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In Focus

Tarnished for an unfruitful start to his professional career, Dominic Solanke has come of age and is spearing the Andoni Iraola revolution with a flurry of Premier League goals for Bournemouth.

The forward netted his 13th goal of the season during the Cherries’ 3-0 win over Fulham on Boxing Day, extending his run of form to nine goals in his last eight Premier League appearances.

Solanke’s impressive returns have thrusted him into the spotlight and with a European Championship around the corner, speculation is rife on whether he can force his way into Gareth Southgate’s England plans.

The fact he’s potentially in consideration for a major tournament call-up speaks volumes of his progress in the last three years. Out of form and out of confidence, Solanke’s struggles coincided with Bournemouth’s relegation from the Premier League.

Setbacks of that magnitude can weigh heavy on a player and yet Solanke shrugged off the critics, knuckled down and produced a 30-goal season to fire the Cherries back into the top flight. He may not have set the Premier League alight on his return but his presence was imperative in securing Bournemouth’s survival last term.

Now under the tutelage of Basque tactician Iraola, Solanke has been transformed into a multi-faceted forward who is now scaling the heights that were predicted when he was ripping up the youth scene for Chelsea and England.

We look at his development in the latest edition of our ‘In Focus’ series.

Tipped for stardom

On the books at Chelsea from the age of seven, the famed Cobham academy nurtured Solanke into a prolific marksman during his youth career.

Scoring 20 goals in his debut campaign with the Under-18 side, including a match-winning brace in the FA Youth Cup final against Fulham, Solanke followed up his club form with success in the Euro U17 Championships. 

He was the joint top scorer in the tournament and scored in the final against the Netherlands, with England eventually reigning supreme on penalties.

His goal returns earned the appraisal of then-Blues boss Jose Mourinho, who even declared that he would ‘be to blame’ should Chelsea’s young trio of Solanke, Lewis Baker and Izzy Brown not play for England’s senior team in the future; Mourinho can feel relieved that at least Solanke has fulfilled one-third of his prophecy.

Solanke made his first-team debut in the Champions League against NK Maribor and would go on to enjoy another productive season in the development leagues, scoring 13 goals in 18 Premier League 2 appearances and overpowering opposition in the UEFA Youth League with a return of 12 goals from nine matches.

A loan spell with Vitesse Arnhem was an invaluable experience and while his development didn’t go unnoticed, Mourinho's departure from Stamford Bridge was of a detriment to Solanke’s first-team opportunities.

Mourinho’s successor, Antonio Conte, was unfairly criticised for his integration of academy players during his Chelsea tenure but Solanke was unable to carve a permanent role in the Italian’s plans.

With his contract expiring at the end of the season, Solanke assessed his options. 

In a summer where the forward was the poster boy of England’s success in the FIFA U20 World Cup, Liverpool came knocking with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Character building

An eyewitness to Jurgen Klopp’s Anfield revolution, Solanke benefited from the experience of training with Liverpool’s formidable trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, even if it meant he was consigned to a string of substitute appearances.

He scored his first goal for the club on the final day of the 2017/18 season but that’s as good as it got for Solanke at Liverpool.

Injury issues hampered his availability in the following campaign and when Bournemouth offered £19million for his services just four days into the January window, Solanke had packed his bags to embark on a new chapter on the Dorset coast. 

It was a deal that appeared to work for all parties; Solanke would get the first-team football he craved, Liverpool had made significant profit on a fringe player and Bournemouth were receiving a young and hungry talent with potential resale value.

With an attacking philosophy and a recruitment policy focused on identifying emerging talents, Eddie Howe’s project at Bournemouth seemed the perfect fit.

Yet for all of his energy, endeavour and desperation to succeed, Solanke toiled in front of goal.

It was in his 39th Premier League game for the Cherries – 19 months after he signed – that Solanke chalked up his first goal for the club, netting a brace in a 4-1 win over Leicester.

He scored again in the final day win against Everton but it was not enough to spare Bournemouth of relegation. Critics were keen to highlight Solanke’s ineffectiveness in front of goal as a key factor in the Cherries’ demise.

