June 19th 2023, was a day to remember for Cherries fans, a day that sent shock waves even through other fan bases. Gary O’Neil after a remarkable 22/23 season that saw Bournemouth stay in the league despite all the odds was axed and replaced with current manager Andoni Iraola. Such was the disdain for the apparent sacking of a man many believed deserved his spot, perhaps if not for the availability of Iraola whose contract has recently run out after 3 seasons at Rayo Vallecano, he’d have kept his job, Bournemouth though had a long term strategy in mind in bringing in a young manager who had a history of extracting high value from his sides, Leeds tried to bring in Iraola earlier on in the season but it wasn’t meant to be.
To understand Bournemouth’s recent upturn in form one must understand how Iraola sets up his teams. Rayo were a high-octane counter-pressing and quick transitions juggernaut, boasting the second-highest turnovers and 3rd highest PPDA (9.5), but they were also a team that played with variation, an opportunistic side, oftentimes reacting to the opposition in the way they set up, yet they’d never compromise on this tenacity.
Now slowly but surely Bournemouth are starting to resemble an Iraola side, they’re not only pressing more, as reflected in their data, but they’ve become more dangerous out wide, be it through crosses directly into the box or cutbacks. Here is a perfect example with Rayo in the 2022/23 season at home to Real Madrid.
This sequence starts from the fullback winning the ball in the middle of the pitch.
It is then followed up almost immediately by a through pass up the field. Off the ball, the other players are positioned to vertically attack the box as opposed to lateral movement to provide passing options. This is because Iraola prioritizes direct and quick transitions.
Ultimately, this sequence ends in an easily convertible chance for midfielder Santi Comesana.
In the recent draw against an in-form Aston Villa side, there is a similarity to the sequence against Real Madrid, a turnover comes as a direct result of a mid press, this time from fullback Milos Kerkez.
Kerkez makes a vertical carry to the byline, and similar to the structure at Rayo against Madrid, the players off the ball maintain a vertical body language rather than trying to maintain proximity to the player with the ball.
Bournemouth, just like Rayo under Iraola, are also opportunistic in their tactical setup, their pressing patterns can often be dictated by their opponents, for example then though they tend to trigger their press in the middle third (with 46% of their ball recoveries coming from there). When playing Manchester United, who have one of the sloppiest build up structures this season they oftentimes pressed high up, with one of such instances resulting in a goal.
Here is an example in United’s build-up: Lewis Cook recognizes the technical limitation of Scott McTominay and wins the loose ball, gaining possession in a dangerous area.
Even though Cook is neither a fullback nor a winger, the principles of play remain the same as he takes it wide for an eventual pass for Dominic Solanke to finish off.
Although not coming just short of a goal, this sequence starts with yet another turnover, this time from a mid-press.
The pass is played through to Antoine Semenyo who recognises Solanke’s run.
Solanke hits the post, but in just two passes, Bournemouth almost added to their tally in the game.
The early poor run of form could be taken as the growing pains of a side adjusting to a new way of football, one that requires a great deal of tenacity combined with effective pragmatism. In the post game interview, the Cherries manager alluded to his opportunistic tactical setups “[United] send a lot of players forward so you will get spaces. We knew they would make our wingers run backwards, but we knew when we could recover high our forwards would have space. We knew in transitions we would have our chances and we took them.”
There was a reason Leeds were so keen to get him on board last season, not just because he’s a Marcelo Bielsa disciple having played under him, as well as similarities in play, but because he knows how to extract high value from lesser quality. This season, Solanke looks every bit the player invested so much in when he moved over from Liverpool in 2019, his confidence levels have clearly risen and it’s paying dividends.
For the rest of the season in as much as wide attacks, heavy fullback involvement, mid and high pressing, quick transitions and high turnover will call continue to be a theme, Andoni Iraola will still set this Bournemouth side up with different dynamics from one opposition to the next in what should be a an optimistic season for the Cherries.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / AFC Bournemouth