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How Andoni Iraola’s ‘obsession’ transformed Bournemouth into the Premier League’s form team

Exclusive interview: The Spanish manager discusses how he has turned Bournemouth from relegation candidates into a team chasing a top-half finish in the Premier League

Dani Gil
Saturday 30 December 2023 10:04 GMT
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Related video: Gary O’Neil sacked as head coach of Bournemouth

Andoni Iraola cannot hide his happiness. When he answers those who ask him about AFC Bournemouth’s streak, he cracks a half smile, aware that no one could have imagined this outstanding level of the team not so long ago. If the Premier League had started at the beginning of November, the Cherries would be leaders. “We weren’t that bad before and we aren’t the Dream Team now,” Iraola says.

Even though Bournemouth have won six of their last seven league games and are closer to Europe than relegation, the Basque manager appeals for humility. The dressing room now lives with praise and collective enthusiasm but has also known the bitter side of football.

“The start of the season was particularly tough. It took us a long time to win but from the first moment, I had the backing of everyone at the club. We knew that the calendar was particularly difficult and that this could happen. The key was that the players never switched off, even when things were going from bad to worse. I felt guilty because I told them to do this and that and the results didn’t come, but I always had them by my side,” recalls an emotional Iraola.

Replacing Gary O’Neil last summer was not easy. The unpopular sacking of the young English manager, who had saved Bournemouth from relegation last season, made Iraola’s integration even more difficult. However, he never felt he had the sword of Damocles hanging over him. Owner Bill Foley, the board and the dressing room remained cohesive in the face of adversity.

Iraola directs his players from the touchline at Old Trafford (Getty)

The secret for Iraola is that he has remained true to his principles. “You don’t have to change the message to the player because then you lose credibility,” he tells The Independent.

His methods based on high intensity are starting to pay off. Iroala stresses his players are now covering more distance on the pitch, the lines of defence, midfield and attack are closer together, they are pressing more effectively, and are winning more individual duels.

“My big obsession on a day-to-day basis was to improve defensively. Our rivals punished us easily and we needed more forcefulness,” he reveals. Until 11 November, when Bournemouth beat Newcastle 2-0, they were conceding an average of 2.45 goals per game this season. Since then, the statistic has dropped to 0.71.

“I put a lot of emphasis on defending side balls and second balls in training. We worked a lot on that aspect and that has led to good results. Now they can attack us and we know we won’t concede as much as we did two months ago. We are solvent in our own area. We’ve learnt to enjoy defending”, says Iraola, who has found a consistent line-up and a 4-2-3-1 tactical system which brings out the best virtues of his players.

With those foundations in place, Bournemouth could now afford to look ahead. Iraola, a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa’s pressing game and the Manchester City method he learnt under Patrick Vieira during his last spell as a player at New York City, wanted to see those ideas reflected in the south of England.

The manager speaks to midfielder David Brooks (Getty)

“I’m making them understand better what I want in terms of pressure, transitions, and being more vertical. But at the same time, we also have to know how to attack in a more organised and patient way. I want my team to control the games more. That is why we practice exercises in training in which the players, in inferiority, have to hold the ball. The objective is that it does not burn their feet.”

For that, Iraola has the perfect ally, his extension on the pitch: Ryan Christie. “He is the most tactically intuitive player in the squad. He understands the game like nobody else and knows what he has to do at all times.” Christie has formed an exceptional partnership in midfield with Alex Scott, a good apprentice who at just 20 has already shown signs of his enormous quality, such as the run that ended in Justin Kluivert’s goal against Fulham last Tuesday. “Very high potential,” Iraola says of Scott.

An emphatic 3-0 win put Bournemouth briefly 10th in the table, three points above Chelsea. At this stage and with the club’s momentum going well, it would not be unrealistic to target a top-half finish. “I don’t want to put that added pressure on the players. The challenge as a club is to establish ourselves in the Premier League. We were promoted last season and we still have a lot of points to make to stay in the top flight. The bad times will come too,” warns Iraola.

To avoid them he has Dominic Solanke, one of the most in-form strikers of the moment. Only Erling Haaland, with 14 goals, surpasses the 12 that the Englishman has scored in the Premier League to date. “He’s good enough for Gareth Southgate to call him up for the national team, although he’s aware of the competition he has to play at the Euros in Germany. Hopefully, he will make the final squad. He has that dream and it would be good news for everyone.”

Iraola celebrates with striker Dominic Solanke (Getty)

However, one of the manager’s fears is that the current success will lead to an exodus of some of his best players. Tottenham are among those tracking Solanke and losing the striker would be a major blow. “There are clubs with huge financial potential in England and it could happen,” Iraola says.

In any case, neither that nor anything else is keeping him awake at night. “I suffered more before as a footballer than now as a manager, although it seems strange,” he says. Iraola is a calm, familiar character, one of those who knows how to separate the personal from the professional. Although things are going well for him now, he hasn’t changed what he said a few months ago about seeking life beyond management. “I don’t see myself on the bench for many years,” he insists.

Maybe that’s why he puts everything into perspective, the good and the bad, even making history by winning at Old Trafford for the first time in Bournemouth’s 124-year history. “It was unforgettable, timeless, but most of all I’m happy for all the people who work with us.” That is what best defines Iraola, a man who puts the interests of the club before his own.

These last two months have been a fairytale for a Bournemouth side earning the right to dream big. Discipline, however, is something that can never be lacking: “The boys have to look after themselves. There are body fat limits set by the medical services. And there are small fines if players are overweight. But we hardly have a bote [kitty] because they know how to behave. In any case, that money is for them, to have a group dinner or whatever,” reveals Iraola, who, after learning at Cypriot side AEK Larnaca, growing up at Spanish club Mirandes and establishing himself at Rayo Vallecano, now wants to leave an indelible mark at Bournemouth. He is well on his way to doing just that.

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