Eddie Howe was surprisingly despondent after the game at Stamford Bridge. His Bournemouth team had lost 2-0 to Chelsea, suffering their first defeat of the season, but the performance given had been worth at least a point.
He was reinforcing a standard, perhaps. Head-coaches are tasked with ensuring that as few excuses as possible exist and maybe this was Howe setting an example. There were no platitudes or pats on the back, just an honest assessment: Bournemouth had had chances to win the game, but they didn’t.
Still, a dispassionate conclusion would be more complimentary: Howe’s players were actually excellent and, while representing a literal regression from last season’s surprise win on the same ground, this was further evidence of their growth.
There is a caveat here. Chelsea are not the finished article yet under Mauricio Sarri and they are still adjust to a life beyond Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3. David Luiz looked particularly suspect in a back-four and Jorginho, fine player though he clearly is, is still taking gentle steps within his new home. Those are problems which manifest all over the pitch – in attack, where Chelsea continue to look blunt and imaginative, and in midfield and defence, where the side remains worrying porous.
Nevertheless, Howe diagnosed those issues extremely well on Saturday and came very close to exploiting them fully. In previous seasons, Bournemouth’s defence has often exhibited a clear lack of organisation and opponents with gifted playmakers and plenty of width have found it simple to cut through and beyond them. Not this weekend, though. A feature of their resistance was its structure; the backline dropped deep in their own half, but it was rarely frantic or desperate. In fact, aside from Marcos Alonso striking the post in the first half and a few isolated efforts from range, they denied Chelsea any truly clear cut chances – even the goal, when it eventually came, was a low-percentage effort which relied on a deflection to beat Asmir Begovic.
Alvaro Morata was isolated and rendered irrelevant while, though he would eventually score, Eden Hazard spent much of the game dancing and twisting in front of the defence, met almost every time he touched the ball by two Bournemouth players.
It was interesting to watch, not least because it came at the end of a week which began with Rafael Benitez being criticised for his negative approach against Manchester City. Defending deep is always assumed to be a soft option and as part of an unimaginative gameplan which even the most limited coach is capable of enacting. But that’s not really true – and this was the reminder. Bournemouth didn’t get anything for their effort, but what that crowd saw was the evidence of an entire week’s worth of work. Clearly, every visiting player who started that game had had his responsibilities relentlessly drilled into him and the consequence was the kind of resistance which this side – and this manager – aren’t necessarily known for.
Where the parallels with Newcastle ended, though, was in the threat which they managed to balance with that stifling. Bournemouth were excellent on the counter and, again, that strategy had evidently been aimed precisely at Chelsea’s vulnerabilities. The build up phases were quick and vertical, targeting the issues Sarri has had in fortifying the middle of his team, and the pace of Josh King and Callum Wilson was employed to great effect. It was telling, for instance, that the most dramatic intervention of the first-half was actually made by N’Golo Kante, who made up almost 60 yards to deny Wilson what would have been a very fine, breaking goal.
Later, Ryan Fraser should have done much better with his own effort and, without question, Nathan Ake had to score from practically underneath the crossbar.
Howe was probably right to be downcast – after all, what purpose does it serve to publicly praise players who have just lost? That rarely leads to anything good. But, away from the press, he’ll privately reflect on his increasing ability to shape games and his side’s ability to exert themselves upon them. This is a team and a manager who are growing together. His ceiling will likely be higher than theirs, but both are heading towards something good.
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