A FONDNESS FOR FAMILIARITY

The pros, cons and basic practicalities of the concept of modernity can be debated and challenged but the fundamental principles are relatively simple; the demand for change is constant. It can be slow or fast but, generally, the need to evolve is essential.

Football cannot and does not escape the concept.

Tactics, positions, the idea and practice of fandom, finances, laws, the entire functioning and principles of a club must adapt as time goes on. “Philosophies” for development on and off the pitch are espoused and often they are mis-represented or simply misunderstood. However, as mentioned, the fundamental principles are relatively simple; there must be a sustainable plan for growth and progression.

Sustainability for a football club comes in different forms; whether it be a dedication to recruiting players easily suited to a “high-press” on-the-pitch or the concept of “moneyball” off it; it is of imperative importance that club’s can plot their way to a thriving long-term future – not just stave off the inevitable ending of their existence.

And yet… there is something just so special about success being ever so slightly ugly. Forget the-off-field matters, we won’t know the success or otherwise of FV’s financial plan for a couple of years yet, let’s focus on Wanderers’ unbeaten run.

Twelve matches without defeat stretching back to mid-January and, if we were to be needlessly harsh; they’ve been properly outstanding in two. Wanderers have been both fortunate and unfortunate at times but there has possibly only been a couple of occasions where they have absolutely played teams off the pitch and been a level above.

This is not necessarily a criticism. It would be a bit freakish if a side managed to play at a level above their opposition on a consistent basis; the important thing is that Bolton have continued to have moments and spells, if not full performances, where they have been ruthless, relentless and simply just too good.

The midfield duo of Williams and Lee compliment a spine that would do well in the division above. There are several players in the line-up simply better than the division they are playing in.

What matters more is the continued development of Evatt’s style of play. A dominance in possession and ability to create regular openings and chances is that sort of aforementioned on-the-pitch sustainability. If the coach can create a framework that should work the same way regardless of the personnel then it can work regardless of potential transfer sales or unavailability. Of course, the level to which the tactical plan works is dependant on the quality of the personnel but the principles will remain the same.

However, arguably the most joyous part of the run is the unintentional but required diversions from the framework and the plan. Shaun Miller against Southend, Declan John against Mansfield, Gethin Jones against Port Vale, Eoin Doyle against Walsall… moments that weren’t clean, they didn’t go completely according to plan or come about via a specific formula and yet they have been some of, if not the, most important goals in this run.

Being a goal down at half-time at home to a mid-to-lower table side as you challenge for promotion in the middle of an impressive unbeaten run only for a second-half goal from your impressive mid-season midfield signing and a penalty from your cult-hero goal scorer.

The similarities between Northampton in 2016/17 and Walsall in 2020/21 are almost eerie. There were quite a few moments in that 16/17 spring run that can be compared to this current one. It is quite reassuring to reminisce as Evatt’s side begins to reflect Parkinson’s – who’d have thought that would be said six months ago?

Different styles, different methods – same feelings, same results.

If you were a betting man and tried to analyse the upcoming League Two fixtures as objectively as you could, there would have to be concerns over Bolton. Not just for the notion of the gambler’s fallacy but also for the minor deterioration in performance level.

Having said that, though, there is something heartening about supporting a team that is consistently providing evidence for a cliché: “the best teams always find a way.”

It is important to remember: “it’s a cliché because there is some truth to it”.

Endymion

Six months ago, promotion was an inevitability. The manager and the supporters viewed the League Two title as an extrinsic reward on the path to perfection and the implementation of a style of play that would leave the division in awe; it was to be pure footballing righteousness.

Four months ago, promotion was still probable but it had been an unexpected poor start. Three defeats from three, without scoring, was a wake-up call. A summer of poor recruitment and arrogant rhetoric from the club had contributed to the building up of expectations; they were knocked down quite quickly.

Two months ago, promotion wasn’t happening this year – lets make absolutely sure of survival. A bottom six position as the second-half of the season got underway. Wanderers wouldn’t go down but the fact that wasn’t an immediately obvious statement meant this season was a write-off and a failure.

Now, here we are.

Survival is assured and a mid-table position beckons, or… does it?

Three points off the playoff places and six points off the automatic spots with 17 games to go. It is below the pre-season expectations, obviously, but they don’t matter anymore. What matters is: Bolton are giving themselves a chance and it is getting quite exciting.

A switch in formation, impressive January signings and the continued development of Evatt’s coaching has given Wanderers a fighting chance. One defeat in eight, a run that involves four wins in the last five.

