Arguably the most coined phrase amongst Cherries supporters in recent weeks has been “can we sign a defender?”
Those same fans did get their wish granted when former AFC Bournemouth loanee Marc Wilson arrived from Stoke City two weeks ago, but that’s not enough for some.
Last season, Eddie Howe’s side were only beaten in the goals against column by Aston Villa, one of the poorest sides ever to play in the Premier League, so defensive reinforcements were seen as an area of utmost importance when delving into the summer transfer market. What compounded this necessity were the departures of captain Tommy Elphick to Aston Villa and Sylvain Distin hanging up his boots after a magnificent career in England.
Much of Bournemouth’s better performances last year came when Simon Francis was moved into the emergency centre-back role and whilst the Cherries number two excelled in his unfamiliar surroundings, many at Dean Court felt that this was just a temporary fix and that a long-term solution was needed.
Distin, as I’ve already eluded to, was one of the Premier League’s most consistent centre-backs over the last ten years and enjoyed cult status at Everton, although his South Coast move was always going to be more about the experience he could provide off the pitch, rather than game time on the field.
The general consensus is that he fulfilled his remit perfectly, the only shame being that Distin signed as a 38-year-old in the final throws of his playing days, if the transfer had happened when the Frenchman wasn’t in the veteran stage, he would have been the perfect foil for Bournemouth’s first choice centre-back Steve Cook.
Cook came on leaps and bounds last year and looked far more assured as the campaign went on, nevertheless, there were still one or two costly errors which were of course punished by the clinical, world-class forwards that operate in football’s top domestic competition.
Cook’s regular partner as Cherries rose through the divisions was Elphick and despite being one of Bournemouth’s best-ever captains, it was clear that the former Brighton man found Premier League going tough. His move to Villa should be the perfect fit for both parties and with the second City club resembling a complete mess for the whole of last season; Elphick should give them the much needed leadership qualities they need as Roberto Di Matteo tries to plot an immediate route out of the Championship.
Given all the defensive frailties that Bournemouth encountered last season, both Elphick and Distin started in less than half the Cherries regular matches. Their departures were actually viewed as a positive by many as the Distin’s wages would be freed up to use elsewhere, whilst the transfer fee received for Elphick was good business for a player signed for £175,000 back in 2012.
The problem for Bournemouth and Howe chiefly is that good Premier League defenders don’t grow on trees. An obvious statement of course, but how many other clubs were in the market for players to shore up their backlines?
Every single one would be an accurate guess and Bournemouth, despite excelling in their first Premier League season, are competing with teams that are far more appealing and have greater financial clout, despite Howe being highly regarded as the brightest young English manager and of course the new eye-watering TV deal.
Signing a defender is easy, signing the right defender is much tougher and that is perhaps why Howe has strengthened and strengthened well in other areas of his squad, but the defensive captures haven’t been forthcoming in the numbers deemed suitable by a quite demanding supporter base, one which has grown accustomed to almost instant success with everything Howe touched turning to gold.
What those Dean Court regulars need to realise is that for all the money, glitz and glamour of the Premier League, managing in this division is incredibly tough. Many managers with well respected pedigrees both home and abroad have tried and failed to further their careers at English football’s top table and whilst some of Howe’s signings over the past 12 months have been questionable, I still can’t think of any other person I would want in charge of my football club.
That’s not to say he is immune to being criticised for decisions made both in terms of transfer dealings and tactics and what sets Howe aside from many of his peers, is that deep down, he is one of the most self-condemnatory managers around.
He will know that mistakes have been made, but perhaps the lack of defensive signings mean he is determined to get the right man, rather than just sign any old centre-half just to boost numbers in case of injury to Cook and Francis with the latter, it seems, now being considered a converted full-back rather than a square peg in a round hole.
The acquisition of Wilson has given cover over all areas in the back four and although the Ireland international had fallen down the pecking order at Stoke, his experience, like Distin’s, will prove invaluable. Other options for Howe include youngsters Baily Cargil and Corey Jordan who are both held in the highest regard at Dean Court and then there’s Tyrone Mings, the forgotten man almost.
Mings suffered a horror knee injury almost a year ago and his slow road to recovery should see competitive action soon and he could also slot in at centre-back, although he made his name on the left flank for Ipswich Town.
Given all the above evidence, Howe probably has a damn good case for his defence being strong enough in terms of ability and numbers already and even with Bournemouth suffering an indifferent start to 2016-17, that hasn’t been 100% down to errors at the back.
That’s not the widely accepted view however, although I’m satisfied that going forward Bournemouth will be okay and of course we will take some beatings from the big boys, but we will have more than enough to defeat teams at a similar level to ourselves and stay up comfortably.