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 

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.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.

“An Hour Ago, You Were The Man of Mystery…”

“They seek him here, they seek him there, those policeman they seek him everwhere. Is he in Heaven? Or is he in Hell? That damned, elusive… sha-a-a-a-dow.”

The mystery and lack of media publicity that surrounds Tobias Phoenix is intentional. His one interview since his appointment, with Marc Iles in The Bolton News, explicitly states “if I can avoid it. I definitely will – politely.” 

As he says himself, his job title is “absolutely irrelevant”. His answer to Peter Kenyon asking what job title he wanted apparently “isn’t suitable for air”. He sounds a right maverick. Well, it ends in ‘ick’ anyway. 

You wouldn’t understand Tobias. You wouldn’t get Tobias. We aren’t supposed to know him and we aren’t supposed to acknowledge him because “it’s really important people get away from this being the Tobias Phoenix show, it really, really isn’t.” 

So – is Mr Phoenix a bit of Sir Percy Blakeney or more Lennox Gilbey? 

The summer started so well. 

Overwhelming optimism and confidence in the fan base that was matched by a straight talking yet forward thinking managerial appointment. The first two through the door were League Two’s marquee signings in Doyle and Sarcevic; spirits were high and expectations were higher. 

Unremarkable transfers began to follow. Nothing to worry about. If anything, this showed organisation and a speed of business that highlighted an impressive efficiency and planning. It increased expectation. 

August came and, nine signings later, it went. A mix of squad-fillers, useful players, creative data-driven signings and the occasional standout in Delfouneso and Santos. This was good. This was the next stage of the process. 

And then… 

The heavily used line of position specific recruitment went out of the window in just 75 minutes of the new season. 1-0 down at home to Forest Green and Evatt switched from the system they’ve spent 8 weeks signing players for, 8 weeks using in pre-season matches as well as 8 weeks training and adapting to. 

It isn’t just a basic switch of system, either. To go from 5-2-1-2 to a 4-3-3 completely out of the blue just seems odd on the face of it. It looks even more odd when you factor in that Bolton signed 4 centre-backs to go with the 4 they already had at the club – but they hadn’t signed a single winger before this game. 

Baffling touchline decisions are difficult to pin down on Phoenix. However, basic communication and knowledge of Evatt’s tactical flexibility would have allowed the club to have focused on filling gaps in key positions.

The structure of the squad is disjointed and, somehow, already bloated. In a season where an embargo means the size of the squad is limited – we have seemingly managed to collect deadwood. Greenidge, Taft and Amoateng have 3 league appearances between them. Mascoll, Gordon and Hickman have been dropped once or twice already. We signed four wing-backs over the summer and none of them are in the current starting eleven. The goalkeeper is suffering from over-exposure, both on and off the field. He has no cover because the cover who was signed is a coach that apparently doesn’t fancy it and a third-choice that continues to be excluded from a goalkeeper-less substitutes’ bench. It is messy.

“It’s about getting the right people into the club, giving them the right resources, and if we all stay in our lanes and do what we were brought in to do, we’ll be going places.”

Phoenix’s own remit for his own job is apparently down to two things. He’s failing (or failed, already) at both. 

The well organised plan and structure of pre-season recruitment stopped as soon as Bolton lost 5-1 to Wigan in a friendly. Since then, there appears to have been sheer panic and regret. It has been so naive.

There is some mitigation, though. Injuries, ‘time to gel’ as well as the odd in-game anomaly or flukes has cost Bolton. Of those reasons that could be used to defend Evatt and Phoenix, I think that the amount of injuries would be the fairest and most reasonable one. 

Short-term disruptions and long-term absences have been aplenty. Gethin Jones, Eoin Doyle, Antoni Sarcevic, Tom White, Shaun Miller, Dennis Politic, Lloyd Isgrove and Alex Baptiste have all, at some point, been unavailable due to injury. We’ve only played 10 league games and the length of that list is remarkable.

The ‘Head of Football Operations’ has serious pressure on him and serious work to do. There has either been a communication breakdown or misunderstanding between him and the manager about the structure of the squad. 

