It came as a shock to many when, on June 19th, Bournemouth parted ways with head coach Gary O’Neil. A 15th-placed finish defied early expectations of a side that was seen as doomed to return to the Championship in the opening weeks of the 2022/23 season. So tipped for relegation were the Cherries that, when the club’s survival was confirmed, their social media team released a cheeky compilation of pundits and fans predicting them to go down.
O’Neil galvanised a squad that former manager Scott Parker deemed “ill-equipped” for Premier League football, with notable wins against Liverpool and Tottenham coming with crucial victories over the eventually relegated trio of Leicester, Leeds and Southampton.
Arsene Wenger once equated the life of a football manager to “living on a volcano: any day may be your last”. And that harsh reality of the job is only reinforced when a man like O’Neil is dismissed despite his successes.
However, looking deeper, it’s clear that Bournemouth’s decision isn’t to do with any animosity towards O’Neil, or any feeling that he underperformed. Bournemouth are following a model pioneered by Brighton and Hove Albion years prior.
They have hired a manager with a high-intensity, attack-minded style of play, rather than being content with trying to survive every season.
A manager whose style of play has been labelled as “rock and roll”.
That manager is Andoni Iraola.
Iraola at rayo vallecano
The Spaniard arrives at the Dean Court after three successful years at Rayo Vallecano. Promotion from the Segunda Division was followed by 12th and 11th-placed finishes in La Liga, along with a run to the semi-finals of the 2021/22 Copa Del Rey. As stated: successful.
Beyond those simple figures, however, those achievements are much more impressive than first meets the eye.
Like Bournemouth, many wrote off Vallecano’s survival chances before a ball was kicked. Their promotion was even seen as miracle work. They were by far the smallest club in La Liga. They had little-to-no money to spend in the transfer market, with only two additions in their first season. Their stadium, closed in 2018 for urgent repair, was still deteriorating.
Yet, with Iraola’s innovative and relentless approach, they continued to defy expectations and overachieve to the Nth degree, including multiple wins against Barcelona and Real Madrid on the way.
Style and Tactics
Iraola combines a ‘Bielsa-like’ pressing intensity off-the-ball with a fondness for positional play, giving each player zones which are theirs to protect and attack. Iraola himself says he “[prefers] to play at a high pace, even if it means a touch of precipitation, then play at a lower pace and have a bit more control”.Embed from Getty Images
Width is also crucial to Iraola’s style. This was evident in the preseason victory against Lorient, with chances often coming from press-enforced turnovers in the French club’s half or Bournemouth focusing play wide before either cutting in for a shot or finding a cross.
This certainly suits the array of wide players at Iraola’s disposal, such as Dango Ouattara, David Brooks, Marcus Tavernier and new signing Justin Kluivert. Especially when feeding proven goal threats like Keiffer Moore and Dominic Solanke. Of course, Bournemouth will come up against better opponents, and ones that will match their intensity, but it is an exciting change of approach. And one that may cause a number of surprise results in the coming season.
shades of brighton
Back in 2019, Chris Hughton was sacked by Brighton. He was, like Gary O’Neil, successful – Promoting the Seagulls and leading them to survival twice. Harsh to some given Brighton was still relatively fresh faces in the Premier League: ‘Why should they expect more than survival?’ would be the question of seasons gone by.Embed from Getty Images
In hindsight, it was a masterstroke. Brighton’s bold decision to favour the fluid, possession-based (and high-performing xG as any FPL players will remember not so well) style of Graham Potter worked wonders. Propelling the club to well beyond the struggling expectancies they had under Hughton, and even pushed even further under Roberto De Zerbi.
Struggling clubs are no longer content with just surviving year after year. It’s not economically safe and it isn’t good to watch. Brighton’s ascent has shown those clubs can not only dream of European football but, with smart recruitment marrying audacious coaching, see it as a very real possibility.
Bournemouth’s appointment may be a bold one, but one that could pay off in a very rich way.