However, they are yet to majorly impress for long-stretches. The most impressive of those four victories came against Leyton Orient; the start of the winning run. A comfortable and dominant display, without being overly threatening, was reflected perfectly in the score-line. Since then; Wanderers have squeezed past the lowly Stevenage and Southend, the latter of which requiring a comical goalkeeping error.

The ‘most fun’ and surprising of the four would be the victory at Mansfield. 2-0 down with just over ten minutes to go but Bolton still managed to take three points – it would be churlish and hyper-critical to be negative… Let’s give it a go anyway. A cross, an own goal and a fine strike by Gnahoua won a game that had been fairly even, if not shaded by the hosts.

Basically, it hasn’t necessarily been convincing.

Another concern would be the similarities between this run of form and November. In November, Bolton won four straight games (Salford, Stevenage, Scunthorpe and Southend) – then they conceded six at home to Port Vale and won one of their next nine. Talk of the supposedly complex philosophy finally sinking in was rife and there was some anticipation that Wanderers would steam-roll it until May.

There are, of course, major differences to that November run. As noted, the change in system and January signings will give Wanderers fans confidence that this is a more sustainable run.

Equating Bolton’s use of a back four, and subsequent up-turn in form, to the romantic search for an ideal love is perhaps a bit forced.

However, there is something to be said of it; it is all about adjustment.

The adjustment of expectation has led to a practical and psychological shift. On-the-pitch, the ideology of the manager has been softened and has led to a slightly more functional but still progressive, with potential, approach. Off-the-pitch, supporters reached an acceptance of mediocrity at best, relegation battle at worst; therefore, the relaxed view of pleasant surprise after each win has led us to finding an ideal love. That love being hope without jeopardy.

It is inevitable the pressure will rise if Wanderers carry on and continue to get closer but, for now, just enjoy this ride.


“The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly coloured, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun – for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” – William Melvin Hicks

Both Things Can Be True

It was roughly half seven and it lasted for about, roughly, five or so minutes.

Bolton Wanderers slipped to 20th in League Two.

The sentence itself is crazy to be actual words on an actual screen.

The previous sentence itself is crazy because of its repetition; bewilderment at Bolton’s current status and stature has become so much of a cliché that it becomes something to rally against.

Why are you bothered? What does expressing your frustration achieve? When will people realise the current predicament? Who expected anything different? How could we possibly be doing any better?

Partially true, albeit the word ‘partially’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the context of this situation.

I do not care if you are pro or anti Evatt and I do not care if you believe patience is warranted or not. I do not care if you believe people are buying into the idea of a “big club” in a “small league” and I do not care if you are offended at or in support of being told that Wanderers fans are “living in the past”.

It is quite simple; Bolton Wanderers, even with the current squad, should not be in a relegation battle into the National League – it is either mockery or apathy to suggest otherwise.

The causes for concern are evident and relatively long-lasting; an opening month of three straight league defeats resulting in scoreless afternoons were a bit of a wake-up call but, admittedly, two of those three defeats came against strong fourth tier outfits.

The cause for concern has grown as October continued to underwhelm before December failed to back up an impressive November; until you realise that the impressive November, which included four wins on the spin, consisted of two wins against, arguably, two of the worst form sides in EFL history at the time and another against the, then, 22nd placed side in the table.

Anger, resentment, confusion and frustration has not subsided and now, with less than half the season to go, Bolton Wanderers face the legitimate prospect of dealing with a third successive relegation.

However, the previous seasons of chaos and crime have allowed Mr Evatt and Football Ventures an extended period of grace and decorum – and, obviously, rightly so.

The years prior to this one have been devastating. A community has been all but decimated; it’s been battered, bruised and bombarded with crippling uncertainty about its very life – it is only reasonable to allow an adjustment period.

Especially when that adjustment period has involved the recruitment of a whole new squads worth of players; players that the manager is making quite clear were, in the majority, not his decision to sign as well as the general teething issues of new ownership and management; for any business, this is a historic and fairly unusual upheaval.

The style of play is definitely laudable and absolutely admirable; the implementation of such structure must be understood and appreciated. Automatic patterns of play of a sophisticated level will take time, especially working with League Two players. Relationships between players will take time, especially in a pandemic-enforced social lockdown. Some results have been good and elements of some performances are encouraging for the long-term. An extra season attempting to adopt this system is reasonable and fair; especially when you consider Evatt’s title-winning season at Barrow came on the back of a season of ‘bedding in’ at Holker Street.

Having said that, expectations are understandably high. Perhaps holding every interview against Mr Evatt is unfair. Word-for-word, people make mistakes and even the idea or suggestion that somebody is trying to convey can be proved to be incorrect; so, therefore, repeatedly bringing up the current manager’s pre-season bluff and bluster (some may call unsubstantiated arrogance) with regards to Bolton being inevitably fighting for promotion is harsh.