Well, hopefully there has. The alternative is that neither of them considered or noticed the massive imbalances and gaps in the squad. The lack of wingers should’ve been spotted and addressed before the manager decided he’d like to use wingers for a game and a half at the start of the season.

Phoenix’s role at the club is vital. He is right when he says that “football has changed”. The long-term philosophy and strategy must override the short-term. Players must be brought in to the club with a view to them remaining at the club for the next manager and the manager after that. The type of person and player is important. 

It isn’t financially viable to operate on “getting the new manager what he needs” and giving him “two or three transfer windows to get it right”. It never had been viable and thankfully, a lot of English clubs are catching up. You must approach and appoint the manager you know will adapt to the players you have. Trust your own processes. 

It is, of course, way too early to suggest this season is a failure. It isn’t way too early to predict it could be a failure. The season could legitimately end in relegation to the non-league. The fact that sentence isn’t completely dismissed as utterly preposterous emphasises the inconsistent, unorganised and frankly poor job that has been done this summer. It started so well and then went quickly downhill.

If you appoint the manager and sign the players that are failing then you have also failed. The brunt of the criticism has been taken by the manager and the players. The aforementioned intentional mystery coveted by Tobias Phoenix has allowed him to escape so far. 

A Pompous Article of ‘Leftie Drivel’ and ‘Snowflake’ Propaganda

This glorious football club won last night. Therefore this article, whilst attempting to perpetuate some balance, will be perceived as ill-timed – and… it probably is, to be fair.

It is about a delicate topic and, as many of you think or many people will tell you, football is not delicate. It is a “man’s game”. However, Bolton Wanderers made national news for the wrong reasons last weekend – like it or not, that is a fact.

The national criticism of Evatt has bordered on an arrogant dismissal of lower league culture, knowledge and intelligence. It gives off the sense that ‘general football’ needs to cut off these “backward lower league imbeciles”. The Guardian, Daily Mirror, Twitterati hot-takes of “I’m appalled and saddened and despaired and disgusted and offended…” have left many, myself included, bewildered and in complete disagreement. Having said that, there is a genuine issue that must be discussed.

I do not want to persistently deride our manager for a comment that was not thought through nor intended to cause harm or offence. I also despise the way in which society allows personal offence to be something that is worthy of actually meaning anything. As the great Australian comic Steve Hughes once said:

“So what. Be offended. Nothing happens.”

So, because I don’t want to deride, I will begin with the positives of this form of management.

Criticism can work for man-management purposes. For example, if the mentality of the player dictates, they can “switch on” and realise their errors so they can adjust or provoke themselves. They could also feel a pressure that makes them not lapse in their concentration.

I do not know the inner-workings of a professional football team’s dressing-room. I am not like my good friend, @Bwfc12341, stacked with insider information. I have never experienced nor desire to experience the mentality of an elite athlete.

If this works then there will be lots of high-profile, successful people that must take up this new secret unearthed by our manager.

If he is bad then what will publicly criticising him do? It didn’t make him save a penalty. Don’t be naive and daft. The confidence that Crellin will gain from saving a penalty will come from saving a penalty – not from being told to “man up”. If it made him save a penalty, did it also make him flap at 3 crosses in the 2nd half? It isn’t good for one thing but not bad for another.

The key issue, as we all know, was the terminology that was used

By basic definition “man-up” suggests you aren’t manning up. You’re not a man. You need to be stronger and you need to be ‘harder’ – so, by definition, you are weaker.

Let’s ignore the problematic nature of the phrase, for now, and focus on its practicalities:

You are a struggling goalkeeper. You’ve never played consistent league football. You’ve not made many league clean sheets because (see last sentence). You have made a few errors. You’re extremely worried about your place in the team. You’re part of a team who is struggling and is so, so desperate for wins.

I tell you to “man up”. Are you now a better goalkeeper?

It doesn’t even make sense. “Nice one Ian, I reckon I’d have caught that if only I believed I was more manly”. I’m ignoring the obvious sexism of this nonsensical viewpoint to focus on the mental health aspects of it.

