Eddie Howe is understandably reluctant to amplify the importance of Wednesday’s game at home to Newcastle but there is no getting away from the reality that Bournemouth are running out of time. They are sandwiched between West Ham and Aston Villa on goal difference, their Premier League status in serious jeopardy.
“I am hurting from this situation,” Howe said. “I’m not going to lie, it’s painful, it’s consuming me, but I’m using all of those emotions to help direct the team in the way we need to go. There is no part of me that is feeling sorry for myself or despondent. It is a motivated, fully energised and fully focused manager that the players are getting to get results.”
After Newcastle they face four of the top seven – Manchester United, Tottenham, Leicester and Manchester City – inside 11 days and, as tricky as that looks, it would be foolish to disregard a team who have repeatedly defied against the odds since Howe took charge in League Two.
“No game is a write-off in my opinion,” the manager said. “They [the players] have the belief and I think one win would go a long way to helping shape that. You need to see to believe sometimes. And I think we are in the position where we need to see ourselves performing collectively and I don’t think we’ve had that regularly enough for our liking. We’ve been performing in fours and fives and that’s not enough.”
Bournemouth have been bogged down by injuries and, with Joshua King “touch and go” because of an ankle problem, Callum Wilson suspended for the next two matches and Ryan Fraser having departed on a free transfer, the onus is on others to step up in attack.
David Brooks, fit after almost 12 months out, brings welcome zest but Wilson’s absence could provide Dominic Solanke with a golden chance. Solanke has one goal in 57 top-flight appearances and is yet to score in the league for Bournemouthsince a £17m move from Liverpool. The academy graduate, Sam Surridge, is another attacking option.
“I am sure Dom, from his side, is very keen to show everybody his talents and how good he is on a consistent basis,” Howe said. “My wish is he just goes out, plays his game and shows his talents in his own unique way because he is a really strong team player.”
Howe acknowledges the urgent need for improvement – Bournemouth have a league-low four clean sheets, the last in December – but the biggest concern is how they have strayed from a free-scoring, if a little leaky, team who first graced the Premier League five years ago to one struggling to hurt sides.
No team outside the top six scored more goals last season but only Norwich and Palace have fewer in this campaign and Howe’s team have mustered one shot on target since the restart.
They have struggled against counterattacking opponents who revel in sitting off, such as Palace and Wolves, their past two opponents. It is more than 12 months since Bournemouth won a league game in which they dominated possession, which does not bode well given Newcastle, at 41%, have the lowest share of possession in the division.
A rocky run has gnawed away at Howe, a perfectionist, but he was bullish in his belief they can wriggle free. Watford remain within touching distance a point ahead. “What we can’t do is be in this situation in another two games’ time, where we are still looking around waiting for other teams to make mistakes,” he said. “We have to take the gauntlet ourselves.”
Before the home defeat by Palace a fortnight ago, a montage of motivational messages played out on the big screen, including Howe’s words from December following a limp display at Selhurst Park.
“I’d like to think I’ve handled these situations before and I can do it again,” he said then, after five successive defeats. “It’s about being consistent with the players, it’s about not ripping up everything you believe in, not listening to the noise around you, getting the best out of every single player.”
A day later they picked up a crucial victory at Chelsea courtesy of a fearless performance. How they need another watershed moment.