However, it is the principle that counts. The refusal to acknowledge the mistake is what grates on supporters. Fairly early on in his tenure, in October, he began to accept that a tempering of expectations was needed.

There was no apology for nor mention of his own part in the building up of those expectations and until that happens, fans will continue to side against him when he suggests that over-confidence in the fan-base is a key issue for under-performance.

When you are a new manager and you haven’t yet been introduced to the supporters in-stadium, it is best to not criticise their forms of fandom on a semi-regular basis.

A season at Barrow, in which the full fixture calendar was not completed, is not and should not be enough to convince people of his long-term qualities as a manager. Scrutiny is imperative. The alternative is an apathetic fantasy and, then, over-positivity creeps in allowing poor performance to be excused and unnoticed.

Ian Evatt shouldn’t be sacked, unless of course Wanderers went down (and even then there is reason for debate).

Ian Evatt, however, must be criticised. He is under-performing as coach/manager of a set of players. Forget the name and forget the situation; 19th is ridiculous. Even if promotion and the playoffs were a stretch; mid-table should not currently be dreamland for Bolton supporters.

Things may change and things will probably, almost undoubtedly, improve.

Our current position is both totally unacceptable and, yet, not the end of the world – both things can be true.

Express Your Emotion

Throughout the last decade, Bolton Wanderers had continued to exist on the brink.

‘The brink’ almost seems too much of an understatement; the club, and therefore large parts of our town’s pride and culture, had already began a free-fall into obscurity and irrelevance but, more importantly, extinction.

A celebration of its survival and continued existence is not only a positive thing; it is a necessity. It is an immense relief – it was nearly all over.

Since those days and weeks of salvation and early rebuilding; Wanderers, to put it politely, have stuttered on-the pitch.

A grim unpredictability that wears even the most die-hard supporters’ patience very thin, promotion seems so far away and unlikely – the new era wasn’t supposed to begin like this.

There are several reasonable and mitigating factors for this. The catastrophic off-the-field mess prior to Football Ventures’ takeover had left the club completely broken and bereft. A new squad, new manager, new backroom staff and new philosophy, both in terms of footballing style and financial planning, was required.

This would obviously take time and, perhaps, promotion was always a much longer shot than anticipated. However, it has probably now got to a stage where the acceptance of difficulty and strife is fading – promotion might not be on the cards but that doesn’t mean we should be closer to the bottom-of-the-table instead.

Ian Evatt and his players have insisted we can be the best team in the league on our day. Nonsensical statements like this infuriate supporters – every team in such a congested and even league can be the best team on their day. His own bluff and bluster helped perpetuate the sense of promotion and success as a formality and just an inevitable extrinsic reward on the road for intrinsic perfection.

Whilst allowances can and should be made for imperfections and even failure this season – it doesn’t mean it has to be merrily celebrated and excused. This season has been, bluntly, a failure so far. That doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t get better and that doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate and reasonable causes for it.

I, you and we should be allowed to criticise without being made to feel guilty for not consistently referring to off-the-field issues of the recent past. Being told to essentially be more grateful whenever there is the utterance of the slightest of criticisms is a ridiculous and unsustainable form of support.

It could be a slightly more meta and existential ponderance than is required; however, the fact remains, if Wanderers fans have to check themselves from frustration and anger – what was the point in being so upset about our demise in the first place?

There can be several reasons to support a club; primarily, especially in Bolton, it is in the blood. It is based on a social and emotional connection that is very rarely, if at all, replicated in other areas of life. The mass sharing of similar feelings – anger, elation, devastation – all about the same fairly unimportant thing is baffling to those who don’t “get it”.

That is what football fandom is or can be: an unconfined expression of the extremes of our emotions; just because we nearly went out of business doesn’t mean you can’t still “feel it”.

Don’t settle.

Easy as 4-3-3

Barrowcelona – a mildly amusing term to try and describe the style and quality of play at Ian Evatt’s Barrow. Something that hasn’t been replicated at Bolton whatsoever. It should mean fluidity, verve and attacking intent; we’ve witnessed an over-complication of an, admittedly, fairly complex system: slow, confused and lacking any thrust.

Aside from 105 minutes across two games at the start of the season, Wanderers have consistently played a 5-3-2 which has occasionally switched to a 3-4-1-2 when they’ve played well but it has been very, very rare they have played well.

Even if you were not confident in the summer, 15th in the middle of January makes it very evident it hasn’t worked. It hasn’t even been encouraging or unbalanced where the attack works but the defence lets it down or vice versa; it simply hasn’t worked.