If Evatt believes it could help him in private then fine. It shouldn’t be said in public. Public criticism is already something that is rarely used (because it rarely works). It’s just something the “fans want to hear”. The fans aren’t the manager – for a reason. I have seen this likened to Dean Henderson being criticised by Chris Wilder. That’ll be Henderson who had 2 seasons of professional football and several man-of-the-match performances under his belt; if anything, his confidence was too high. Quite the opposite for Crellin.

This isn’t even about Billy Crellin. This isn’t about what Mr Evatt thinks makes the players’ “tick”. This isn’t about some men. This isn’t about other men. This isn’t about one group against a different group. This is about the male suicide rate being at 16.9 per 100,000 as of September 2020.

Crellin, hopefully, doesn’t suffer any mental health issues. Therefore, this will be brushed aside as a “he knows what I mean” incident. Well, I don’t care if Billy knows what you mean.

I do not care if you think it’s a “man’s game” or that you think people are “snowflakes” for taking things “out of context”. If a phrase has been proven, via psychological studies, to affect the mental wellbeing of the most mentally vulnerable group in our society – try not to use it.

This isn’t the time for lecturing; this is the time for learning. Evatt has taken the time to apologise and acknowledge the terminology was wrong. However, it almost seems too much to ask that those who defended him also do the same.

It is a personal opinion that very few Wanderers’ fans share but… if you want to adopt a progressive philosophy whilst playing a progressive style; it wouldn’t go amiss to use more progressive language.

Bye Bye Badman

Project Big Picture: the end-game of football’s greed or the required rejuvenation to prevent football’s bleak future? Truth is; it’s both… and yet, it’s neither. 

The rest of the Premier League sign away their equal power and equal rights to the “Big 6”. The EFL is guaranteed a sustainable and viable existence in exchange for accepting a low ceiling. Rules are amended and schedules are adjusted in favour of the elite few. The concept of equity in football is completely abolished.

It can be argued that the only change to our current reality would be that the illusion of equality and the prospect of social mobility is officially removed. “This is your place, be grateful for it” will simply become a law of the game rather than the unacknowledged norm that has existed for years, if not ever. It is the formalisation and crystallisation that football’s dream of equality and historical preservation has been nothing but hypocrisy and propaganda. 

There are also practical elements to the idea that do not sit well. The removal of the EFL Cup and the Community Shield as well as the reduction of the Premier League from 20 to 18 being a few that get to me on a personal level. 

And yet…

It’s an idea that can only be supported and/or criticised via extreme wishy-washy, even-handed and tedious nuance. As boring as seeing something from both sides is, it is something that has faded in all areas of society despite history repeatedly showing that a lack of thought and co-operation does not result in positive outcomes. So, perhaps, a few phrases starting with “on the other hand”, now and then, aren’t all that bad.

The EFL is desperate. It needs a bailout. It needs life saving support and it needs it quick. Not like a “couple of years to get the house in order” quick, we are talking weeks before clubs, self-confessed, will be gone. Both Leyton Orient and Scunthorpe United, specifically, have outlined their plight: if the situation stays the same, they’ll be fortunate to see the New Year.

England’s elite have offered their help and a resolution. They’ve just done it with a characteristic, financially-driven moral flexibility that involves them running you over, helping you up and then charging you for a lift to A & E.

The romantic view that football belongs to the people died long ago. It is, and forever will be, a reflection of society and life. Right now, it must choose between living and running the risk of dying young or accepting that a stripped back existence and stasis of emotion will be good enough. Ideally; the elite will simply help the less fortunate with no strings attached but as I said; it is a reflection of society, so don’t bank on that. 

We are heading, instead, for a watered-down list of conditions. These conditions will be complained about by the idealist but they’ll come in and, in reality, they will be a good thing. They’ll be accepted because it’ll mean the medium to long-term survival of our beloved clubs. This is something that must remain the key priority; regardless of the fact it comes at a weighty cost.

This isn’t it. The desperate cry for hand-outs down from an overwhelmingly wealthy minority isn’t football. The gratitude for a relative pittance being conditionally offered. The acceptance, even from myself, that a project so opportunistic and tasteless will actually have some benefits. This isn’t it, this isn’t football.

