Cause for Caution or Concern?

“Don’t worry about where this bit is going because this bit was reviewed in the London Evening Standard as being tediously politically correct.” – Stewart Lee

Same applies.

Don’t worry about whether this article is going to be too harsh or too positive because it is, I assure you, going to be tediously balanced and wishy-washy, offering nothing to your life bar killing some time on a Friday afternoon. 

Wanderers were beaten 6-3 last week and this article will now not only be frustratingly on-the-fence; it will also be seen as being written in hindsight but once again, I assure you, I had the intention of writing something similar prior to that result.

That 6-3 result ended a run of five straight wins in all competitions and was the 36th time we’ve conceded four or more goals in a league match since the 2010-11 season. Thirty-six. 

There have been so many occasions in recent years where Bolton fans have thought “right well that’s it… it literally can’t get worse” and then it did, and then it did again… and again.

However – it surely, really, actually, literally can’t get worse this time can it?

Underlying data is often a term that is dismissed as pretentious by those who either don’t understand it or choose to dislike any overly-analytical view of football. That is a reasonable opinion, of course. Football is a game of heart, soul and luck but it is also a game of margins and patterns. The first part of that cannot be measured but the second part can be and that is very helpful.

So, it is clear to see that Wanderers’ have objectively picked up in terms of performance as well as the result in those four league wins on the bounce.

Bolton’s expected goals (xG) over the course of the season averages out at 1.29. However, in that winning run, the xG was 1.375 before we managed to have a rating of 2.04 in that 6-3 defeat to Port Vale.

This highlights how Wanderers have managed to simply have more shots in better positions after the poor start to the season which produced just 0.72 goals per game for the Whites in the opening ten matches. That has shifted to two goals per game in the next six. 

That Port Vale game was the best Wanderers have played going forward this season. Evatt’s own assessment that “with the ball and attacking it’s probably the best we’ve seen this season” is a fair one.

The concern will be defensively as Santos, who has been outstanding for the vast majority of the season, covered really badly for the consistently exposed Baptiste against Vale. 

It is very rare you get your best attacking and worst defensive performance of the season in the same game. Therefore it will be easy to write off as an anomaly, as I have done to an extent and Evatt has done according to his pre-Walsall press conference. 

A general concern for Evatt will be that defeat will suggest a frailty against genuinely good, attacking sides. However, Port Vale’s own xG is only 0.02 more than Wanderers’ and they lie 14th and 15th respectively in the xG table. So, it wasn’t necessarily even a regular concession of good chances against a good side.

Prior to that defeat, we had beaten the four S’s in the division: Salford, Stevenage, Scunthorpe then Southend. 

Three of those four were all in the bottom two or three when Bolton played them and two of those three have an xG of less than one. 

Yet when they played Bolton, all three – Scunthorpe, Stevenage and Southend, managed to have a higher xG in that game than their season average meaning they were able to get more realistic scoring chances against Bolton than they usually would do or have done.

This will be cause for concern rather than an outrageous panic because, as previously mentioned, football is a game of luck as well. 

What is for certain is that Bolton’s Christmas fixture list is really, really tough. After the trip to Walsall, we play Cheltenham away and Tranmere at home before a Boxing Day visit to Carlisle. All three of those sides have realistic and legitimate ambitions of promotion – Cheltenham are probably the best side in the division, Carlisle are the best to watch and will have games this season where they simply blow the opposition away whilst Tranmere have the budget and squad to be competing in the mid-to-lower reaches of League One.

The end to 2020 will tell us a lot about what our new year and spring holds. If Bolton can come through that run without adding to the aforementioned 36 implosions as well as picking up a point or two, or even a win, then the prospect of a really fun second half of the season will grow.

Evatt’s style is being implemented and the attacking fluidity is being matched by an aggressive intensity. It is important to note that there remains a few frailties as well as a genuine lack of certainty as to just how good some of the individuals are in this side. A system can only carry so many, regardless of how impressive and progressive that system may be.

The next fortnight should be very indicative and could be definitive for what the rest of the season has in store. 

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