It has been completely disjointed and yet, paradoxically, overly structured. The lack of any innovation or intuition, bar Doyle, has led to a monotonous and formulaic passing style in which no risks are taken and, therefore, few chances are created.

The only regular combination has been the right centre-back into the right-wing back over the half-way line with the centre-back and central midfielders then overlapping to create a space and several passing options in behind the opposition’s left back; bar that, for want of more sophisticated vocabulary, it has been a ‘mush’ – a bit of a splodge. No cohesion. Striking similarities to Arsenal’s recent form prior to Christmas.

There could be several reasons for it but one that remains a theme is the potential ‘over-coaching’. Without knowing much from inside training, we did see clips from the start of the season in which professional footballers who had fairly good professional careers were being constantly told and reminded of their ‘pass detail’ – something of importance but something that should surely be expected for players of the ilk of Antoni Sarcevic, for example.

Pure speculation, partly based on an inference, would suggest that these tiny and basic details are overly discussed but on a wider scale. So the complex system that requires patience is being so drilled in, the players’ instinct is minimised and this leads to an indecision and an over-thinking which is indicative of a slow, ponderous build-up; particularly in the first-half. Our late surges, in which we have nicked equalisers, tend to be desperate and more inventive; perhaps this is because jeopardy and risk creeps in and a basic expression is shown.

A 4-3-3, generally, should be more attacking and aggressive. On a very basic level, there simply should be more people contributing to attacks. However, I think the key improvement will be defensively; in terms of both balance and possession.

The suggestion that having less defenders makes us worse defensively is wrong. Playing a back five with a middle three against one or two forwards confuses the defence; unless the overall gameplan defensively rigid and based on counter-attack. It is essentially like playing against two false-nines, especially if you’re attempting to be pro-active with the ball, as gaps open up and one-on-one duels become rare. The defence would also switch to a five without the ball, anyway. The 4-3-3 should reduce the risk of being caught in transition.

In terms of possession, it should drastically improve the ability to build-up from the back. The defensive midfielder is able to split the two central defenders and, therefore, allows extra passing lanes through the middle as well as wide – it also prevents the midfield becoming overly congested like it has done so far this season. I think Brandon Comley’s skillset is more suited to this as he is almost constantly facing forward and passing vertically instead of having to shift the ball wide to wing-backs. Tutte, the man with the shirt, perhaps is better at what Comley isn’t as good at but time will only tell on that.

Regardless of the formation of the players, the style should be consistent. The ability to be fluid is almost a founding principle of a progressive way of playing; modern-day coaching as Evatt would say. Whilst there are several mitigating factors for Wanderers and their manager’s underperformance and inability to implement the philosophy so far this season, it isn’t harsh to really begin to question the long-term plan; especially when the original plan has now been essentially scrapped – given Evatt’s post-match comments last week.

Until the style of play is implemented then the importance of the formation is reduced. A change in system might improve the team and the results but it will not be decisive until the apparently complex philosophy is in place.

From Head Coach to Manager: Does it Matter?

Tobias Phoenix left his role as Wanderers’ Head of Football last week. Ian Evatt was promoted to manager this week. These were developments that were surprising and, to a few fans, a bit confusing.

Phoenix’s role as Head of Football could not be made any clearer than his title. He was the head of all footballing matters at the club. The development squad, the first team, the manager, the recruitment, the ‘moneyball’ ambitions. Ultimately, you would imagine that any decision on Ian Evatt’s future as manager would be a joint process but Phoenix’s opinion and input would probably be the most important; essentially (but not really), he was Evatt’s boss.

As Head Coach, Evatt’s role was purely to take charge of the first team and make decisions on team selection and in-game management. Once again – all fairly obvious. His input into wider footballing business, such as transfers, would be important and necessary but not the final say nor the most important or necessary input.

The developments of the last fortnight in which Phoenix has left and Evatt has had his job title change seem relatively pointless to many if not most. However, the structure of the club has seemingly changed a great deal – especially considering the pre-season bluster about long-term approaches and the aforementioned ‘moneyball’ project. That bluster has quite quickly turned to bluff in reality.

Having said that, the perspective from the outside looking in will not shift or change that much. Bolton fans will pay sign in to iFollow every week and watch the team. Evatt will be on the sidelines in charge of the team. Bolton will sign players that divide opinion, overwhelm and underwhelm in January. Life will go on as normal.

What will change will be the processes of the club behind the scenes. Most pertinently to the majority of supporters; that will involve the process of recruitment.