Football is the playground of the dreamer and the escape of the worker. It is the refuge of the troubled and the company of the lonely. It belongs to me, him, her, you and us; not them. 

Wake Me Up When September Ends

Summer has come and passed and I hope the tenuous link between Bolton’s start to the season and a eulogy to someone’s dead father leads to you all having that song stuck in your head.

For some reason, Bolton Wanderers have always struggled in the month of September. In Bruce Rioch’s first season, the start of Autumn signalled a big dip in form. From 2 wins in the opening 3 to just 3 wins in the opening 10 after the dreaded ninth month. The same can be said for Phil Parkinson’s first season in charge, an unbeaten August preceded a winless September. 

In fact, since the turn of the century, Bolton have won just 17 of their 83 league matches in September. 10 of those 17 came in just 28 games under Allardyce. So, yes, Bolton Wanderers have won 7 in 55 during the month of September since Big Sam’s departure. That is frankly stunning. 

Obviously, the idea that a team will always be bad in a certain month is as nonsensical as the idea a team will always struggle against a certain team. For example, “runaway leaders Hartlepool haven’t won at bottom of the table Crewe since 1965 so it’ll be an uphill battle for the visitors” is the equivalent of drawing some form of conclusion from Bolton’s abysmal September stats. That’s all it is: an abysmal coincidence.

Especially this year with the key difference being that this September is the month of hope; the opening month of the season.

The opening month of hope that has given us three league defeats from three, two cup defeats from two, four fairly unconvincing signings and two potentially very good signings going to a rival or staying put at their club. It hasn’t been great.

Those are the facts and they’re difficult to hide from but on a case-by-case basis, a defence of those facts can be made. “It’s a complex system, it’ll take a long time” and “look at how poorly Barrow started last year” are ways of thinking that can mitigate against the league defeats. “They don’t really matter” and “if anything, this is a good thing” can help defend the cup defeats. “They are only signed to pad out the squad” and “well, to be fair, for this level I bet they’re alright” can help unconvincing signings seem ever so slightly more convincing.

I think the key reasons to be frustrated and, without being overly negative, outright worried would be the seeming panic and confusion of the manager.  It is reasonable to have a team play several systems; especially when the style of play is supposed to be free-flowing and attacking, the system doesn’t necessarily matter that much. However, it does matter when the eight weeks of pre-season has been spent recruiting specifically for a certain formation which requires more players for one position (six centre-backs) and no players for another (zero wingers). It also matters when those eight weeks of friendlies and recruitment are then contradicted within 75 minutes of the new league season as the manager switches to a system that hasn’t been tried and simply hasn’t been recruited for.

That’s a concern because it shows a potential lack of clarity and, more importantly, a lack of belief in the original plan. Fans have been requested to be patient as “this will take time” and it’s a new project with a new style. However, it would be fairer if the manager was also requested to be patient with his own ideas.

Another concern would be that panic and confusion of the manager. Quotes suggesting they look like Real in training but he doesn’t know what happens isn’t a good start. The early confidence, bluff and bluster of July and August went very quickly. Way too quickly. It took a week for critiques of the culture of the club and a made-up story about him receiving tactical advice via a letter; this is, very simply, not a good look.

He’s been given the keys and power of a very big football club in a very low league. Bolton fans can be extremely demanding and impatient, especially with new styles of play; so, yes, the culture does need to change. However, as well as all this power he’s been given, he’s also been given the freedom to implement these changes in a very pleasant environment behind closed doors. No impatience, no abuse and no hostility. Complaints about the way in which Bolton fans support their team might be merited – at least wait until there is anyone there, Ian. 

October begins with a trip to a newly-promoted side, back-to-back home games against 21st and 23rd before another trip to a newly-promoted side. It would be understating it to suggest this is an absolutely enormous three weeks’ of fixtures. 

It is way too early now to make any prediction for what this season might hold but the fact it is now unclear is already a huge step back from just three or four weeks ago. The idea is admirable and the implementation of those ideas could still come but September has quite easily given us the worst possible start.

