Not even Eddie Howe himself could have predicted the rise Bournemouth would take when he returned for his second spell in charge. Bournemouth have not lost a game since his return, embarking on a 13 game unbeaten run which Howe will hope to extend over the festive period. The south coasters currently lie 9th in the League 1 table, haven risen from the bottom four upon Howe’s return. Sitting two points below the play-offs, and only six points below the top of the table, Bournemouth can finally begin to look up rather than down.
In my previous blog I wrote about how it would be difficult for the honeymoon period between Howe and Bournemouth to continue, but this is looking like a marriage that could be in for the long run. With games coming thick and fast over the festive period, Howe will have to keep Christmas spirit high in the team to keep this run going. He will be without key midfielder Shaun MacDonald, who has been ruled out for two months with ruptured cruciate ankle ligaments. MacDonald has started every game since Howe’s return, with the gaffer heralding him as an unsung hero and a player who keeps the team ticking over. In addition to this, Stephen Gregory has had his contract cancelled by mutual consent in the last few days. Gregory had been out on loan to AFC Wimbledon and so wasn’t in Howe’s immediate plans anyway but was a regular starter under previous boss Paul Groves. With the January transfer window fast approaching, this may be an area that Howe looks at strengthening.
Asides from central midfield, Howe definitely needs to do some housekeeping in regards to Bournemouth’s strikers. Currently, Bournemouth have eight senior strikers in their squad (including Lee Barnard and Brett Pitman, on loan from Southampton and Bristol City respectively). This has forced players such as Josh McQuoid to play on the wing. With Lewis Grabban in red hot form and one of the first names on the team sheet at the moment, this only leaves one place up front being contested by seven other players. Whilst competition is healthy and should give any manager a good headache, seven does not go into one and those being consistently left out will not be happy.
Throw into the equation the imminent return of Wes Thomas from his loan at Blackpool, Howe will surely need to trim his striking options. Thomas has previously spoken of his desire to secure a permanent move away rather than a loan if he is to be excluded, but he may be someone Howe should not be so keen to dispose of. Thomas scored a goal every other game during is loan spell at Portsmouth at the beginning of the season, and is continuing that form at Blackpool. Seasiders boss Michael Appleton is keen to keep him onboard, thinking he can perform at a higher level. Thomas also started regularly under Howe when he was at Bournemouth on loan from Crawley at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season and again scored a goal every other game. Although getting rid of Thomas may be an easy option, it is one that Howe should ponder carefully before he decides who to axe.
Asides from an unhealthy dose of strikers, the current Bournemouth squad is relatively well balanced, and Howe’s main concern will be keeping the core of his team fit rather than tinkering in the transfer market. This will leave the club to look forward to a very exciting tie in the FA Cup, a trip away to Premier League Wigan. Although Wigan may not be the ‘glamour’ club many were hoping for, it will make for a great away day trip for fans, with Bournemouth rarely getting to play against top level opposition. Although Wigan will undoubtedly be favourites, this will be a game that will be seen as winnable to a Bournemouth team flowing in confidence. Wigan are known for being consistently inconsistent, and if they are having an off day, Bournemouth will be positive they can take full advantage.
All in all, with Howe’s return to the club being welcomed with open arms by fans and players alike, a strong squad and a juicy third round FA Cup tie awaiting in the New Year, the cherries really are tasting sweet right now for Bournemouth. If a New Years resolution could be made for nothing to change, it is one that Bournemouth would certainly be making.
Written by Cort Robson, We Are Going Up’s AFC Bournemouth blogger
Cort tweets at @cort_robson