Top-flight champions, Leicester City, stole the plaudits in a season dominated by underdogs, but the Cherries put many doubters back in their places – finishing a very respectable 16th place.
Manager, Eddie Howe, maintained right from the beginning that the aim was to survive relegation, but even he, a man who has taken the club from the fourth tier of English football, could not have predicted just how emphatically his side would exceed expectations.
Injuries and a slow start gave outsiders a reason to doubt
Even more impressive is how Bournemouth consistently performed despite several key players suffering serious injuries. The season appeared doomed before it had even begun; summer signings Tyrone Mings and Max Gradel were set to miss the best part of six months, while just a two months into the season, top-scorer Callum Wilson ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. The absence of these players left Howe with a difficult predicament, having already been touted to be relegated even with those players involved, he now had to cope without them. And cope he did.
An opening day defeat to Aston Villa gave pundits further reason to predict a challenging campaign, with many even offering comparisons to the Derby County team that finished with just eleven points in 2008.
However, with Howe’s positive approach a driving force, things could only get better. An enthralling 4-3 victory at West Ham United gave supporters hope that the team’s attacking credentials could be enough to see them over the line come May.
Bournemouth struggled to win games in the opening months of the season and had to rely on draws to pick up points. Although in some of those draws, the Cherries could consider themselves extremely unlucky not to win. Jamie Vardy lashed home a late penalty at the Vitality Stadium to clinch a point for Leicester – a goal that started his record-breaking scoring run – while Howe’s side also picked up single points against Watford, Swansea City and Everton – the latter a 3-3 thriller.
The lack of victories was largely down to the absence of regular goals. Wilson – the scorer of a hat-trick against West Ham – was a big miss and Howe used Josh King as a striker.
Bournemouth turn on the style after Christmas and clinch survival, despite late blip
It took until December for Bournemouth to showcase their potential, but the final month of 2015 was pivotal in giving the club the momentum that paved the course for the success in 2016. Victories against Chelsea and Manchester United were seen as glorious lifelines, but are now looked upon as games in which the Cherries kick-started their season.
Howe improved his squad during the winter transfer window; Roma winger Juan Iturbe was signed to add further creativity in wide areas, something Matt Ritchie already offered. Ritchie’s form meant Iturbe struggled to find regular game time for the remainder of the season, but his brief cameos were positive.
The Cherries’ season came to fruition during the turn of the year. Victories against Norwich City and Crystal Palace elevated them away from the relegation zone, and an FA Cup victory over South Coast rivals, Portsmouth, turned out to be yet another highlight in their season.
The cup dream was eventually ended in the fifth round, courtesy of a defeat to eventual semi-finalists Everton, but the lack of additional cup fixtures gave Howe’s side further momentum as they marched confidently towards the finish line.
March included important wins against Southampton, Swansea and Newcastle United – the latter summoning the Magpies’ board to sack Steve McClaren. However, Bournemouth then hit their first worrying slump of the season. A 2-1 win against Aston Villa in early April turned out to be their final victory of the season as the Cherries lost 5 of their remaining seven games. Howe admitted that the decline in form could be blamed on safety being realistically secured, which was a fair enough excuse.
Off-the-pitch, Bournemouth’s only negative attention was their Financial Fair Play fine. The club was ordered to pay £7.6 million as a punishment for breaking spending regulations, although they defended their over-spending by pointing to the increase in staff wages during the transition between the Championship and the Premier League, as well as the need to upgrade the Vitality stadium to make sure it was fit to host top-flight football matches.
Where can the Cherries improve?
Howe will continue to spend over the summer and is likely to make defenders his priority. Bournemouth conceded 67 goals throughout the campaign, which is more than Newcastle and level with Norwich – who were both relegated.
Experienced defender Sylvain Distin has not had his one-year contract renewed having made 17 appearances, and Tommy Elphick has struggled with injuries over the last couple of years. Simon Francis, although predominantly a full-back, has often had to fill in at centre-back so another central defender is necessary.
Wilson and Benik Afobe offer a goal threat, but there is a distinct lack of a creative midfielder. To take the next step, Howe may need to buy an attacking midfielder to complement the hard-working styles of Harry Arter, Dan Gosling and Andrew Surman.
Avoiding relegation should be the primary target next season, but there is nothing to stop the Cherries from improving on their 16th-place finish. The magnificent rise from the fourth tier to a secure top-flight club is a feat already achieved by Swansea, and Bournemouth could use their model to repeat the achievement.