One last thing before you go though

When you feel better tomorrow you’ll be a hero

But never forget today. You could be back here

Things can stray

A Change of System

The emphasis placed on a system in football can often be misguided. This is certainly the case the higher up the leagues you go. It can often be a futile and uneasy discussion because, although in its basic form it’ll tell you how many players are in each position, it doesn’t actually tell you about the potential fluidity of that system.

Basic adaptations like systems changing in and out of possession can be overlooked when analysing a team purely focusing on the system. For example, when Manchester City play a 4-3-3, their formation in the build-up is legitimately a 2-2-4-2 with Walker and Fernandinho playing in front of the centre-backs, Mendy or Zinchenko being the left side of the 4 with De Bruyne, another attacking midfielder and the other winger in that 4. Then Sterling tends to form part of the 2 with Aguero or Jesus.

This is not just a tactical tweak or general fluidity in possession; this is their formation at the start of a move or even in general possession. I’m not necessarily sure whether it is primarily an “English thing” but supporters and pundits (as well as players and most managers) prefer to categorise players and pigeon-hole players as a certain position. 

In contrast, despite the skepticism they receive, actual innovators such as Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola analyse the players’ strengths and weaknesses in order to mould the players to be able to play in several positions. This isn’t just based on the system. For example, Fabian Delph’s evolution to left-back was partly down to Guardiola’s coaching but also partly down to Guardiola’s fluid system whereby the left-back played as a midfielder when Manchester City had the ball. 

With all that said, it would suggest that Bolton’s potential persistence of the switch from a 3-4-1-2 to a 4-3-3 is irrelevant. As long as the style of play is in-built and the players can retain and maintain possession at will then the formation they set up in defensively shouldn’t matter too much – especially if the 6-second rule is implemented well to stop being counter-attacked on.

The 3-4-1-2 hasn’t had enough time to be analysed too greatly. Considering it has been used for 70 minutes of the new league season, it isn’t reasonable to suggest if it is going to work or not in the long-term. However, what we saw in the opening day defeat to Forest Green was a lot of pondering football and a bigger chunk of FGR possession than was anticipated. 

This can be related back to the afore mentioned “fluidity”. The players almost stuck rigidly to the system bar Greenidge and Santos who moved forward with the ball. However, due to Baptiste being a central defender, White and Comley had nowhere to drop into to receive the ball and build the play up – something they both want to do. Eventually, this means if the opposing team have 2 or 3 men also in the middle alongside Bolton’s 5 then it’s simply too congested when you haven’t developed the appropriate fast-passing skills and co-ordinated patterns of play, yet.

Ian Evatt’s Barrow switched from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-1-2 when the 4-3-3 didn’t get results after the first month and a half of the new season. It is reasonable to ponder whether that month and a half allowed them to learn the actual philosophy of Evatt before being able to then implement it into a more suited style. This could be a reason as to why Evatt has switched and could continue to switch to a 4-3-3 at Bolton.

The 4-3-3, on the face of it, does make more sense. It can also mirror the Guardiola approach – without the quality of build-up play. For example, it adjusts into a 3-2-3-1-1 with the left-sided and right-sided centre backs being split by Comley, White and Jones in-front of that, Gordon playing high on the left and continuing to get into the box, Sarcevic or Crawford in the middle with Hickman on the other side then Delfouneso finding the space, alongside Sarcevic but slightly ahead, in behind Doyle.

This would allow Bolton more space and less rigidity to build-up from the back. It is also potentially more suited to counter-attacking play with a flat 4-2-3-1 allowing fast breaks down the left-hand side with both Gordon and Delfouneso being supported by Sarcevic; this wasn’t as easy to do in the 3-4-1-2 although Sarcevic’s effort that was saved against FGR stemmed from this sort of play.

