This is a story about how Eddie Howe still hasn’t got a job at a big club and will spend another summer in 2019 waiting by the phone with it determinedly not ringing.
What’s more, they deserved to be there. This wasn’t one of those teams who’d nicked a couple of lucky goals here and there, powered by an obscure Brazilian attacking midfielder (looking at you, fifth-at-the-end-of-October-2008-but-only-won-two-games-during-the-rest-of-the-season Hull City).
Across the Cherries’ first ten games this season, their expected goals stats were safely in the top seven on both sides of the ball. They were boosted by a few penalties, but it still held true just looking at their open-play chances too (1.5 per game for; 1.1 per game against).
This is not the Bournemouth we’re all used to: aiming to play attractive football but not good enough at it to make up for defensive frailties.
Now, with an extra two months of the season gone by, they’re upper-midtable for expected goals in attack (1.35 per game, excluding penalties) and lower-midtable in defence (1.44 per game). That’s the Bournemouth of old. They’re now 12th, equidistant from the top four and the relegation zone.
There are contributing factors to this. Their fixture schedule was almost obscenely pleasant to start the season. They only faced one ‘big’ team in the first ten games of the season (Chelsea).
To the concern of Howe and fantasy football managers everywhere, Callum Wilson has been a major sufferer from this change of fixture-based fortunes.
When the final whistle went on Bournemouth’s defeat against Manchester United in early November, Wilson was averaging 0.54 expected goals per 90 minutes. A kind-hearted soul, he was also setting up chances worth 0.29 expected goals per 90. Only Gabriel Jesus, Sergio Agüero, Mohamed Salah, and Érik Lamela could boast better figures in both categories.
Since then, those figures are down to 0.27 and 0.1. This is just below average for Premier League strikers on both counts, and calls for his inclusion in a future England squad seem to be drying up.
Whether anything tangible has changed, beyond the fixture schedule, is hard to tell.
A 2-1 defeat to Newcastle back in November is the only eye-catching result in the past two months. A 2-0 loss at the Molineux was disappointing for Bournemouth, but with Wolves as good as they are, it wasn’t hugely surprising.
Injuries have also hit. They’ll be without Simon Francis now, but they’ve already been missing starters Adam Smith and Lewis Cook, as well as principal rotation option Dan Gosling.
Has this impacted performance or style as well? Their persona radar – which looks at how a team or person plays stylistically – would suggest that they’re attacking slower than at the start of the season.
This could still be a symptom of playing better teams and this writer must confess that the televisions in Football Whispers Towers don’t air much Bournemouth.
This change of fortunes for Bournemouth has another implication, beyond the South Coast itself.
When Manchester United play Bournemouth this weekend, it will be seen as Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s first real test. A José Mourinho-led United might not have beaten Cardiff and Huddersfield by an 8-2 aggregate, but they’d have still picked up six points.
But Bournemouth aren’t the ‘challenging for Europe’ test that they looked at the start of the season. They’re the ‘pretty but flawed’ midtable Bournemouth that they’ve always been.