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Friday, June 21, 2024

Dominic Solanke is the Premier League’s leading English striker – at last

There has always been a sense that this day was coming for Dominic Solanke — his name up in lights as the leading English goalscorer in the Premier League.

The only surprise for those who watched Solanke score so prolifically for Chelsea at schoolboy and youth level — and his numbers really were extraordinary across those years — is that it has taken so long for everything to fall into place.

“Is this the time now where he suddenly realises that brilliant potential he’s always had?” Adi Viveash, who was Solanke’s coach across multiple age groups at Chelsea, tells The Athletic.

Viveash pauses for a moment. “But it’s not something that’s just come overnight. It’s always been in there. Maybe the coach there at Bournemouth (Andoni Iraola) has unlocked it. Maybe Dom has just matured to that level now.”

Solanke’s stats this season point to a transformation — a goal rush that is totally out of keeping with anything we have seen from him in the Premier League before.

After scoring only 10 goals across 96 Premier League appearances up until last summer (he was used predominantly from the substitutes’ bench at Liverpool and also during his first four months at Bournemouth), Solanke has scored 12 in 19 games this term — already double his previous best tally at this level. To put it another way, a one-in-10 striker is now averaging better than a goal every other game.

Only Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah have scored more Premier League goals this season and, in that context, the transfer rumours linking Solanke with some of the biggest clubs in England are inevitable. So, too, is the talk of a return to the England squad.

Although Solanke has played down the social media clamour for him to be picked by England, Iraola’s staff believe the 26-year-old is ready and deserves his place. They’ve used this summer’s European Championships as a motivational tool, putting together footage for Solanke to highlight how and where he can score even more goals — starting with his heading.

Solanke has snapped a long run of not scoring from headers (Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

What is clear is that the England door is ajar. Gareth Southgate doesn’t have an established hierarchy when it comes to the role of backup striker to Harry Kane — Ollie Watkins, Callum Wilson and the returning Ivan Toney are all in the mix — and the England manager has always admired Solanke.

Their relationship goes back a long way, to almost a decade ago, when Southgate was England’s Under-21 coach and knew all about Solanke’s goalscoring feats in Chelsea’s academy. “I’ve watched him through our system since he was 16 — he’s a player of high potential,” Southgate said in 2015.

Solanke won a full England cap under Southgate two years later, in a goalless draw against Brazil, but his career stalled at Liverpool where he was always on the periphery, and had never taken off in the Premier League at Bournemouth before now.

Up until recently, some would have looked at Solanke’s numbers — six Premier League goals last season and three in his previous full campaign at this level — and questioned whether he belonged in the top flight.

Was Solanke one of those strikers who was too good for the Championship — 44 goals across two seasons in the second tier, including 29 when Bournemouth won promotion in 2022 — but not good enough for the Premier League?

Few people who have worked closely with him would ask themselves that question. “I love Dominic Solanke,” Eddie Howe, Newcastle’s manager, said earlier this month when asked about a story linking his club with the forward. “I signed him (as Bournemouth manager) and I rate him very, very highly.”

“I don’t think there’s a centre-forward in the Premier League or the Championship who would be pumping out the physical numbers Dominic Solanke does in terms of a physical aspect,” Scott Parker said during his time in charge at Bournemouth. “He is incredible in leading the line.”

That work ethic and selflessness have endeared Solanke to coaches and team-mates alike, but they have arguably hindered his goalscoring. Typically, he never complained — to paraphrase one Bournemouth coach, if Solanke can do three jobs to help the team, he will.

That’s all changed this season, though, following the appointment of Iraola and a shift in tactics under the Spaniard that goes some way to explaining why Solanke has turned into one of the most dangerous strikers in England.

Solanke has been instructed to cover less ground out of possession — they talk at Bournemouth about him being far more economical with his running this season — and encouraged to take up advanced central attacking positions in a team that adopts a high press.

Bournemouth, in short, want Solanke to be in the best possible area to threaten the opposition goal when they regain the ball and that approach has reaped huge rewards for both the player and, in the past couple of months in particular, his club.

