You could be forgiven for thinking that AFC Bournemouth had been a part of the Championship furniture. That is how well they have settled in following their promotion from League 1 last season, but shipping twenty goals in their opening nine games is far from a record to shout about.
Only bottom of the table Barnsley have a worse defensive record, so for the Cherries to find themselves 10th they are obviously doing a lot of things right despite the fragile defence. However, in the long run such a poor back line will inevitably lead to the Championship new boys sliding down the table.
Defeats at the hands of Watford and Huddersfield both in the opening month, 6-1 and 5-1 respectively, suggested it was going to be tough on the road for Bournemouth. Despite a solid 1-0 win away at Doncaster, conceding six goals in the last two matches has proved that there are still issues to be resolved at the back.
Stepping up a division is always going to prove a challenge in the two key areas. Can you score goals and can you keep them out. Over the summer boss Eddie Howe went into the transfer market knowing that he needed to add both depth and Championship experience to his ranks to build a squad adept for the rigours of the Championship. In terms of defensive options he sought out the services of experienced heads Ian Harte and Elliott Ward, both on free transfers following release from their previous employers. The pair have suffered varying fortunes since coming to the south coast club. Ward has been a stalwart at the back missing just one league game for the birth of his son. Harte on the other hand, has been restricted to just one league start and a couple of substitute cameos.
The Irishman’s lack of games is surprising with the recent injury to first choice left back Charlie Daniels. Howe, favouring to revert away from his favoured 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 systems despite having an experienced player in Harte to deputise for the injured Daniels. This suggests a lack of faith in Harte’s ability to play week in week out at this level. Saturday’s defeat at home to Blackburn was catalysed by the seemingly suicidal tactic of passing along the back three against a Blackburn side who pressed quickly and with lethal nature. After just half an hour the Cherries fell back into their familiar 4-4-2 and the second half performance was much improved. However, Harte remained on the bench with centre back and part-time right back Steve Cook filling in at left back.
With an injury list big enough to fill a bench of quality first team players Howe has a tough decision to make going into a tough couple of games, before the reprieve of the second international break of the season. Does he stick with the 3-5-2 system, which has seen his side lose all shape and confidence in their ability to defend. Or go with what has worked since returning to the club last November in a 4-4-2 formation. If the latter is his choice he has further deliberations of putting trust in the so far suspect Harte against his former side Leeds in the cauldron that is Elland Road or play Steve Cook out of position. It is clear that with the current players available to him Howe would prefer to employ the 3-5-2 to get results until the break, yet fans are already not fond of the system with defensive calamities looking likely from every goal kick and defensive restart.
Along with the self inflicted wounds of the Blackburn game Bournemouth have struggled all season to cope with set pieces coming into the box. The upcoming games against Leeds and Millwall will be suitable acid tests to see how far the side have come since the Watford and Huddersfield nightmares. Lessons have been learnt over the first two months in the Championship for Bournemouth’s coaching and playing staff and they will learn many more over the course of the season in the art of defending.