doubters to warm to him as he led them six matches unbeaten in his opening six fixtures.
A dominant first-half display against fierce rivals Southampton laid down the blueprint for what O’Neil’s philosophy was all about in the subsequent fixture, but the Cherries couldn’t make the most of their superiority and lost 1-0 on the day at the Vitality Stadium.
It wasn’t of any surprise that a club with such a low budget in comparison to the rest were bound to struggle in a league separated by nation-state ownership and lucrative television contracts. Bournemouth, however, seem to be the exception to the rule and have propelled themselves out of a group of sides such as Leicester, Nottingham Forest and Leeds all languishing in fatal territory.
After a positive start, O’Neil’s side were brought back down to earth and suffered four consecutive Premier League defeats before dismantling fellow strugglers Everton twice in a five-day period. Defeats the followed to the likes of Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Manchester United with The Cherries very much in the conversation for the drop.
As much as there was worry about what might happen to Bournemouth at the end of the season, there also seemed to be optimism amongst those invested in the club. O’Neil had brought stability, a vision and confidence in his players that they could in fact become a Premier League mainstay. Throughout the season, the Cherries have put up a fight, most notably in that incredible match at the Emirates back in March as they raced into an early lead just nine seconds in. This was then followed by a crucial victory at home to a struggling Liverpool side.
O’Neil had made a slight change to the setup after the humiliation at Anfield back in August and put Phillip Billing back into the setup. The Dane had been in and out of the team under Parker and had no specific role, but a birth of good form and consistency has rejuvenated a player with an undeniable talent capacity. Often deployed as a second striker, Billing has provided Gary O’Neil’s side with a presence, an ability to finish and a monster mentality to drag his team from adversity.
Playing just behind Dominic Solanke, Billing offers a constant threat of popping up in various positions across the front line and supporting his partner in crime. The Dane also tends to overperform on his metrics and has notched seven Premier League goals this season from 3.8 xG (expected goals). Standing at just shy of six feet and four inches, Billing has become the catalyst for Bournemouth’s ascent through the Premier League table and Gary O’Neil will need his star man to continue in such a rich vein of form.
O’Neil’s side now travel to fierce rivals Southampton on Thursday night for a crucial tie at the bottom of the table. The Cherries will have the opportunity to pull seven points clear from Leicester City in eighteenth and further cement their status as a top-flight club for another season.
Bournemouth have often been branded a ‘yoyo’ club over the years due to numerous relegations from the Premier League immediately followed by promotion. The club seem to be too good for the second division yet not quite good enough to be amongst the elite. However, this could simply be down to the notion of stability after Scott Parker departed the club in August. Parker was backed by the ownership model in the summer and brought in twelve players with a net spend of £83,000,000.
Not only did he ruin his relationship with the club’s hierarchy, he also seemed to destroy the rapport he had built with his players the previous season, which only reaffirms the excellent work Gary O’Neil has done since stepping in.
The difference in confidence the Bournemouth players have exhibited since Parker’s departure has been stark, although the club are still locked in a relegation battle with six games to go. The magic ‘forty’ point mark isn’t too far away and on the balance of probability, O’Neil’s side look like they might just survive based on the form of those around them and margins alike.
By: Tom Norton / @tomnorton_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA / Getty Images