Ali Crawford has six assists in all competitions this season. His four league assists puts him joint third in the league for that stat. It isn’t a groundbreaking record but the fact we have only just reached December makes it really good at the very least.
If it wasn’t for Alex Baptiste’s brace of assists against Southend last weekend, he’d be the only Wanderers player to have contributed more than one assist in the league.
Now, with all that said – to put it bluntly – he hasn’t had a good season and he isn’t playing well.
Of the aforementioned four league assists, just two of them have been from open play. This isn’t to devalue the importance of a good set-piece taker because that is a necessary and positive attribute for any team. However, it does highlight how numbers without context can potentially skew the evaluation of a player’s performance.
For example, Ali Crawford has more combined goals and assists than Antoni Sarcevic this season. However it would be wrong to suggest that the Scot is having a better season and/or bigger influence than Antoni Sarcevic.
A fairly unsatisfying and probably quite stupid way to manipulate statistics would be if you took both players’ goals away. Wanderers would be two points worse off without Crawford’s strike at Stevenage but they’d be six worse off without Sarcevic.
I’ll reiterate that it is a very tenuous way of attempting to objectively prove the opinion that one’s been more key than the other, but it can be used as a way of contextualising the importance of Crawford’s contributions.
An alternative, and better, way of showing Sarcevic’s importance and influence over Crawford would be that the Bolton captain has been the joint best player in League Two with an average rating of 7.37 on WhoScored.com.
This highlights that despite Crawford’s relatively high output in terms of assists, it shouldn’t be a stat that is used to cover up for a general underperformance that sees him 127th in the division, on the same website, and ninth in the ratings for Bolton players.
The significance of an instinctive opinion and ‘eye-test’ is consistently being reduced as data analysis continues to grow and popularise. However, in Crawford’s case, the instinctive summary of his season being ‘lots of high and wide shots’ as well as ‘extremely peripheral and ineffective’ can actually be supported with statistics.
That wastefulness and poor shooting has been accentuated as he is averaging 2.1 shots per 90 minutes; the most of any player for Bolton outside of George Taft who took three in the one league game he has played. Only one of Crawford’s 28 shots has gone in.
His general ineffectiveness in possession is shown by the fact that he averages just 1.5 key passes per game. Although this is the highest average of any Bolton player, that should be balanced out by the fact that Crawford’s main role is to find pockets of space behind the striker in order to feed short and incisive passes into both Doyle and Delfouneso.
He is only contributing one of these shorter key passes, on average, per game; this is the same amount as two other Wanderers’ players. It isn’t necessarily ‘bad’ but it isn’t on the level required to fulfil his ‘main role’ nor is it on the level of other creative midfielders in League Two.
Wes Hoolahan of Cambridge and David Worrall of Port Vale average 2.4 each. In fact, there are 22 players in the division who average more than Crawford with most of those 22 playing in a similar role to the former Hamilton and Doncaster man.
The pressure to step up is also increased by the continued progress of Lloyd Isgrove and Ronan Darcy. Darcy has been limited to few minutes in the league in which his job has often been to simply harass and harry the opposition when Wanderers have been holding onto a lead.
Isgrove, on the other hand, has managed to excite and entertain in some admittedly short cameos. The Welsh international should be closing in on a start and his link-up alongside Eoin Doyle at Swindon last season is something that can only help his cause.
His ability to beat a man is a benefit that Crawford doesn’t necessarily offer and the flexibility to switch systems to 4-3-3 or 3-4-3, as he has commonly been a winger, is also something that could sway Evatt.
Whilst acknowledging the merits and qualities of Ali Crawford, it is becoming increasingly tempting to want to see someone and something different in his position. Wanderers’ recent form has seen massive improvements, both objectively and subjectively, in the attacking play. However, the instinctive dissatisfaction with Crawford’s contribution is something that remains.
This, especially, is the case with individuals becoming more effective, like Doyle, and more confident, like Delfouneso and Sarcevic. That is a confidence and aggression that just seems to lack in Crawford’s play; despite scoring his first goal against Stevenage a couple of weekends’ back.
The idea of this article is not to denigrate nor lambast Ali Crawford but rather suggest the view that he could and should be contributing more to the side, despite the team’s recent form. It becomes even more pertinent when those who could replace him in the side have begun to show real signs of promise when given small opportunities.
His genuinely brilliant assist for Antoni Sarcevic against Mansfield is one of several excellent, raking passes he has made throughout the season but it hasn’t been often enough and his general overall quality has been quite consistently low.
With the use of a very ‘proper football pundit’ term; “there is obviously a talented player in there somewhere”. We have seen it and I truly hope we will see it on a more regular basis but the competition for a place in the XI is, finally and thankfully, becoming quite fierce now.
It would be regrettable if Wanderers were to not analyse individual performances because of a good run; now is a position to build on and get stronger – that strengthening could involve a necessary change in personnel if the Scotsman doesn’t begin to improve his general play.
Ali has floated like a butterfly, now it’s time to sting like a bee. (Yep, I know. I’ve undermined the entire article).