Before Bournemouth take on Chelsea in the Premier League this afternoon, the Cherries players will undertake a cursory pre-match wander across the Stamford Bridge pitch. For Dominic Solanke it may be the ideal moment to reflect.
The striker spent his formative years in the Chelsea academy. He joined at under-8s, worked his way up through the various youth teams – enjoying great success along the way – and made his senior debut against Maribor in the Champions League in 2014.
Solanke appeared destined for the top. José Mourinho, not exactly a champion of young players, even went as far as to say that if the then 17-year-old – alongside Izzy Brown and Lewis Baker – didn’t go on to play for England, it would be a failing on his part.
The Portuguese said: “My conscience tells me that if, for example, Baker, Brown, and Solanke are not national team players in a few years, I should blame myself.”
Solanke did go on to play for the Three Lions – his one and only appearance coming against Brazil in 2017 – but at that point, the young striker was a Liverpool player.
He had left Chelsea earlier that year to join the Reds after his contract at Stamford Bridge expired. The Blues wanted to keep the teenager but couldn’t guarantee a pathway to the first team. Solanke wanted to shape his own destiny.
He played 552 minutes in the Premier League during the 2017/18 campaign for Liverpool but scored only one goal and claimed a sole assist. And that was despite having an expected goals total of 3.67 and an expected goals assisted figure of 2.53.
Was Solanke simply unfortunate at Anfield? Perhaps. But Jürgen Klopp’s decision to cut his first-team involvement the following season was telling. Come January 2019 the striker hadn’t made a single appearance.
So at the start of that month, he moved to Bournemouth for a somewhat questionable £19million fee.
His first eleven months at the south-coast club haven’t been easy. But with Callum Wilson ruled out and Josh King a doubt, he will almost certainly lead the Cherries attack at Stamford Bridge.
At the opposite end of the pitch will be Tammy Abraham; a long-time friend of Solanke. That’s no surprise given they rose through the youth ranks at Stamford Bridge together. But their careers are now in very different places.
Abraham is the Premier League’s second-highest scorer this term and has established himself in the England senior set-up. Solanke, meanwhile, has not scored a club goal since May 2018.
Why hasn’t Solanke, a player so prolific alongside Abraham at youth level, not been able to find the net for Bournemouth in 26 appearances?
Eddie Howe has been quick to point out that the 22-year-old is far more than just a pure finisher. “He’s a very, very intelligent player,” the Bournemouth boss told The Echo last month. “He’s technically very good and I think he helped us play some really nice football.
“I think those things and his work-rate and how he presses and all those things that, I wouldn’t say go unnoticed, but they’re not at the forefront of everyone’s mind when you look at a striker. For me, they’re just as important as the goal return.”
It’s no great surprise that Howe has defended Solanke. It would be unwise to criticise a player lacking in confidence. But while his technical quality is not in doubt, there isn’t any sign of consistent game-changing output.
Let’s for a moment forget the goals and instead focus on Solanke’s link play. He has completed only 8.83 passes in the final third per 90 minutes this season, a figure almost 150 Premier League attackers can better, and only 7.64 per 90 of those have gone forwards.
His open-play expected assists per 90 is also just 0.07. So he isn’t fashioning clear-cut opportunities on a consistent basis, although it should be noted that is a higher figure than King and Wilson (0.05) have managed this season.
Howe also praised Solanke’s pressing and the striker does win back possession in the final on 0.72 occasions per 90. But that is the same figure as Wilson and behind King (0.89) and Harry Wilson (0.82).
He is also making fewer interceptions per 90 (0.48) than King (0.54), despite coming out ahead of the two Wilsons.
But let’s go back to the key role of a frontman, especially one that Bournemouth paid £19million for. Goals. As we know, Solanke hasn’t netted this season but he has had presentable chances, as highlighted in the shot map below.
His open-play expected goals total for the campaign thus far is 1.85, not huge but enough to suggest Solanke should have scored by this point. What is telling, though, is his open-play post-shot expected goals.
This stat takes into account where a shot is taken from and where it lands on target. In essence, it is a fair indication of whether a player is clinical or not. For example, Abraham has a higher post-shot expected goals total than he does expected goals.
Solanke’s post-shot expected goals for the campaign is just 1.21. And that suggests he is devaluing his efforts on goal. It is a problem, and sadly not a new one. Last season for Bournemouth, his open-play expected goals was 0.91. His open-play post-shot expected goals, meanwhile, was 0.77.
This is almost certainly down to a lack of confidence. Solanke wouldn’t have plundered goal after goal at youth level were he not an effective finisher. That weakness would’ve been exposed long before he made the first-team at Stamford Bridge or Liverpool.
But perhaps he did leave Chelsea too soon. Perhaps, like Abraham, he would have been better off honing his craft out on loan, gaining confidence and then, if he was lucky, breaking into the Blues side like his good friend.
We can never know how Solanke’s career might have progressed had he stayed in west London, but thoughts of what could have been will surely drift into his mind when he takes to the field this afternoon.