The Radar column looks at how Dominic Solanke is belatedly blossoming under Andoni Iraola at Bournemouth and why top clubs are watching; watch Bournemouth vs Liverpool live on Sky Sports Premier League from 3.30pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm
Image: Arsenal and Newcastle are among the clubs said to be interested in Chelsea academy graduate Dominic Solanke
Dominic Solanke has always had it. His scoring touch made him a rising star in Chelsea’s academy and with England’s youth teams. It earned him a move to Liverpool at 19 and a senior international debut before he had even started a Premier League game.
But it is only now, at 26, that all that shimmering potential is finally being fulfilled. Only Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah have scored more goals in the Premier League this season. Solanke, on 12, has already doubled his tally for the whole of last term.
His performances have helped propel Bournemouth up the table but Solanke was scoring even in the awkward early months of the campaign, when supporters were bracing for a relegation fight.
His form was rewarded with a new contract in September but, inevitably, suitors are hovering. Arsenal and Newcastle have been linked. They are not the only ones in the market for a striker, either.
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It should, of course, come as little surprise that a player whose entire footballing education took place in the confines of elite clubs now looks capable of returning to that level.
But Solanke has been through a lot to get to this point. Agonising goal droughts. Two years in the second tier. As recently as July, Bournemouth head coach Andoni Iraola was fielding questions about the possibility of signing a replacement.
“I remember I was being asked about another No 9, because he wasn’t scoring this amount of goals,” recalled the Spaniard recently. “But I was thinking that it’s going to be very, very difficult for us to sign someone better than Dom.”
Iraola’s impact explained
Iraola has downplayed his own role in Solanke’s transformation this season. “It is not that we have changed the player,” he told Sky Sports after the striker’s hat-trick against Nottingham Forest.
“He was doing really well before we arrived. He was doing a lot of the stuff that is good for the team. He is continuing to do those things and now he has added this clinical finishing.”
Image: Solanke's touches and passes are down but he is shooting and scoring more
But the explosion in Solanke’s scoring output since the Spaniard’s appointment is no coincidence. He is benefitting from a quicker and more direct style of play but also a narrower individual remit.
Indeed, even though Bournemouth have averaged more possession than last season, Solanke has been less involved in their approach play, his numbers down for both touches and passes.
He has long had a tendency to drop deep, something which was encouraged under his first manager at Bournemouth, Eddie Howe, who used to talk up his selflessness in putting the team first.
Image: Solanke is less active in deeper areas this season, with more focus on the opposition box
But Iraola has sought to use him differently, maximising his goal threat by asking him to stay higher up the pitch. His actions by zone map shows he is much less active in the middle third. His percentage of touches in the opposition box has risen from 15 to 20.
He is shooting far more as a result. In fact, Solanke has had more shots this season than any other player in the Premier League.
But it is a question of quality as well as quantity. The crucial factor is that Solanke is shooting from more dangerous positions.
Image: Solanke is taking his shots from better positions this season
It can be seen in his shot map, which shows a higher concentration of efforts from the centre of the box, in between the width of the goal posts. His total of 14 shots from inside the six-yard box puts joint-top in the division along with Haaland.
He is generating better chances and his confidence is up. It also helps that he feels in a happier place generally. “I’m a lot more mature now,” he said in September. Iraola has praised his ability to maintain his focus even in adversity.
“He has a clear mind,” said the Bournemouth boss after Solanke put earlier misses behind him to score twice in their 2-0 win over Newcastle in November. “Sometimes when strikers miss chances, they start overthinking. He continued playing the same way.”
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Iraola has since described Solanke as “a complete No 9”. It is high praise but it is not for nothing. His completeness can be seen in the sheer variety of his finishes this season.
Against Forest, two towering headers from crosses either side of an instinctive, poacher’s effort from close-range. Against Manchester United and Wolves, a pair of deft flicks to dispatch cut-backs.
Image: Solanke has scored 12 goals in the Premier League this season
He has struck after pouncing on loose balls, his reactions that bit sharper than those of his markers. There was also a superb, low strike on the turn against Aston Villa. He even hit an opportunistic goal from long range in the meeting with Brighton in September.
He has the capacity to contribute in different contexts.
“He is very good for our system, but I also think he is good for any system,” says Iraola. “He can play in a low block, because he is very good attacking spaces in a counter. And then, if we are having more possession, he is very good inside the box, a very good finisher.”
Bournemouth have become one of the Premier League’s most dangerous teams in transition under Iraola and Solanke has been key. According to Opta, he has made seven fast breaks this season. Only Nottingham Forest’s Anthony Elanga has made more.
Image: Solanke is a threat on the break and can also act as a targetman
He is a quick and powerful runner but he is also intelligent in his movement. Only Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins and Chelsea’s Nicolas Jackson have made more runs challenging the opposition’s backline.
Solanke stretches defences and has the strength and stature to act as a focal point too. His total of 31 hold-ups is the fifth-highest in the division this season. He ranks among the Premier League’s top 10 forwards in terms of duels won and among the top five for aerials.
He has only scored two headers this season but that tally could easily be higher. His total of 18 headed shots puts him clear of any other Premier League player, underlining his aerial threat.
Solanke wins monthly gong
Dominic Solanke won the Premier League’s Player of the Month award for December after scoring six goals in six games. He is the first Bournemouth player to win it.
Solanke has only recently rediscovered the clinical finishing ability that set him apart in his youth but, even in his most difficult periods in front of goal, his off-the-ball industry has shone through.
Image: Solanke vies for possession with Chelsea's Malo Gusto
It helps explain why he remained crucial to the side under Gary O’Neil last season, despite his modest goal total. “I think, unless you watch Dom regularly and closely, some of the stuff he does can go unnoticed,” noted Iraola’s predecessor in April.
Solanke is a pressing machine so it is little wonder he is thriving under a manager who places such an emphasis on it. This season, he ranks among the Premier League’s top 10 players for both pressures and high-intensity sprints.
But when Iraola talks up the good things Solanke was already doing for Bournemouth, he is chiefly referring to that off-the-ball work. Solanke actually ranked even higher on both fronts last season, making more pressures than any other player in the Premier League.
Image: Solanke ranks second only to Bruno Fernandes for counter-pressures
The difference is that his efforts are more concentrated now and a deeper look at the numbers is revealing. He ranks second for counter-pressures this season, third for pressures in the final third and second for pressures in the final third resulting in a turnover.
So, while he is registering fewer pressures overall, he is registering a higher proportion at the top-end of the pitch, with 58 per cent coming in the final third compared to only 45 per cent last term.
His pressing ability is just another part of his attraction to the Premier League’s elite but his suitors will face a fight to prise him from Bournemouth. His value continues to rise. There is no indication he is in a hurry to leave.
When the time does come, though, it seems increasingly likely that Solanke’s next step will take him back to the top.
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