Such words can be damaging but for Solanke, it only added fuel to his fire.

Marked improvement

Howe departed Dean Court and his assistant Jason Tindall was named as his successor.

With matches being played behind closed doors, there was no background noise to distract Solanke. The focal point of Tindall’s attack, the Reading-born forward hit the ground running in the Championship, assisting Bournemouth’s second in an opening day win over Blackburn before getting his name on the scoresheet in a 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough.

Solanke had returned 10 goals from 26 matches when Bournemouth made the decision to sack Tindall and replace him with Jonathan Woodgate. The managerial alteration coincided with an ankle injury he sustained in a defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.

His absence lasting five games, Solanke returned firing on all cylinders and under Woodgate’s stewardship, the forward registered 10 goal involvements in eight matches as the Cherries went on a seven-game winning streak, thus securing a play-off berth.

Ending the season on 15 goals and 11 assists, Solanke could take plenty of encouragement, even if Bournemouth’s campaign ended in bitter disappointment. 

2020/21 Championship: Goal-Creating Actions (Forwards only)

Ivan Toney (Brentford)24
Dominic Solanke  (Bournemouth)19
Bryan Mbeumo (Brentford)19
Ismaila Sarr (Watford)19
Arnaut Danjuma (Bournemouth)18

Beaten by eventual play-off winners Brentford in the semi-finals, failure to achieve an immediate return to the Premier League prompted the board to hire Scott Parker as their new manager; an appointment that helped to elevate Solanke’s game.

Parker paid close attention to the intricate details of Solanke’s game and it paid dividends. Working on his movement inside the penalty area, developing his foot patterns and improving his hold-up play, Solanke rediscovered the goalscoring groove that had attracted great attention during his youth career.

Filling the void of the departed Arnaut Danjuma, Solanke reached double figures after just 14 games as Bournemouth made an exceptional start to the campaign.

Even when results deteriorated, Solanke was prominent in all contests, rescuing vital points in the quest for promotion.

Perhaps most importantly for the Cobham graduate, after persistent battles with injury, it was the first season he was able to play in full.

I don't think there's a centre forward in the Premier League or the Championship that would be producing the physical numbers Dominic Solanke pumps out.

Scott Parker, former Bournemouth manager

It says a great deal about the phenomenal year Aleksandar Mitrovic enjoyed that Solanke’s 29-goal campaign went relatively unnoticed.

As the Serbian indulged in the plaudits for his record-breaking goal tally of 43, Solanke quietly went about his business to help Bournemouth to promotion. If Mitrovic was in a league of his own, Solanke was by far and away the best of the rest.

The 2021/22 season was the biggest indication yet that Solanke was maturing into a prolific marksman. Underperforming his xG by 3.3 indicated there was still work to do on his finishing, especially when the rate of chances were to be significantly reduced in the Premier League.

Premier League return

With an ankle injury keeping him out of two of Bournemouth’s first three matches, Solanke was helpless to prevent the 9-0 massacre that ensued at Anfield upon his return to action.

Parker was sacked three days after the humiliating defeat to Liverpool and Gary O’Neil inherited caretaker duties.

Solanke was pivotal in O’Neil’s first triumph, scoring one and setting up another in a 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest. He was at it again in a crucial encounter with Fulham, adding to his goal and assist tally as they were held to a 2-2 draw.

Attempting to ease the goal burden on his star forward, O’Neil utilised Solanke as Bournemouth’s creator-in-chief, encouraging other squad members to capitalise on the opportunities he could create with his hold-up play.

Philip Billing, fulfilling a more advanced role, was one to benefit from Solanke’s selflessness, and went on to outscore the forward by seven goals to six.

But Solanke’s influence was telling, demonstrating the ingenuity in his game and seven assists were evidence of that.

Bournemouth would survive comfortably on their Premier League return but Bill Foley, the Cherries’ billionaire owner who completed his takeover in December 2022, made the controversial decision to axe the season-saving hero O’Neil and step into the unknown with the bold appointment of Iraola.

