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Bournemouth-West Brom Preview
Much has been made over the fact Tony Pulis-coached teams have never been relegated from the Premier League.
The lack of ambition beyond this simple survival, however, has put the manager and his West Bromwich Albion side in the crosshairs of supporters as they open the season Saturday at The Hawthorns versus Bournemouth.
An old-school, defence-first manager, Pulis' sides are instantly recognisable for their direct play, physical defence and a decisive lack of flair with the ball. While the Baggies (12-9-17) finished 10th in the table with 45 points, ahead of West Ham on goal difference, their 43-goal haul was better than only Southampton (41) among the Premier League's top-half finishers in 2016-17.
That finish, West Brom's best since placing eighth in 2012-13, arguably should have been higher considering the Baggies reached 40 points with a 2-1 win over Bournemouth on Feb. 25. But the Midlands' side flagged horribly to the tape, closing the season winless in nine contests (0-2-7) and with only a 3-1 victory over Arsenal to their credit in the final 12 league matches (1-2-9) while being outscored 19-7.
West Brom were fringe players in the summer transfer market, with the most notable addition striker Jay Rodriguez from Southampton at a reported cost of £12 million with the potential of £3 million more in add-ons. While he has been long-admired by Pulis, the England international totaled just five goals in 36 matches over the last three seasons with the Saints due to a spate of injuries.
"We've chased him for a long time and I'm really pleased we have got him in," said Pulis of Rodriguez, who signed a four-year deal with the Baggies and had 17 goals for Southampton in his last standout season in 2013-14. "He's got a good goal-scoring record and we've been a little short in that position and hopefully this will give us a little bit more in those areas."
The hope is Rodriguez will work in tandem with target forward Salomon Rondon, whose eight goals led a punchless West Brom side that totaled 46 in 40 overall matches. The duo will be counting on service from midfielders Matt Phillips, who had a team-high eight assists, and Nacer Chadli, the one-time Spurs loanee who had five assists but struggled with consistency.
That offence was a work in progress throughout the preseason as the Baggies netted more than one goal just once in their eight matches across Austria, Hong Kong, the lower divisions of England and Spain. Pulis has a fully healthy squad, with James Morrison and Gareth McAuley expected to train with the senior squad this week after not playing in the preseason.
Ben Foster is once more between the sticks, and he will have a new central defender in Egypt international Ahmed Hegazi, who was brought in from El-Ahly Cairo to provide depth behind Jonny Evans and McAuley, whose seven goals scored belied his 37 years.
All that said, the middling in the Midlands is in stark contrast to the upward mobility and rising intentions of Bournemouth (12-10-16), who finished ninth in their second top-flight season after placing 16th following the first promotion to the Premier League in club history in 2015.
The small south coast club fortified themselves for season three in aggressive manner, adding goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and defender Nathan Ake, both formerly of title-holders Chelsea. Via free transfer, they also added respected veteran striker Jermain Defoe, whose 15 goals with Sunderland didn't help the Black Cats avoid relegation but did prevent a woeful season from being historically awful.
Begovic, who came over on a £10 million transfer, had his first taste of professional soccer come with Bournemouth when they were a League One side in the 2007-08 season, and Ake made his move from London permanent for a club-record £20 million after an impressive stint on loan last season when he scored three goals in 10 league matches.
The moves add to an already-cohesive roster that has brought Bournemouth from the brink of relegation from the Football League to a well-earned spot in England's elite over the course of a decade under the stewardship of Eddie Howe. He has been with the Cherries every step of the way save a brief turn at Burnley, and Howe is still the youngest manager in the Premier League at 39 as well as the second-longest tenured manager in the top flight behind Arsenal's Arsene Wenger.
"The hope is to kick on," Howe said in a recent interview with The Times. "We hope the new signings have an impact on the team, but we know how difficult the league is. It's an incredibly difficult journey we've been on and, when you look at the names coming into the Premier League, the managers, the money being spent, it's only going to get harder."
The other hope is the Cherries can pick up where they left off as they surged to the close by taking points in 10 of their final 12 matches (5-5-2) to pip West Brom for ninth and place behind Southampton on goal difference. Howe is also eager to avoid another mid-season swoon in which the Cherries briefly flirted with relegation by winning just once in a 10-match span.
"That's just the cycle of the job; the seasons go by and the pressures seems more extreme," Howe said. "The intensity and the media speculation doesn't show any signs of letting up. It gets more and more intense, but I've become used to that."
There is also hope midfielder Lewis Cook, who captained England's World Cup-winning Under-20 team, can fill the void left by Jack Wilshire's departure.
The home team won both matches last season, with first-half goals by Craig Dawson and McAuley canceling a fifth-minute penalty by Joshua King in February. Bournemouth, though, are 2-1-1 in Premier League matches between the teams.
Updated August 10, 2017