Over the last few months, there have been rumours that the majority of the transfer business was done by Phoenix. Around 75% of the 21 signings are said to have been down to the Head of Football. This isn’t unexpected nor scandalous – that is his job.

So, without Phoenix at the club and Evatt now being the ‘manager’, it is safe to assume the new manager will take charge of the recruitment side of things.

The benefits of this are obvious. Evatt clearly wants to play a 3-4-1-2 but has also been flexible, both at Barrow and sometimes at Bolton, by playing a 4-3-3. A fundamental difference of these systems: one has an extra defender, the other has an extra forward or winger. In the summer, Wanderers added to their already well-stacked defensive ranks by signing four centre-backs to accompany the other four centre-backs already at the club. They signed one winger, five weeks after the season had started, even though the only out-and-out winger at the club had picked up an injury in pre-season that would rule him out for the majority, if not all, of the campaign.

Obviously, this was because Wanderers and Evatt were specifically aiming to play a 3-4-1-2 throughout the season – so, there is nothing wrong with the way in which the squad was constructed. Except that within 75 minutes of the new season, the manager decided to switch to a 4-3-3. He then started with this formation away to Colchester a week later. Strikers Nathan Delfouneso and Bright Amoateng alongside full-backs Jak Hickman and Jamie Mascoll were deployed as the Whites’ wingers.

This confusing tactical decision could be due to a couple of reasons. Either the head coach and Head of Football had a breakdown in communication and the potential for the head coach to play a different system; a system that required players for a specific position that hadn’t yet been recruited for. The alternative would be that neither of them clocked a lack of wingers in the squad before deciding to switch system. (It isn’t a very good sign when a breakdown in communication between the head coach and Head of Football seems to be like the more palatable option.)

Therefore, the positives of the head coach taking responsibility for recruitment is that situations like that shouldn’t occur anymore. He will know the systems he intends to play and will target players based upon that. This is good.

The downside of this change in title and responsibility would be the potentially damaging long-term effects it could leave on a club.

Lots of clubs get into on-the-pitch and off-the-pitch trouble due to self-serving decisions made by a manager from a few years ago.

Completely understandably, the current manager wants the club to succeed whilst they are the manager. Therefore, the recommendations and targets to sign tend to be ‘for the here and now’. This could involve giving a few 28, 29, 30 year-olds two or three year deals. Inevitably, this harms the business you can do further down the line as well as harming the progression and vigour of a future team under a different manager.

Another negative would be the narrowing of the pool. If your manager, who is already a busy man, is leading your transfer business then your pool of potential signings become limited to players he knows or contacts that only he has. Of course Wanderers will have scouting networks as well as other people giving their input but Wanderers have always had scouts and time after time, it is the manager’s contacts and reliance on certain agents he knows well that takes over.

From Coyle’s Burnley duo and Freedman’s insistence on signing every single central midfielder to have ever played for a South London club to Lennon’s remarkable consistency to deal with the same agent for whatever reason, allegedly. Allegedly.

Now, for what it is worth, Wanderers look to have some functions in place that guard against those potential weakness becoming reality.

Venture capitalists are unlikely to entrust one of their employees with sole responsibility for spending their money. Therefore, three-year deals to 29 year-olds from mid-table Championship clubs should and probably will be prevented.

Another reason to not necessarily be overly concerned would be Evatt’s commitment to progression. In his now famed podcast appearance on Tifo, “Barrowcelona”, he described himself as a “modern day coach with old school values”. Hopefully, his ideas and views on transfers fall in line with the ‘modern day’ bit and he takes an interest in data analysis as well as modern scouting techniques. Anecdotally, he seems like someone who would have that sort of interest, to be fair to him.

Personally, I feel that the best and most realistic chance to have sustained and long-term success is by having a strong and layered footballing structure – especially when it comes to recruitment. The success of Phoenix is still in doubt and probably will be for a little while yet. However, the role he fulfilled is vital in modern football.

The club itself should have an identity. That identity can be whatever style of play you want as long as the Head or Director of Football remains there. They remain there in order to sign and sell players that fit the profile they want. The head coach should be the one who moulds themselves to the club rather than the other way round.

On a footballing level, I don’t like the decision. However, the key aspect of this will probably be financial and that is something I do not know enough about to comment on.

If Football Ventures and Sharon Brittan have taken this decision due to the impact of COVID-19 on the club’s finances then fair enough. She has already done a lot for this club and it’d be silly to not trust their decision. Especially when finances were cited in the statement that announced Phoenix’s departure.

However, it would also be silly and daft to not remain wary considering Bolton’s recent history. We can be trusting and supportive without being naïve.

