Had the Premier League season started on 30 August, when Gary O’Neil was appointed Bournemouth manager on a caretaker basis following Scott Parker’s dismissal, 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 he took over, they are the only unbeaten team in the Premier League.
Managing a side that had been expected to drop straight back into the Championship (they may well have done had Parker remained at the helm), O’Neil deserves a lot of praise. After their 9-0 defeat by 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 season started and the club did not appreciate his criticism of what he perceived to be a lack of transfers. “I have been clear how this season could look for us and I stick by that,” said the manager after the Liverpool game. “We need to make a decision and try to help this young group who at times are struggling for air.” Rather than investing on the final 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 team 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 appears to be up – or at least not down.
O’Neil has set the team up differently than his predecessor. Parker favoured 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 – though he moved to a 4-2-3-1 for the hammering at Anfield, that last game in charge. O’Neil has turned to a 4-4-2 to get their campaign back on track.
Philip Billing has benefited from the change in shape. The midfielder was in and out of the team under Parker at the start of the season, but O’Neil has utilised his physical presence to good effect, pushing him further up the pitch alongside or in support of frontman Dominic Solanke. Under Parker, Billing failed to score or set up a goal this season, but he has since scored three and added an assist under O’Neil. He is now the team’s top scorer this season.
With a more forward-thinking setup, Bournemouth are scoring more goals and looking more confident. They are taking 8.3 shots per game under O’Neil, up from 5.3 under Parker, and their conversion rate has risen from 10% to 16%. They are also enjoying more of the ball. 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 he arrived to 37.7% during his tenure.
Some of these changes are to be expected given the tough run of fixtures they faced at the start of the campaign. The biggest change is use of the ball. There has been a hefty rise in crosses, increasing from 8.8 per game to 14.3 per game. Bournemouth focus just 21% of their attacks through the middle, the lowest in the Premier League. O’Neil has asked his team to spread the ball quickly to his wingers and full-backs so they can pick out his two tall forwards, Billing and Solanke. It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing approach, but it has taken Bournemouth up the table – from the relegation zone to the top half – and it gives the club as good a chance as any of staying 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 this a purple patch under a new manager or a sustainable style that can work over the next 28 games?
At least fans are enjoying a far more promising return to the Premier League than looked likely six weeks ago. Many of them would have expected the club to yo-yo back down to the Championship, but this unbeaten run has given them reasons for optimism. If O’Neil can mastermind their first home win over Southampton since 2016, the calls to give him the job permanently will be hard to ignore.