While Bournemouth’s promotion chase hangs in the air, is the 23-year-old primed to return to the big time regardless of how they end the campaign?
It seemed rather inconceivable that Dominic Solanke would be playing Championship football less than four years after leading England’s U-20 side to the World Cup in 2017.
The then-prodigious talent wasn’t just a bystander in South Korea, rather he dominated the competition and was awarded the Golden Ball at the end of an amazing showpiece.
For context, greats like the late Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi are past winners of the prize, while Paul Pogba — an eventual winner of the World Cup with France’s senior team — claimed the honour in 2013.
When Bournemouth’s relegation was confirmed at the end of the 2019/20 campaign, Solanke was at a crossroads, especially as his stock had significantly fallen circa three years after seemingly having the world at his feet in Asia.
England’s second division is punishing in every sense and the Cherries’ meek surrender post-lockdown didn’t inspire confidence in their ability to make an immediate return. Eddie Howe also departed after eight years at the club while Ryan Fraser, probably the team’s best attacker, opted to leave on a free.
Solanke, a Chelsea academy graduate and former Liverpool player, looked to be stuck on the south coast for the 2020/21 campaign given there was little interest in his services.
Be that as it may, instead of falling off the radar, the Anglo-Nigerian has mostly thrived in the Championship, although a lull in end product since the turn of the year has resurrected reservations about his staying power throughout a gruelling campaign.
Those doubts are somewhat validated on the back of the dry spell that has seen the 23-year-old register three goal contributions in 2021 after featuring in 11 league matches, 12 if you throw in the substitute appearance in the FA Cup clash with Crawley Town in late January.
Having contributed to 13 goals in his first 21 Championship games, the recent lean spell has unsurprisingly coincided with the Cherries’ drop off in results as well, falling to a staggering seven defeats since the start of January despite losing only three in their first 21 matches.
That run of results has damaged their hopes of a top six finish, with their form in the New Year seeing them drop out of the playoff spots, although they remain two points adrift of Reading in sixth place.
Allowing Josh King to depart for Everton on transfer deadline day hasn’t helped Jonathan Woodgate’s attack and Solanke’s three-week layoff immediately after and for the majority of February has contributed to Bournemouth’s lack of final third end product since January.
Regardless, the former centre-back needs Solanke to find his 2020 form if they are to finish in the playoff slots. The ex-Chelsea forward has been involved in 16 of the side’s 55 goals so far, which accounts for 30 percent of the team’s return.
He sits joint-seventh in the Championship for goals scored and ranks joint-sixth for total involvements along with Swansea City’s Andre Ayew, which further underscores his influence for the south coast outfit.
The fact all 11 goals have been from open play have equally been impressive, with 10 of his total netted from inside the box, highlighting his poaching instincts.
While there have been a plethora of missed chances as well — he’s missed 12 big chances this term (fourth highest in the league) — Solanke’s importance to the team’s chances of success remain unmistakable and even his manager reckons the forward is one of the best in the division.
“[Solanke] holds the ball up well. He’s got good movement, he’s quick, he’s decent in the air. He’s one of the best strikers in the league,” the ex-England defender told Daily Echo after the striker returned from injury in February.
Now 23, Solanke is at an age where observers already expect him to be delivering on his undoubted potential, and he accepts the responsibility of being Bournemouth’s top man to deliver a Premier League return.
“Obviously, it was difficult watching and not being able to go out there and help the team,” the one-time England international told the Daily Echo recently, “but I’m back, so hopefully I can stay fit now. If the team were winning every game, it wouldn’t have been too bad but knowing you could probably help the team if you were fit – that’s difficult to take.”
He added: “Before the injury, I was involved in every game – started a lot of games and I found my feet and got quite good confidence from that. We need that confidence in the team and hopefully, I can pick up my form quickly, get some more goals and help us get back to the Premier League.”
While automatic promotion may be beyond Woodgate’s team, it remains to be seen if the Cherries find the consistency in the remainder of the season to end in the top six and have a shot at returning to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
Undoubtedly, Solanke will be vital to whatever Bournemouth achieve and a return to his form before January gives the club a higher chance of promotion.
That will definitely be the ideal situation for the 23-year-old, but he’ll hope performances in the gruelling Championship have convinced top flight sides to grant him another opportunity to finally prove his potential among the big boys in the English game.