Cherry on top of the cake

In the suburbs of Madrid, Iraola had transformed Rayo Vallecano from a second division side to a top-half La Liga outfit. His methods intense and calculated – or complicated, as Solanke argued initially - the former Athletic Club defender implements a high-press system that has enabled the Cherries frontman to flourish.

Winless in their opening nine Premier League fixtures, doubts were beginning to fester over whether Iraola’s style would produce results. Victory against Burnley marked a turning point in Bournemouth’s fortunes, with the South Coast outfit winning six of their eight matches since and moving up to 10th.

Solanke had already scored four by the time Iraola registered his first success and the forward has continued to excel.

Now on 12 goals so far this term, he’s already doubled his tally from last campaign and we’re only halfway through the season.

Where O’Neill tried to ease the goalscoring burden on Solanke, Iraola has entrusted him with it and the 26-year-old has embraced the responsibility.

He’s behind only Son Heung-min and Mohamed Salah for big chances converted and no player has scored more non-penalty goals than Solanke in the Premier League this season.

Premier League 2023/24: Non-Penalty Goals

Dominic Solanke (Bournemouth)11
Erling Haaland (Manchester City)11
Jarrod Bowen (West Ham)11
Son Heung-min (Tottenham)10
Hwang Hee-chan (Wolves)9
Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa)9
Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)9

Solanke is now shooting more than he ever has, averaging 3.36 shots per 90 – a drastic increase on his 2.4 average of last season. Such numbers would suggest he’s attempting more efforts from distance but his number of shots from outside the penalty area have reduced from 13% to 8%.

The striker is actually creating and receiving statistically better opportunities. Where he registered 0.12 xG per shot last term, he’s now averaging 0.21 xG per shot which demonstrates he is creating higher quality chances.

And if you want to take statistics out of the equation, Solanke passes the eye-test. You only have to glance at the spectacular match-winning header he scored to seal his hat-trick against Nottingham Forest, generating enough power to guide the ball with pinpoint precision. There’s an argument that his header for Bournemouth’s first was more aesthetically pleasing, navigating to the near post and timing his leap perfectly to loop the ball beyond Matt Turner. 

He is doing all the good things, on the ball, off the ball. I think he helps his teammates a lot. It is a pleasure to have him up front.

Andoni Iraola, Bournemouth manager

Solanke has developed into a multi-faceted threat. Off the ball, his constant energy and eagerness to press make him the perfect fit for Iraola’s system and lend to the creation of chances in the opposition third.

His versatility is also beneficial. In matches where Bournemouth are expected to dominate possession, his physical presence provide the team with an outlet from which they can construct attacking sequences.

In matches where they are expected to sit in a low block, Solanke has the speed and directness to carry his team forward on the counter.

But it’s his goalscoring prowess that’s impressed Iraola the most. He expects a level of application and physical exertion but any snippets of individual brilliance are a bonus in the eyes of the Basque native.

The ambitions of Iraola and the Bournemouth board is to eventually achieve European football; Solanke is demonstrating he can be the man to lead them there.

Bournemouth 2023/24 odds

Premier League - Top Goalscorer:

Dominic Solanke - 25/1

Premier League

To Finish in Top 6 - 33/1
To Finish in Top Half - 5/2
To Finish in Bottom Half - 2/7

FA Cup

To Win Outright - 66/1

England future

The unfortunate reality for any English striker currently scoring goals in the Premier League is that they will be no more than a back-up option for Southgate when Harry Kane is around.

Forbidding any injury to the Bayern Munich talisman, Kane is one of the first names in Southgate’s squad for Euro 2024 but behind him, competition is intense.

Ollie Watkins, Callum Wilson, Eddie Nketiah and Ivan Toney have enjoyed impressive purple patches in the top flight and while all four have enjoyed some exposure on the international stage, the quartet acknowledge they’re playing second fiddle to arguably England’s greatest striker.

Solanke’s not had much of a sniff since making his England bow in 2017 but his current form will have caught the attention of Southgate.

If he can maintain this standard until the end of the season and breach the 20-goal barrier, there’s every chance he can force his way into Southgate’s reckoning.

And should the Three Lions be in need of a goal, Solanke can be a nuisance from the bench.

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