Is time running out for Eddie Howe at Bournemouth with status on line?
There was a submissiveness to Bournemouth's 1-0 defeat to Chelsea on Saturday. At times, the home crowd were as accepting of defeat as their team appeared to be. As Antonio Conte bellowed at his Chelsea team, his thigh-slapping rage was often the lone sound to be heard in the evening air.
Bournemouth fans have seen their team lose seven of their 10 league matches this season and are audibly losing heart.
In the bottom three since Aug. 26, the club's third season in the Premier League is proving difficult. The excitement of being promoted and then the consolidation of last season are history. Instead, the cold reality of being a perennial struggler that most smaller clubs must eventually accept.
For Bournemouth now, read Wigan Athletic at the turn of the decade, or Bolton Wanderers once Sam Allardyce quit in the summer of 2007, where a fairytale ride became a grim, repeated struggle. The fate of the Lancastrian pair, both of whom eventually dropped into League One, and others besides, are cautionary tales for clubs who fly above their comfort zones. Eventually, destiny and inferior finance will drag clubs downwards, and it stops being enjoyable for supporters to see their team as a Premier League punchbag.
"We didn't plan to sit in as much as we did," said Howe after Saturday's defeat, attempting to explain what had appeared to be a pragmatic approach. It seemed his team had failed to heed the lessons of Crystal Palace's 2-1 defeat of the champions on Oct. 14 and the following week, when Watford went into a 2-1 lead before succumbing 4-2. Both had pressed from the front.
"When you are in this league and you lose games, there can be a feeling that the easy thing to do is fall into a trap and become defensive," he continued. "We have never been that kind of team and I will not allow us to become that kind of team. It is very important we play to our strengths."
Howe is known for his belief in attacking football, but has been able to celebrate just six goals all season. Palace, the only team below his in the table, made a historically bad start to the campaign with no goals in seven straight defeats, but now sit just three points behind's Bournemouth's seven points.
Bournemouth's summer signings have struggled, with goalkeeper Asmir Begovic making an error in Eden Hazard's goal on Saturday, Jermain Defoe scoring just once, and Nathan Ake failing to refresh a defence that had largely been in place since League One days.
Howe is accused of being too loyal to those players who helped reach the Premier League and the delayed introduction of England Under-20 World Cup-winning captain Lewis Cook to midfield has been a source of complaint, yet fans remain unlikely to turn against the manager.
"The crowd will not turn against Eddie Howe," broadcaster and Bournemouth fan Tom Latchem told ESPN FC. "Any true Bournemouth fan would allow him as long as he wants. He has free rein as long as he wants it; he got us there [to the top flight] after all."
Above Bournemouth in the table, Leicester and Everton have sacked managers for sinking towards the drop zone, and it has been noticeable that Howe, previously top of the wanted list for Premier League clubs looking to bring in a new manager, was barely linked with either of those vacancies.
That may derive from Howe being so closely associated with Bournemouth, where he is in his second spell as manager after beginning and finishing his playing career as a defender in the town where he spent most of his childhood. But in truth, others are jumping ahead of him in the queue.
Sean Dyche succeeded Howe at Burnley in October 2012 and, with his team in seventh place, is flavour of the month. Dyche was heavily linked with the Leicester vacancy that went to Claude Puel and continues to top the bookies' favourites to replace Ronald Koeman at Everton. Meanwhile, the days of Howe being viewed as a potential successor to Arsene Wenger at Arsenal have dimmed.
Instead, he must concentrate on the job in hand. This season's struggles take place while modernisation is in progress, with a new stadium in nearby Kings Park set to replace the Vitality's 11,000 capacity on a summer 2020 deadline.
It's a project "befitting of a Premier League club," chief executive Neill Blake said in July, but a drop to the Championship has become a genuine danger. For fans like Latchem that would be in no way the end of the world. "It's more of a competition," he said of the second tier. "It's often a better atmosphere, still decent crowds with decent away days."
Howe remains up for the fight, with winnable trips to Newcastle and Swansea either side of a home match against Huddersfield. "We need to be very brave in our approach and have no doubts about how good we are," he said on Saturday.
But to rescue his club, revive his own reputation and lift fans' belief, a swift revival is required.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.