For the time being, Evatt’s change in job title means very little. It will be when the January transfer window opens that the change becomes significant. His tactical approach and mindset would suggest that the general concerns of a manager being in charge of recruitment will be no more than that – just concerns rather than reality.

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. 

A Contextualisation & Critiquing of Crawford’s Contribution

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).

Bolton Wanderers’ head coach Ian Evatt brings on substitute Ali Crawford for Brandon Comley Photographer Andrew Kearns/CameraSport The EFL Sky Bet League Two – Bolton Wanderers v Forest Green Rovers – Saturday September 12th 2020 – University of Bolton Stadium – Bolton World Copyright © 2020 CameraSport. All rights reserved. 43 Linden Ave. Countesthorpe. Leicester. England. LE8 5PG – Tel: +44 (0) 116 277 4147 – admin@camerasport.comhttp://www.camerasport.com

The Resurgent Recovery of Santos & Sarce

Bank Top Tap, Astley Bridge, Bolton:

18.24… @bwfc123411: He should be dropped, though. If me and you played like he has then Oxford Grove would drop us, let alone Bolton.

Holker Street, Parkside, Barrow:

20.59… @OfficialBWFC: All over in Cumbria. A late strike from the skipper earns Ian Evatt’s men a point on the road.

That late strike at Barrow to equalise would be replicated on two further occasions in late October and early November against Cambridge and Mansfield.

Not only can Bolton boast a midfield dynamo that would compliment and/or improve any side in the division going forward, they also enhance their passing style with the ability to effectively and quickly play through the proverbial thirds.

He receives it off the defence, plays through midfield and attacks the space going forward. His drive and ambition as well as a strong technical ability is crucial and fundamental to any success that Bolton will have this season.

There is a distinctive attitude of positivity, flair and aggression that emanates from Sarcevic’s play. The forward-thinking and innovative style that Evatt imposes is reliant on Sarcevic’s performance.

However, an undoubtedly slow start to the season meant that a few Wanderers supporters on Twitter saw it as fair practice to bombard his account with abuse about his technical qualities, fitness and mentality leading their captain to temporarily de-activate his account.

The pre-Barrow views of @bwfc123411 were shared by many and, although an over-exaggeration of the point, they did have substance.

Barrow came three days after a performance at home to Oldham that was overwhelmed with lethargy and inaccuracy across the team – most of all our marquee signing in midfield. The fan fare and excitement of his arrival hadn’t yet been justified.

It took five appearances for Sarcevic to end up fulfilling his role of being key in the construction and culmination of Bolton’s play. That is a bit longer than everybody would’ve liked, including himself, but the dismissal of him as a player, by many, now looks even worse in hindsight.

This rambling isn’t just an excuse to have a needless dig at @bwfc123411 (is a bit). His judgement of Sarcevic, at the time, was reasonable and reflected the views of quite a lot of Bolton fans.

However, over the top and rushed social media criticisms of individual players has been a theme of the BWFC hashtag for a long time – as it is any fan base. Earlier on in the season, that ire was directed at Ricardo Santos.

Santos played one game, in which Bolton conceded one goal to a long-range strike, before he was lambasted and dismissed as a useless addition. In his second game at Colchester, he was excellent for 44 minutes but a couple of lapses from a few, not just himself, allowed that performance to also be written off. In his third match, he was shifted into the middle and played quite well but Wanderers lost 2-0 so that didn’t matter.

Bolton then went away to Harrogate. Santos made two direct first-half runs through the middle of the pitch. The comfort on the ball and assured decision-making highlighted some marked improvements on the opening month of the season. Since that day, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest he could be the best defender in the league.

Yet, once again, criticisms of his early performances were justifiable. Baptiste in the middle and Santos on the right always looked to be the wrong way around and those games proved it. His role on the right negated his ability to defend one-on-one with the striker which, as we’ve now seen, is impeccable as well as meaning the space he must fill going forward is different and evidently more unnatural for him.

Those criticisms of his early performances, though, never acknowledged the potential for improvements or offered suggestions on how he can or will play better. Like Sarcevic, it was a one-sided mockery and abuse of him.

As I say, this rambling isn’t an excuse to have needless digs nor come across as an arrogant, know-it-all because I never proclaimed nor whole-heartedly trusted that Santos and Sarcevic will come good – and it is too early just yet to say they absolutely have come good.

This rambling is intended to emphasise how impressive the turnaround from both players has been; mentally as well as on the pitch. This is a bigger club with a bigger fan base than either have played for before, they both joined with the manager and fans excitedly assuming these two will be stalwarts in a side that would not only challenge for promotion but annihilate the division.