It seems strange to think an early developer at youth level has been a late bloomer in the Premier League.

In academy football, Solanke was way ahead of his time. A standout player in Chelsea’s foundation phase from the moment he set foot in the door, Solanke had a chauffeur taking him to and from training when he was playing for their under-9s.

“When I first went to Chelsea’s academy, I did driving and I used to pick Dominic up from his home on the outskirts of Basingstoke and drive him in,” Viveash, who is now Coventry City’s assistant manager, recalls. “He was eight years old and he used to sit in the back of the car and say, ‘Evening, Adi’, and ‘Bye, Adi’.”

Viveash laughs as he tells that story and pictures Solanke putting his headphones on.

The two ended up talking a lot more in later years when Viveash became his youth coach and Chelsea enjoyed a hugely successful period at academy level, winning trophies at home and overseas.

Solanke was a star, regularly playing way above his age group and always scoring goals.

“Arsene Wenger saw him in an FA Youth Cup semi-final,” Viveash adds. “Dom was 16, the second leg was at the Emirates, and Wenger said to me at the game that he hadn’t seen anybody play like that — able to play in (a combination of) the two positions (No 9 and No 10) at a young age and have that football intelligence.

“Him and Tammy (Abraham) scored a ridiculous amount of goals coming through at youth level — it was like a competition — and then, for whatever reason, Dom’s career didn’t go in the path that, well, I certainly thought it would. Because if there was anyone I would have put my hat on, it was him.”

Mourinho handed Solanke only one appearance (AMA/Corbis via Getty Images)

Solanke made only one appearance for Chelsea, as a 17-year-old substitute in a 6-0 Champions League victory against Maribor in 2014.

Jose Mourinho was in charge of Chelsea at the time and spoke highly of the teenager to the media, famously saying a few months before that Maribor game that he should blame himself if Solanke, along with Lewis Baker and Izzy Brown, two other talented youngsters at the club, failed to become England players.

Inside Chelsea, though, the messaging was very different and the feedback passed on from Mourinho’s staff on the back of Solanke’s debut was nothing like as positive.

A loan spell followed at Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands, where Solanke scored only seven goals and never really settled. In Solanke’s words, “It wasn’t my favourite destination.”

Solanke returned to Chelsea, where Antonio Conte took over from Mourinho as manager in 2016. More significantly for Solanke, new contract talks between his step-dad and Chelsea’s director of football, Michael Emenalo, broke down and the fall-out was acrimonious. Solanke, who insisted money was never a factor in his refusal to sign an extended deal, effectively lost a year of football while waiting for his Chelsea contract to expire before joining Liverpool in 2017.

On the face of it, Liverpool appeared a strange move for a young forward who wanted more first-team opportunities, bearing in mind that Sadio Mane, Salah and Roberto Firmino were at Anfield as well as Danny Ings, Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi.

From Liverpool’s point of view, it was seen as a no-brainer — Solanke had huge potential and would cost relatively little in compensation (a fee around the £5m-£6m mark was agreed with Chelsea a year later after the two clubs reached a compromise).

Jurgen Klopp admitted he knew very little about Solanke initially, with Liverpool’s interest driven by senior recruitment figures at Anfield. Once his name was put forward, though, Klopp watched as much as he could on video (it was a struggle to find footage at first), decided the teenager looked like “a nice project”, and gave the transfer the green light.

Although Solanke’s excellent form for Liverpool in his first pre-season, on the back of winning the Under-20 World Cup with England, impressed Klopp, there was never any realistic prospect of him forcing his way into the manager’s starting XI. Only six of Solanke’s 27 appearances that season were as a starter and it wasn’t until the final day of the season, against Brighton, that he scored his one and only Liverpool goal.

A young Solanke found himself competing with an elite group at Liverpool (John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Solanke became restless by the middle of the following season. Hampered by injuries, he found himself behind Sturridge and Origi, two other backup strikers, in the pecking order and sought a fresh start. After a loan move to Crystal Palace collapsed, Solanke signed for Bournemouth in January 2019 for an initial fee of £19m — a significant sum of money for a player who still had only one senior goal in English football to his name.

