“Our front three are as good as any in the league,” said Bournemouth keeper Asmir Begovic following a 4-2 win over Leicester City in September. Begovic then added that the trio featuring Ryan Fraser, Callum Wilson, and Josh King are “up there with Liverpool’s front three.” One could not blame Begovic for getting caught up in the moment of watching Fraser take on a Leicester backline at pace, cut in, then score like Mane, but there is at least one significant difference between the attacking trios. Whereas Salah, Mane, and Firmino cost over $140 million from Roma, Southampton, and Hoffenheim, Bournemouth’s trio was had for a total of $4.7 million. Fraser was signed from Aberdeen for $500,000, while Wilson was the most expensive at $4.2 million from Coventry City. King began his career in Manchester United’s youth academy and was loaned out to five different sides before coming over on a free transfer from Blackburn.
But it would only be a matter of time before the rest of the Premier League took notice of Bournemouth’s quality in attack, even despite their recent struggles that’s sent them down to 12th on the table. The trio each took their own circuitous route to the Premier League through injuries and honing their game in the street, which if one follows the dialogue surrounding the creativity of South American strikers, becomes why a player succeeds. Supplying the through ball for Fraser’s goal that match was Wilson. He’s caught the eye of Chelsea, with assistant Gianfranco Zola going as far as listing his qualities – his quickness and strength in the air – before being told to stand down by Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe. Wilson left Coventry City’s youth academy because he couldn’t get a ride to training sessions, instead testing his skill against older players in the streets and cages. Upon his Bournemouth transfer, he tore both ACLs in a 16-month span.
Adversity arrives in various forms. Fraser is, at 5-4, the Premier League’s shortest player (two inches shorter than N’Golo Kante). Like Wilson, Fraser’s game was developed in the street, where he honed his individuality and drive on the ball before gaining the requisite strength to play at Aberdeen, and eventually in the Premier League. His movement from Scotland to England fits the Bournemouth profile, as does Wilson and King’s move from Coventry City and Blackburn. In previewing their season, it was observed thatBournemouth have “a curious reluctance to shop expansively and dive into non-British based markets”.
With that emphasis on British-based talent, it was inevitable that Bournemouth would find themselves in the middle of a wider European movement targeting young English strikers. As time passes, Jadon Sancho’s success at Dortmund looks to be a watershed moment in paving the way for young strikers to move abroad in the search for playing time. The on-going transfer battle between Chelsea and Bayern for Callum Hudson-Odoi feels strictly of the 2019 moment, but Howe has been taking chances on and giving playing time to young English strikers since Bournemouth were promoted to the Premier League in 2015.
Noting that these types of speedy, technical attackers are what Germany have failed to produce in recent seasons, combined with the lack of opportunity given to teen-age talents by their parent clubs, Bournemouth are now battling continental sides for names. “We can’t believe some of the quality English clubs have and don’t use,” said a Ligue 1 football director. Bournemouth appear to have already adjusted to the new world. The club’s $25 million move for 21-year-old Dominic Solanke from Liverpool, who scored one goal in two seasons, could mark a Neymar-like moment for English strikers in inflating the overall market. Perhaps Bournemouth could have signed Solanke for cheaper in the past. Maybe in the future, the former-Liverpool striker would be priced out of their range from the very beginning.
It was this emphasis on developing British talent that lead to Howe once getting described as “England’s Special One.” After earning promotion, he said Bournemouth would “stay British” as compared to other managers looking for undervalued talent in foreign leagues. Howe previously discussed the shifting culture of a brave new English player now focused on expression and freedom, with Fraser stating before the season that he wants to “be a game-changer who takes it by the scruff of the neck.” Bournemouth represents a player’s inherent street-wise individuality augmented by a systemic freedom, and it increasingly looks like the template of why European clubs are currently enamored with English strikers.
“Run away from them, Francisco, run, jump, or you’ll end your days playing at Bournemouth,” warned Spanish newspaper columnist Juanma Rodriguez to Isco of his advisors as the Spanish midfielder continues to fall out with new Real Madrid manager Santiago Solari.
One can explain away that sort of dismissive attitude from a foreign journalist discussing a mid-table side, but there is a sense that Howe’s accomplishments are overlooked in England at the expense of managers from other countries. Harry Redknapp noted that Howe “wouldn’t even get a mention” as a potential Manchester United candidate, adding that “owners are much happier” looking towards foreign managers with good agents. While there are currently just four English managers in charge of Premier League sides, the focus on England would miss a portion of Howe’s story. In discussing his close relationship with Howe, Maurizio Sarri recalls the Bournemouth manager asking to shadow Sarri’s Empoli side in 2014 for their ability to punch above its weight in resources.
We focus on the player when examining how untraditional circumstances breed a certain mentality. But for Howe - and for Sarri as well - we can also ask how their outsider status helped shaped their approach to building an entertaining side. Success has different measures. Trophies are, of course, the easiest way to see how a team achieved. But surviving for four seasons at the top level, outperforming a club’s budget with style, and symbolizing changing attitudes within the larger national team and in European club football must also be its own rubric. Sarri said that Howe will make a mark in English football. That seems a given. Now it’s only a matter of the form of his impact, whether that’s continuing to punch above his weight, or given an opportunity with larger resources.