Within about 270 minutes of football each, in a team literally full of new signings and having not played football in six months, they were both written off by groups of their own supporters. However small those groups may be, they were still way too big, way too hasty and way too sinister in their critiquing.

The mental capacity to put that to the side and start to not only positively contribute but really start dominating in their performances is a testament to both of them.

Things might not improve from here – they might even get worse again. If this is to be the case, I would hope that the impatience and rush to denigrate that permeates throughout footballing discourse will at least be learned from and deemed to be below us in Bolton.

The English Disease

Last month England were fortunate to beat the number one ranked team in the world. They were slaughtered for their performance. This month England were unfortunate to not beat the number one ranked team in the world. They were slaughtered for their performance. 

ESPN journalist and generally astute analyst Julien Laurens criticised the 2-1 victory across several podcast performances whilst The Totally Football Show and Football Weekly podcasts would have allowed you to assume that England had lost the game. The Times also insisted Belgium were the better side and England were lucky.

A month on and England found themselves 2-0 down early on due to an anomalous deflected opener and wonderful free-kick. 

At half-time, Henry Winter tweeted England were poor for offering Belgium too much of the ball. England had 54% of the first-half possession. He also added that England gave too much space. Belgium had 2 first-half shots. 

Absent from the half-time analysis was a mention of Kane’s brilliant header being cleared off the line, Mount’s chance he should’ve done so much better with, Grealish’s chance well blocked by Alderweireld, Kane’s half-chance saved by Courtois as well as the several corners and good positions that England forced.

The argument for the focus being on the negative would be that England are 2-0 down, what do you expect? My retort would be – why did the same journalist criticise England’s 2-1 win then? 

The very, very, very irritating and almost solely football-y over-simplification in football leads and breeds the reactionary and unhealthy tribalism that is continued in darker ways via social media. 

The obsession with a deeper meaning and conclusion to everything permeates the industry and the sport itself. There is a craving for asserting one-sided judgements and opinions as if they were fact. 

England were undoubtedly poor against Belgium last month and yet for all of the apparent Belgian dominance, their chances were minimal. England have been criticised for floundering against a bigger and better side – they didn’t. They fought through a disjointed and difficult performance in a pragmatic and, admittedly, frustrating style. They were criticised anyway.

England were quite decent against Belgium. The system didn’t necessarily benefit the players selected but they still created far more and far better opportunities than Belgium. The second-half was completely one-way and that was a mutually designed development as Belgium sat back. England failed to create anything majorly clear-cut but still should’ve taken, at the very least, a point. 

The legitimate criticisms and critiques of England’s system and style become irrelevant and overwhelmed due to an unnecessary hysteria. Genuine achievements and progression become diluted as a media-led furore overpowers recent memory.

Media agendas rarely exist. This probably isn’t an agenda. It’s just poor journalism. It is the reporting of opinions with no balance, acknowledgement, wit, research or solution. 

England have flaws.

Before the 2018 FIFA World Cup, England were poor and lacklustre in qualifying. The stodgy 4-2-3-1 lacked any pattern or progression. It was ditched for a system that achieved this. Pre-set moves combined with an attacking flare to balance out the 5-3-2 formation. It worked for the players we had; it was pragmatic chaos.

The 4-3-3 was adopted following a 2-1 UEFA Nations League defeat to Spain and it was brilliant. The era dawned with an enterprising but toothless 0-0 draw in Croatia before a superb 3-2 victory over Spain in which the first-half was one of the most exhilarating and efficient performances in recent memory as England led 3-0. It was one of the first England games in which Kane became the creator as Rashford and Sterling pushed on. 

Free-scoring and free-flowing. The players’ matured so the system changed and England rose up the world rankings and reached the inaugural finals of the Nations League. An extra-time defeat to the Netherlands which saw England be genuinely unlucky with a disallowed goal was a bit of a setback but, overall, there was a clear progression from the World Cup.

England had an extremely easy group for UEFA Euro 2020. Despite this easy group, they were still historically good. Any suggestion that the standard of opposition made their form null and void is just deeply unfair. 

Their captain and striker was the entire qualifying campaign’s top scorer. They had a goal difference of +31 after just 8 games, scoring 37 in 8. This is unprecedented and frankly ridiculous. England played Montenegro, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Kosovo. 

If you want to dismiss that qualifying performance then please also be aware of the following:

  • France conceded home and away to Moldova, they also failed to beat Turkey. 
  • Croatia drew with Azerbaijan and Wales as well as losing to Hungary. 
  • Spain had back-to-back draws with Norway and Sweden. They also conceded to the Faroe Islands.
  • Italy conceded, home and away, to Armenia. 
  • The Netherlands drew with Northern Ireland. 
  • Portugal failed to beat Ukraine in both matches and drew at home to Serbia. 
  • Germany conceded 4 goals at home to Holland.

