Jack Wilshere injury complicates Bournemouth's decision over his future
It's been a difficult few days for Bournemouth. After being dealt a humiliating 4-0 defeat by Spurs, news emerged that summer-signing Jack Wilshere has been ruled out for the remainder of the campaign with a fractured leg. As the final push of the season starts with the next fixture against Middlesbrough on April 22, it looks like things are swinging against Eddie Howe's side as they seek those final few points to ensure survival.
Wilshere's injury is an even bigger blow when considering fellow central midfielder and creative maestro Andrew Surman has also suffered a similar fate in recent weeks. With both out for the next five games, it's time for Lewis Cook to fill a void which should come as blessing in disguise for fans. Despite starting in the opening fixture of the season against Manchester United, Cook's involvement has been very limited. It's a chance to see if he's up to scratch and to see him potentially make a claim for a starting berth in the midfield for next season.
Wilshere's future remains up in the air too. In the flesh, the Arsenal loanee has been impressive and possesses an abundance of talent. He does the basics very well and his low centre of gravity enables him to do things very few other players can. He is clearly levels above what Bournemouth currently have, but the statistics on paper do admittedly tell another story.
Wilshere has only averaged an assist every 958 minutes and for a central midfielder who is often utilised as a No.10 that is a poor return especially considering the Cherries are a team known for their fluid possession-based football. Obviously statistics such as this are not the be-all and end-all when discussing whether his loan spell has been a success or not, but there will not one Bournemouth fan content with the fact that he hasn't found the net at least once.
With current wages of £80,000, it raises a huge question over whether he is worth signing permanently. His injury record is another major factor to consider when debating a possible Bournemouth future. Wilshere's recent time on the bench hints that Eddie Howe isn't particularly impressed by what the England international has been offering. He has not performed well enough for a top-four club such as Arsenal and the Cherries are not a side who revolve around a single player that comes with a player with the name value and extortionate wages such as Wilshere. His future remains up in the air and it will be fascinating to watch over the next few months, especially with Arsene Wenger's future at Arsenal also a question mark.
With thoughts towards the next fixture now at the forefront of everyone's mind, it should be an easy routine victory for Howe's side. Middlesbrough haven't won in their last 15 games and have claimed just three points on the road just once this season. The Cherries performances at the Vitality Stadium have earned a respectable seven wins and three draws from 16 fixtures. This form from both sides suggest a Bournemouth win despite a less fruitful trip to the Riverside Stadium earlier in the season.
Josh King will be the attacking force Bournemouth will be relying upon come kick off on Saturday afternoon. The Norway international has been in tremendous form and despite being more prolific on the road, with just five of his 13 goals coming at the Vitality Stadium, he remains the biggest offensive threat. Combined with Ryan Fraser's pace and unpredictability on the wing, this attacking duo will undoubtedly cause panic among the Boro back-line if they are both chosen to start. Marc Pugh is likely to start on the opposite flank to the Scotland international given Howe's recent loyalty to the 30-year-old. These three have more than enough in their locker to stretch Boro and win Bournemouth the game.
The visitors don't score often and with just 23 goals to their name all season, they remain at the bottom of the league in that category. Despite this alarming figure, Bournemouth's defence has been far from watertight and conceding nine goals in their last three games suggests a defensive fragility which plagued them in January and February has potentially returned. Admittedly these goals have come against more impressive sides such as Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs but there is evidently a weakness still there.
This match is the first of five easily winnable fixtures and a chance to not only completely secure survival but also build some momentum ahead of the 2017-18 season. Recalling Leicester's title triumph in 2015-16, they built upon the positive results from the back end of the previous campaign. While it's an extravagant claim to say Bournemouth could follow in similar footsteps to the current champions, it's proof that a decent end to the season can reap many positives for the next one. This game is a chance to put some of the foundations in place for an enjoyable preseason and positive start to next season.
Will Kent is a freelance journalist who has worked for AFC Bournemouth, ESPN UK and ESPN FC, among others. Twitter: @WillKentSPORT