Although his time at Chelsea finished on a sour note and the move to Liverpool never worked out, Viveash maintains that Solanke would have learned a lot from both experiences and, crucially, been well-equipped to deal with the disappointment.

“Dominic has got an incredible belief in his own ability and he’s got a tremendous support mechanism with his mum and his step-dad, who have been fantastic for him all the way through,” he adds. “His mum is his main source and the bond between them is special. I think that is a big driver for him, to make them (his family) proud.”

By Solanke’s own admission, the early days under Iraola were tricky. Adapting to a coach who wanted to play a totally different way, by introducing a higher defensive line, press aggressively and be on the front foot, was always going to take time.

In many ways, though, Solanke’s role has become easier. The deeper, and at times sacrificial, role he was asked to play under some of his previous Bournemouth managers in the Premier League has gone. Instead, Solanke is told to stay high on the pitch and, where possible, position himself between the two centre-backs.

Out of possession, Solanke’s job is relatively straightforward — stop the ball going to the centre-back who is the most comfortable on the ball.

By taking up that role between the centre-backs, he is ideally placed to be the focal point of Bournemouth’s counter-attacks — an “out ball”, in space, on the transition.

All of that, allied with Bournemouth’s more positive style of play, has contributed to Solanke finding himself in the best area on the pitch to score goals. He is shooting more often and, crucially, from better positions.

The shift is notable in the chart below.

Last season, Solanke touched the ball most (eight per cent of the time) midway inside the opposition half. This season, Solanke has had 12 per cent of his touches in the centre of the opposition penalty area.

Being in the right place at the right time is one thing, taking chances is another. “I think he scores typical No 9 goals now — balls bouncing around the penalty box, swivel, bang. He scored one like that against Newcastle from a corner,” Viveash adds.

“The centre-forwards like Kane, and the others with the incredible numbers, they get all types of goals. Dom has been the scorer of great goals — not so many with his head, although he’s had a couple this season, but I think those ricochets that lead to poacher’s goals he’s added and that’s probably why the numbers are better. Plus, Bournemouth have suddenly had an incredible run of form where they’ve gone and got big results at big clubs like Manchester United.”

Solanke’s heading is an interesting subject. Before the 3-2 win at Nottingham Forest last month, Solanke had a meeting with a couple of Bournemouth staff, including one of the analysts, to talk through his impressive stats and how well he was performing in relation to his xG, but then the subject of heading came up.

Bournemouth saw room for improvement. At 6ft 2in (188cm), winning headers has never been a problem for Solanke. Indeed, only Aleksandar Mitrovic and Haaland have attempted more headers on goal than Solanke in the Premier League over the past two seasons, but Solanke’s last 25 headed chances had failed to yield a goal.

Feast followed famine at the City Ground. Solanke’s first hat-trick in senior football included two outstanding headers. The first was a terrific twisting header from in front of the near post that looped over the head of the Forest goalkeeper and into the far corner. The second — and the match-winner — was from closer to the penalty spot after another towering leap. The xG on both was 0.04. In other words, Solanke had no right to score.

Iraola talked after the Forest game about how Solanke is capable of playing in any system and is becoming a “complete No 9”.

The key question, of course, is whether he, who was named December’s Premier League player of the month and takes on his former club Liverpool at the Vitality Stadium on Sunday, can sustain this form over a longer period.

“He’s been in the Premier League a few years now,” Viveash adds. “You get more comfortable in the surroundings, you get used to it, a coach comes in and it seems to fit, suddenly your numbers go back to a really high level and now Bournemouth have a real problem to try to keep him.

“If he carries on, I don’t see any way that he won’t be moving — I don’t think now, but I imagine in the summer. I would have thought that would be quite a wrench for him because you’ll have got to that stage where you’re settled and you’re comfortable, but he should still have that drive to get to the level where I think he was destined to play.”

Additional reporting: James Pearce, Jacob Tanswell, Thom Harris

(Top photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Read the full article here

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