John Nyen on Bolton’s season and plight
There are 18 games left to save the season for Bolton Wanderers.
Saving they may need indeed, after momentarily sinking to just near the bottom of the table in the Barclay’s Premier League.
Given that they are Bolton, and given that there probably isn’t a 50-million pound signing coming in the near future, the questions remain:
#1 How did this happen?
#2 Will they stay up?
If we flash back to last season we watched the Wanderers scale the dizzying heights of the Premier League table. Starting out the season with a tie against Wigan, Bolton quickly found themselves on the right foot.
They began with a three game unbeaten streak before losing to Arsenal, and as of December 30th 2011 (20 games in) they had only lost six games. With an evolving midfield of Stuart Holden, Fabrice Muamba, Martin Taylor, Martin Petrov, Lee Chung-Yong and Matthew Taylor, the Wanderers managed to pull in 32 points in 20 games last season. To give you some perspective, that would currently put their squad in 8th place, a good position for the second half of the season. At the time of their 20th game last season, they were within 5 points of the top four in the league.
Currently, Bolton manages to sit third from the bottom with 16 points.
Given the overall performances this year we could guess that perhaps the early season form of Bolton last year was an aberration and the finish to the season was slightly more indicative of their real position. However, I tend to believe that this is not necessarily the correct answer. With some of the early performances last season and the losses towards the second half of the season it is possible that Bolton has just been a depth challenged, hard working club with a bad luck 12 months. Certainly their recent performance against a poor Everton squad gives hope that Bolton can rise out of the relegation zone.
In the first twenty games of the 2010/2011 season Bolton performed admirably against great clubs and poor clubs alike. Playing against the top teams of that year (Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs, City) they managed five points in the five games that they played . Against the teams fighting for relegation that year (West Brom, Birmingham, West Ham, Wolves, Wigan) they did not lose, and managed 12 points in six matches.
Currently, in 2011/12, Bolton have only managed five wins and 1 tie, with those wins coming against QPR, Wigan, Stoke, Blackburn and Everton (with one tie against Wolves). The silver lining here appears to be that Bolton is capable of beating the teams which it is currently surrounded by in the standings (current bottom five of the BPL are Wolves, QPR, Bolton, Wigan, Blackburn).
Interestingly enough, the top five in fouls this season are Blackburn, Wigan, Stoke, Everton, Bolton (in that order).
Also, between last season and this one, there has only been a slight uptick in fouls per game, from 10.63 per game to 11 per game. Bolton, it has to be said, are not necessarily a control team when playing. They rely on outworking their opponents, slowing down the attack and taking advantage of goal scoring opportunities when given the chance. This “effort style” was hindered last year by players (like Johan Elmander) who wouldn’t always put their all into closing down opposing players.
A fantastic Zonal Marking article from last year, illustrates the divide between how sometimes people THINK Bolton play versus how they really play. The recent Everton game aside (Bolton 57% possession) the Wanderers usually have trouble controlling the opposition. This could actually be seen in the recent FA cup game between Macclesfield Town and Bolton, as Bolton was on the back foot for most of the game and relied on Macclesfield running out of steam in order to have a chance at the end.
The first thing I wanted to look into was the offense and defense comparisons between this year and last. Currently Bolton is sitting at 25 goals scored and 43 goals allowed. At this point in the season last year (20 games in) Bolton had scored 32 goals and given up 26 goals in the Premier League .
Really, this shows the potential issue right off the bat, as Bolton have already given up 17 more goals on the year than last year, while scoring seven less.
Now as far as the scoring discrepancies between years we can look at the Elmander factor from last season. With Johan Elmander firing on the squad, Bolton used his scoring (six goals in the opening 13 games) to scamper up the premier league table. Of course scoring goals is one thing (and an important thing at that) however even anemic offenses can work a few points here or there if they can stop other teams from scoring. In this area we have seen the biggest problem from Bolton. Given their fragile offensive state, Bolton must stop other teams from scoring in order to have a chance in the game. In fact, we can almost eliminate the Elmander factor through the fact that Ivan Klasnic has 7 goals this season through 20 games in the BPL.
The problem for Bolton this year comes from the issue that they are just giving up too many goals. Currently Bolton is tied for the most goals allowed this season with Blackburn (another team battling in the relegation zone). The one thing that Wanderers fans can hang their hope upon is that they are nowhere near the bottom five in total scoring this season. If Bolton were able to fix/add some defensive steel they could see their fortunes turn around quite quickly.
