Bournemouth wrestling Jack Wilshere dilemma with eye on 2017-18
The international break has been a welcome period of calm at the Vitality Stadium and with no new injure scares, Bournemouth are in a good place. The rest for the vast majority of the team over the past week can only bode well for the remainder of the season as well.
A short trip east to take on Southampton on April 1 will definitely be a tricky test in advance of the final stage of the season, but it's one the Cherries should be confident of overcoming. Claude Puel's side have taken just 18 points at home from a possible 36 and while Bournemouth's results away from the Vitality have been largely poor, they will take confidence from Southampton's clear vulnerability at St Mary's.
Team selection wise it's hard to make a case to alter the one which beat Swansea on March 18. Unless Jack Wilshere has made an impression on the training ground, it's difficult to come up with a genuine reason for his inclusion in the starting XI either. Junior Stanislas could be an improved option on the wing but Eddie Howe's reluctance to play the 27-year-old means he will probably remain on the bench as well. He has five assists this season, which is more than any other player despite his limited time on the pitch, and should be playing more often.
Building on the success at set pieces and corner deliveries is one thing for Bournemouth to continue to focus on against the Saints. The club have scored 17 of their 42 goals this season from set-piece situations, with six of these goals coming directly from crossed in free kicks -- the second-highest tally in the division. These stats suggest the club are doing well at utilising these dead ball situations, but having watched them every week, they aren't. Simon Francis is the best header of a ball the club have and he's frequently seen taking corners. These small changes could reap dividends immediately.
Beyond the next fixture and into the final two months of the season, preparation for the 2017-18 campaign is already underway. Wilshere's future is a prominent talking point at the moment, but even more so is the future of fellow England international Jermain Defoe.
The striker, despite being 34 years old, has proved this season he still has a lot left in the tank. He bagged 18 goals last year and with 14 to his name already this campaign, he's likely to top that. Considering this impressive output in a struggling Sunderland side, one can't help but think Defoe's tally could be even more in a side like Bournemouth. With his close ties to the club, a return to the south coast looks promising.
Howe's side have been craving a striker with the instinct and experience that Defoe possesses. Chance creation has been good, but in terms of finishing opportunities, Bournemouth's forwards have been poor. Benik Afobe could have 15 goals to his name easily with a bit more composure in front of goal and Josh King has only found reliable form in the past few matches. The Cherries like to keep the ball on the floor and with the attacking style of full-back which Bournemouth possess, opportunities for Defoe to score would be even more frequent than at the Stadium of Light right now. He's a natural finisher which is one thing Bournemouth really could do with adding to their squad.
A new centre-back is another thing the Cherries should be in the market for come July 1 when the summer transfer window opens. Francis has perked up over the past couple of games, which is pleasing considering it's been a period they have really needed him to with Tyrone Mings' ban but he still remains a liability. His performances from now until the end of the season could play a huge role in whether or not he's at the club next year.
Bournemouth do sit in a much more comfortable position now than they did four weeks ago and the international break was filled with more enjoyment than panic, but clearly there is still work to be done. A win against Southampton will take them to 36 points and it's another huge step towards guaranteeing survival but the work shouldn't stop there. While considering new signings for next season is already underway, building some momentum within the squad for the next campaign should also be a priority.
Three more points and they will be comfortably on their way.
Will Kent is a freelance journalist who has worked for AFC Bournemouth, ESPN UK and ESPN FC, among others. Twitter: @WillKentSPORT