Eddie Howe appears to have been cowed by recent relegation talk and persistent criticism that he isn’t pragmatic enough - at least judging by how he set his team up against Chelsea last weekend. Bournemouth deployed the same 5-3-2 system that brought narrow defeats by Manchester City and Tottenham, which was sad to see with Antonio Conte’s men looking so vulnerable.
The switch to five at the back was justifiable against City and Spurs, but Chelsea’s miserable 3-0 defeat to Roma in midweek only reinforces the suspicion that such caution from the Cherries in this latest instance was uncalled for. Take away that stroll around the Vitality Stadium and the Blues have conceded a goal every 41 minutes since the October international break.
It would be interesting to know whether Howe harbours any regrets after Tuesday’s events at the Stadio Olimpico. His comments immediately after succumbing to that solitary Eden Hazard strike last Saturday would suggest the 39-year-old is aware of the importance that the Cherries stay true to their attacking principles, even if his actions haven’t so far supported that assessment.
"We need to be very brave in our approach and have no doubts about how good we are," he said. "When you lose games in this league, it is easy to fall into a trap and become defensive. We have never been that kind of team and I will not allow us to become that kind of team. I think it is very important that we play to our strengths."
One logical explanation for Howe’s decision to pay Chelsea more respect than they currently deserve might be that it stems from a decision taken in the summer. The Cherries conceded 39 goals in 14 matches against the top seven last term (2.79 per game) and that perhaps triggered a pre-determined plan to tighten up in such games, on which they feel obliged to follow through.
But now it raises a host of other concerns. What is the psychological cost of making such compromises? What impact does it have on confidence? Would the Cherries have taken 35 points from 22 games against the teams who finished below them last season without continuity of their philosophy, suffering gallant heavy defeats against the top teams?
With City in late August, Arsenal in mid-September and the Tottenham and Chelsea games book-ending October, the fixture computer hasn’t been kind. Bournemouth arrive in November second from bottom with no momentum, but now a crucial period awaits. After the trip to St James’s Park, they play Huddersfield (h), Swansea (a), Burnley (h), Southampton (h) and Crystal Palace (a).
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They need to revert back to 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 and start going after teams. Right now, though, they seem ill-prepared for the challenge that awaits on Tyneside and the tipping point in their season might have to wait until beyond the international break. Shot data makes Newcastle around 8/11 favourites here, so you can’t grumble with even-money quotes about the home win.
The Magpies have set a comfortable mid-table standard up to this point but, with all the caveats and algorithmic adjustments that usually accompany any newly-promoted side, the market appears to be reserving judgement. In truth, though, they never should have been relegated in the first place and have returned much more resilient with Rafa Benitez in their DNA.
And don’t be put off by the politics, either. The current ownership situation is incentive enough to side with Newcastle over the winter, with Mike Ashley taking the unusual step of announcing that he wants a quick sale and would be willing to accept staged payments. He knows this is his window of opportunity to recoup an overall investment of nearly £300m.
Ashley wants the going rate for a comfortable mid-table Premier League club but any deal could take around six months to complete, meaning the sale might become complicated as the value of the club diminishes should the Magpies fail to make it crystal clear by New Year that they will retain their top-flight status for next season.
That sense of urgency should be consuming Benitez more than anyone. He wants the kind of investment he knows he will never get from Ashley and he arguably holds all the aces in the negotiation process, so long as he keeps winning matches. Right now, he is the club’s biggest asset, the embodiment of the stability that any new owners would be buying into.
For Newcastle, it’s perhaps no exaggeration to suggest that November and December is the business end of the 2017/18 season.
Newcastle to beat Bournemouth at 21/20