The defensive issues come with added intrigue because the three of the back four for Bolton have remained the same (through these first 20 games) from last year. Gary Cahill, Zat Knight, and Paul Robinson have been in the back four in almost every game for Bolton this year.
Cahill has played in every single game (although he is looking extremely likely to depart for Chelsea soon). Zat Knight and Paul Robinson have played in 16 and 17 games respectively. Now assuming that these three players are serviceable (and this is a big assumption as you will see below), we must turn our attention to the midfield for Bolton.
With only three-quarters of a season under his belt last year, it is difficult to fully analyze Stuart Holden’s effect on the Bolton team. Some will point to his injury as a turning point in the Bolton season last year, however we must remember that Holden’s injury happened on March 19th and not the beginning of January. Between Bolton’s 20th game (Dec 29th v Chelsea) and Holden’s injury game (March 19th v Manchester United) Bolton had already begun to slip, losing five games over that period, drawing two, and winning three games. Their wins during that time came against Everton, Aston Villa and Wolves, with Villa and Wolves fully heading towards a relegation battle. While they lost their first game after the Holden injury against Birmingham, they won two straight games against West Ham and Arsenal. Unfortunately that Arsenal win would be the very last point on the year as Bolton went 5 games without a point.
Really we must look at an overall injury crisis at Bolton and not just one player. In February, Bolton lost both Sam Ricketts (achilles tendon – season) and Zat Knight (ankle ligament – 4 to 6 weeks) for very extended periods, then they lost Holden as well in March. Overall it was probably the loss of Ricketts, Knight and Holden that caused issues with Bolton. Only recently (December 31, 2011) did Ricketts finally return to the Bolton lineup from his Achilles snap. It must be said that having Ricketts at fullback may improve the defensive shape and form of Bolton going forward as he has only been back two games for Bolton and already scored one goal (a goal that gave Bolton one point in their draw with Wolves) with Bolton having their first two game unbeaten streak of the season.
This actually raises a huge question, with regards to Gary Cahill leaving, will Bolton be able to keep clubs from scoring on them to win enough games to stay up? They have been flirting around with the idea of adding Tim Ream into the mix, with cover becoming especially important if they lose Cahill.
(A note here: While Cahill has not officially left, Owen Coyle was quoted by the BBC after the Everton game saying “I don’t know if this will be Gary Cahill’s farewell. The clubs have agreed a fee. Gary’s representatives and Chelsea have only had one meeting about personal terms.”)
The issue could be here that Ream does not quite fit Bolton’s style of booting the ball about and having to play with the ball in the defensive side quite a bit. He isn’t dominant in the air, and the issue here is whether Zat Knight can compensate for Ream’s deficiencies and vice versa. Certainly a change of location may help Ream out, but he is a far from proven commodity at center back.
There is also the question of whether Paul Robinson is on his last legs for Bolton. At 33, Robinson isn’t getting younger and he was far from resplendent against Macclesfield over the weekend. With one fullback potentially losing pace and the other coming back recently from a torn achilles and a center back who is all but gone, this begs the question of whether Coyle has enough horses to patch together the back four. The depth issue, as always, seems to plague Bolton again.
As well, we must look up top for some answers. Despite 15 games started this season, David N’gog has only put in two goals. N’gog is a frustrating player. (I watched quite a bit of him over the previous two seasons at Liverpool.) To be sure he has talent and he shows this talent at times, but more frequently he seems to be in the wrong position, making the wrong run, or just not finding enough space to play. When he “clicks” into gear he can be unplayable, but these stretches seem to last for minutes at a time rather than games at a time.
All of this brings us to the question of whether Bolton stays up this year.
The next set of fixtures for them will be at Manchester United, Liverpool at home, and Arsenal at home.
They have a few winnable games splashed about the next 18…with Norwich, Wigan, QPR, Blackburn, and Wolves coming up; and they must take maximum points from the teams around them. This is something that they already have shown they can do. If Bolton can take 12 points from Wigan, QPR, Blackburn and Wolves this will put their season total at 38 points, which isn’t enough to be comfortable. This means that they must not only win these but (as well) find a victory or two against West Brom, Swansea, or Stoke. It could be that the season ending double of West Bromwich and Stoke City will prove vital to them staying up.
I do believe that Bolton can pull together to find enough wins by the end of season, but Coyle will have to perform magic on his back line in order to accomplish this. Every Bolton fan these days must keep their eye on any loans or pickups that will help bolster the full back and center back positions, while crossing their fingers against any major injuries to players like Klasnic. If so, I do believe that they can accomplish another season in the Barclay’s Premier League and perhaps attempt to cover their shallow depth over the summer transfer market.