Had the Premier League season started on August 30, when Gary O’Neil was appointed caretaker manager of Bournemouth after the dismissal of Scott Parker, the club would be fifth in the table, just five points behind Arsenal. Bournemouth have picked up 10 points from six games under O’Neil. They have drawn four of those games but, since taking over, they are the only unbeaten team in the Premier League.
Managing a team that was expected to come straight back into the Championship (it might well have done so had Parker remained at the helm), O’Neil deserves plenty of praise. After their 9-0 loss to Liverpool, Parker said he “felt sorry for the players and felt sorry for the fans” as the team was “under-equipped at this level”.
Parker had expressed doubts about his squad before the start of the season and the club did not appreciate his criticism of what he perceived to be a lack of transfers. “I’ve been clear what this season could look like for us and I’m sticking to that,” the manager said after the game against Liverpool. “We have to make a decision and try to help this young group who sometimes find it difficult to breathe.” Rather than investing on the last day of the transfer window, the club made the decision to sack Parker.
They are now 10th in the Premier League table – level on points with the Liverpool side that beat them 9-0 – having gone unbeaten in six games. Next up is the ‘El Clasicoast’ derby against Southampton on Wednesday night and, for O’Neil and Bournemouth, the only way seems to be up – or at least not down.
O’Neil set up the team differently from his predecessor. Parker favored a three-man backline, perhaps as a form of damage limitation – as they faced Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool in the first month of the campaign – although he changed to a 4 -2-3-1 for the hammering at Anfield. , the latter game supported. O’Neil turned to a 4-4-2 to get his campaign back on track.
Philip Billing took advantage of the shapeshifting. The midfielder was in and out of the team under Parker at the start of the season, but O’Neil used his physical presence to good effect, pushing him higher up the pitch alongside or in support of leader Dominic Solanke. Under Parker, Billing has failed to score or score a goal this season, but has since netted three and added an assist under O’Neil. He is now the team’s top scorer this season.
With a more forward set-up, Bournemouth are scoring more goals and looking more confident. They take 8.3 shots per game under O’Neil, compared to 5.3 under Parker, and their conversion rate has gone from 10% to 16%. They also enjoy the ball more. Their possession this season is just 36.7% – the lowest in the Premier League – but that figure has climbed under O’Neil, from 35% before his arrival to 37.7% during his tenure.
Some of these changes are to be expected given the tough run of encounters they faced at the start of the campaign. The biggest change is the use of the ball. There was a big increase in crosses from 8.8 per game to 14.3 per game. Bournemouth concentrate just 21% of their attacks in the middle, the lowest in the Premier League. O’Neil instructed his team to pass the ball quickly to their wingers and full-backs so they could choose their two big forwards, Billing and Solanke. It might not be the prettiest approach, but it has lifted Bournemouth up the table – from the relegation zone to the top half – and it gives the club as much of a chance as anyone to stay in the Premier League.
The question now is whether or not the club should give O’Neil the job beyond his interim period. The 39-year-old has steadied the ship, but is it a purple patch under a new manager or a lasting style that can work over the next 28 games?
At least fans are enjoying a much more promising return to the Premier League than it looked six weeks ago. Many of them would have expected the club to come back down in the Championship, but that unbeaten streak gave them cause for optimism. If O’Neil can engineer his first home win against Southampton since 2016, calls to hand him the job permanently will be hard to ignore.
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