Point being that the results England had were not formalities whatsoever. It is alright to admit that England were a very good side.

A very good side until September 2020.

The post-lockdown switch back to a defensive 3 has confused me. I can understand the reasons for it. The reasons for it would be that England are short on decent midfielders so a 3-4-3 allows you to only have to play 2 whilst maintaining a solid and progressive shape rather than 4-4-2. 

Another reason would be that it allows Conor Coady to start who effectively plays as a defensive midfielder in possession – if you play the system properly – which England haven’t done yet. A further benefit would be the ability to accommodate England’s plethora of right-backs. Trippier being the back-up to Chilwell, Walker playing in the back 3, Alexander-Arnold and James competing for the wing-back spot.

However, it has led to a disjointed and awkward system that limits our strengths and exaggerates our weaknesses. The whole team has simply been way too deep and if you naturally have less players further up the pitch then you can get stuck in possession. 

Another reason for its failure to work would be the personnel selected. Henderson alongside somebody like Bellingham or even Foden would make so much more sense than Phillips and Rice. This isn’t a criticism of Phillips or Rice, they just simply aren’t needed in this system and actually contribute to the exaggeration of the flaws. 

A similar issue has occurred at Bolton this season with the deep-lying midfielder/playmaker being unable to find the correct pockets of space to build the play up if they are in front of a back 3. This is why it is Phillips or Coady – not both. 

Going forward, two attacking midfielders can work if the wing-backs are higher. If the wing-backs are deeper you need a quicker winger up alongside Kane. The preference would probably be Grealish with Sterling against weaker opposition and Rashford or Sancho with Sterling against stronger sides for counter-attacking purposes.

Personally, I think England would trouble and out score most sides, if not all, in Europe with the 4-3-3. If the concern is a lack of genuine midfielders then hopefully the emergence of Bellingham would help that. My argument against this would also be that Liverpool don’t necessarily have a world-class, Premier League XI midfielder but their sacrifice and balance offers more. A balance of Henderson – Rice – Foden against better sides or Bellingham – Henderson – Foden against weaker sides would surely be enough.

The idea of the 3-4-3 doesn’t necessarily convince me but I can understand it. The fact he’s done it after two to three years of consistent progression and almost sacrificed and ripped up such a prolific style just baffles me.

There are criticisms that can be levelled at the England manager. The way they are levelled are simply disgraceful.

Leading journalists and highly interacted with social media accounts benefit from aggressive, confrontational and reactionary ideas that benefit nobody bar themselves. Do not fall for the trap; it doesn’t benefit you, it doesn’t benefit England.

Debate, acknowledge both sides, get angry, be confused – dismissal of ideas and opinions based on the fact England aren’t 4-0 up inside 60 minutes in every game is not only nonsensical, it‘s just a bit weird.

The urge for change and the belief that everyone bar the England manager knows best but failure to offer reasonable alternatives is the English arrogance that does nothing but over-inflate the ego of those espousing the ideas.

The influence of media expectation as a reason for English failure has always been over played. England simply haven’t been good enough or they haven’t been well organised enough to deal with anything on or off the pitch; mainly on it.

Southgate’s reign hasn’t been perfect but it’s been undoubtedly heaps better than most if not all since the famed era of Ramsey. Yes, I include Bobby Robson. A World Cup semi-final doesn’t completely gloss over three defeats from three at one Euros as well as a failure to qualify for another Euros – imagine if Southgate had done that. 

Whenever he’s made a big call in personnel or system, he’s tended to be correct. The lack of trust in him is disrespectful and quite puzzling. 

This isn’t necessarily even a pro-Southgate piece, by the way, as I acknowledge the fact the recent run of form (P7 W4 D1 L2) alongside performances has been poor. There is genuine cause for debate about some needless and odd press conferences he has given about Mount and Grealish as well as the potentially self-defeating switch in system.

This is a piece on print, social and new media being influenced by a desire to be acknowledged. The lack of nuance, knowledge and research is startling as well as quite sad. 

It helps to perpetuate a society and industry in which a footballer buying a big house on a big salary is newsworthy whilst his work to feed children is subject to negative opinion pieces rather than just an objective reporting of it.

People who cannot afford Sky so can’t watch England in the Nations League are given an ill thought through, poorly judged and overly critical view to inform how they should think about things. Considered and constructive analysis is pushed to the side.

It spreads like a disease and it isn’t healthy nor helpful.