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How Gary O’Neil has defied the odds with Bournemouth this season


How Gary O’Neil has Defied the Odds with Bournemouth this Season

After finishing as runners-up in the Championship last season, Bournemouth were seen by fans and pundits across the country as certainties for relegation heading into this season’s Premier League campaign. That notion was further reinforced after a summer window that saw the south coast outfit spend just £25million on additions to the squad, with three free transfers. Something that even then-manager Scott Parker was critical of before his departure.

Bournemouth began the season well, beating Aston Villa on the opening day, before a string of bad results saw them hammered 4-0 away to Manchester City, 3-0 at home to Arsenal, and then thrashed 9-0 away to Liverpool. Parker claimed his side were ‘underequipped’ following the annihilation at Anfield and his harsh post-match words cost him his job. This saw Gary O’Neil – who had not managed a team at any level – brought in as interim manager, which only strengthened the argument that Bournemouth were destined to fall straight back down into the Championship.

That wasn’t to be the case though and the former Portsmouth and Middlesbrough midfielder has done an incredible job, saving Bournemouth from a relegation scrap with two games to spare. It’s harsh that O’Neil isn’t a candidate for the Manager of the Season award after overcoming what many perceived to be the impossible job and keeping the Cherries in the Premier League.

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Last updated 26/05/2024

Back to Basics

Despite his lack of experience, O’Neil immediately reinstalled the confidence and belief in the side which was important for the team to pull together as one. O’Neil has been a coach at the Bournemouth since 2021, working under both Parker and Jonathan Woodgate, and managed to display the fight he has for the club on the pitch.

Despite having just the one day to prepare for his first game as interim Head Coach against Wolves, O’Neil and his side managed to pick up a hard-earned point at home to the Midlands side. After conceding a massive 16 goals in their opening four games, O’Neil’s Cherries put in a resilient performance to maintain a hard-fought clean sheet. The non-stop work ethic and energy across the pitch were a sign of things to come for the Dorset side, with O’Neil following his first point up with a remarkable 3-2 comeback win away to Nottingham Forest.

After unsuccessfully going with a back five early in the season under Parker, Bournemouth reverted to a 4-4-1-1 formation, one that has been a key part of their success under O’Neil. The two banks of four form a rigid unit, with battling central midfielders like Jefferson Lerma and Lewis Cook or Ben Pearson flanked by speedy wingers that can get up and down the pitch to support attackers before getting to the by-line and finding crosses or cut-backs.

Bournemouth were unbeaten in O’Neil’s first six games, with two wins and four draws (including away to in-form teams such as Newcastle and Fulham). The Cherries tailed off somewhat from October and through the World Cup break, before a refresh in January helped propel them over the line.

Billing & Solanke’s influence

Phillip Billing, who was used predominately as a defensive midfielder during Parker’s reign, has had a new lease of life under O’Neil. The Danish midfielder has been used in the number ten and second striker role, utilizing his technical skill along with his big 6ft 5in frame to do it all for the Cherries; being involved in the build-up and then timing runs into the box to get on the end of chances. Not only is Billing Bournemouth’s top scorer in the league with seven goals, but he has won the most tackles, blocks, and duels.

Another key player for Bournemouth this season has been Dominic Solanke. With 29 Championship goals last season, Solanke’s main job over the past few years has been to be that main attacking threat up front. However, under O’Neil, the 25-year-old has enjoyed a fruitful campaign being the link that connects the attack. Using his hold up play, strength, and balance, the former Liverpool striker has been successful in a role that sees him hold off defenders before releasing Billing or the pacey wingers down the flanks for Bournemouth to create chances going forward. Solanke has more assists this season than any other Bournemouth player, with seven, along with seven goals he has fired in this season. Billing and Solanke have been the key examples of how O’Neil has rejuvenated the side.

Successful Window

In January, Bournemouth again didn’t heavily invest in the squad – but they did manage to improve the side with signings that fit the way that O’Neil wants his side to play. Bournemouth have spent around £80million across both windows, one of the lowest sums in the league. That hasn’t stopped the Cherries from bolstering their squad in a way suited to the football they have played under O’Neil.

Dango Ouattara has been a good addition to the Dorset outfit, arriving from Ligue 1 side Lorient for around £20million. Still only 21, the winger is exactly what O’Neil is looking for, with his pace on the ball being a handful for defenders. Virgil Van Dijk found that out for himself when Ouattara raced past him on his way to setting up Phillip Billing’s winner against Liverpool in March.

The loan signings of Matias Vina from Roma and Hamed Junior Traore from Sassuolo have also been shrewd acquisitions for Bournemouth, adding more quality and depth to the side. Uruguayan left-back Vina has scored twice from just five starts so far for the Cherries, including in that sensational 3-2 away win at Tottenham. Traore is another who, despite not really having an impact so far, is a talent that many big clubs were looking at and has potential to be a top player.

Going Forward

Bournemouth were favourites for the drop at the start of the season, with their fall to the Championship being a dead cert according to some. After Scott Parker’s reign came to an end and a very inexperienced Gary O’Neil came in to fill the role as interim, it became an impossible job for Bournemouth to retain their Premier League status after spending plenty of time in the bottom three. O’Neil has done a remarkable job though and deserves the credit for dragging the Cherries out of a relegation scrap. It was a gamble to keep him on as permanent manager instead of searching for a glamourous name to come in, but it certainly paid off and he has proved why.

With the Cherries set up in the way that O’Neil wants them to play, the additions in the summer could help add more quality to a side that, on paper, were inferior to the big boys of the league. With even more improvements, O’Neil and his side could progress even further next campaign and further establish themselves as a Premier League club.