The obviously huge negative against this system is the summer recruitment. With a limited squad due to a transfer embargo, the luxuries of having 2 per position and then an extra one to cover each category has been lost. Bolton signed 4 centre-backs this summer to compliment the 3 (and a half) that were already there. This was due to the now often used “position-specific” recruitment. It meant we didn’t sign any wingers. Delfouneso can play there, Hickman can play there, Darcy can play there. This is where the positional fluidity and ability to innovate and not pigeon-hole players is going to be really crucial for Evatt if he is to persist with ripping up what he spent 8 weeks on building within 3 weeks of the new season.

I think the manager speaks well the majority of the time. His demeanour and general manner is self-confidence when things are going well but can often be arrogant when there is a failure to acknowledge issues. I hope that doesn’t happen. Criticism of Bolton fans for “not getting it” and wanting to change the culture of the club is fine. However, football fans are all the same. If the team is winning, the culture and the understanding of the style will change with it.

Overall, the 4-3-3 is probably better suited to the style that Evatt wants to play at this level. That is despite 3 of the 4 teams who made the 2019-20 League 2 playoffs playing with a back 3 and wing-backs. 

On one hand, it is disconcerting and worrying that the manager has seemingly abandoned, at least for now, the pre-season plan. On the other hand, he has identified issues with it and acknowledges it won’t work, at least yet.

Good Things Come To Those Who Wait

“Patience is bitter but its fruit is sweet.” – Aristotle

Yes, the use of a quote from a Greek philosopher with the intention of relating it to a preview of Bolton’s League Two campaign is both needlessly pretentious and, at best, incredibly tenuous. 

There are understandable reasons to rail against the idea of being patient. One being the frankly irrelevant notion that Bolton are “the biggest club” in the league alongside the potentially misleading early summer recruitment could allow many supporters, including myself, to view immediate success and a comfortable promotion as a formality.

The demands and expectations are high and with good reason. The reasons for excitement have been well-documented and I’ve explained the deeper sense of anticipation here: & here:

There’s always a but…

“Teething problems”, “needs to gel”, “still figuring each other out” are a few of the too many cliché’s that try and excuse slow starts from underperforming teams. And yet, as ever, they have a truth to them.

A side with 17 signings, 6 of which have a combined total of 9 EFL appearances, and a manager who has never had a full season coaching in a fully professional league should be allowed at least: “some time”. 

For example, even Evatt’s own Barrow desperately struggled at the beginning of last season. A tally of just 7 points from their opening 9 games left them languishing towards the bottom of the table before a 7 game winning streak halted that slide. Barrow then went on to lose just 3 of their remaining 21 matches as they were crowned National League champions.

If there was to be a similar scenario at the UniBol then Bolton might not kick into gear until late-October or early-November. 

The reasons for this can be explained through a tactical adjustment as Evatt switched from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 which better suited the players. I don’t think a tactical switch is something Wanderers should expect this season as the recruitment has been geared around the 3-5-2 system and therefore the ease to which players will feel comfortable with it should be quicker than Barrow; especially given the higher overall level of the players.

Another reason could be the rewards of the extremely intense and complex methods during pre-season; both physically and mentally. The much discussed extra sessions throughout the summer were shown as Barrow hoovered up points during the winter as well as the continued understanding and implementation of Evatt’s “non-negotiables”. 

These delays and slow starts for heavily favoured sides are quite common. Famously, Chris Wilder’s first three league games in charge of Sheffield United were defeats that left The Blades bottom of League One. They went onto win the division and finished in the top half of the Premier League within 3 seasons.

This call/plea for some form of fandom-mindfulness is not to criticise supporters but to ask for extra perspective as Wanderers head into a season, at last, with genuinely hardcore optimism. 

We’ve waited almost a decade, probably longer, for some structure and competence combined with a plan to improve and a desire for dominance; we can allow it to take shape for a few extra weeks or months. 

Two friendly defeats and two cup defeats with 17 debutants shouldn’t be reason to toss that all in the bin or even alter the overall season’s expectations.

Bolton have recruited quickly, cleverly and in a very organised yet exciting manner. There have been functions and processes put in place off the pitch to allow the club to thrive on the pitch. The well-documented complexities and details of Evatt’s style and philosophy will always take time. 

Having said all of this, there are no suggestions of it being accepted as a “transitional season”. Evatt himself has insisted he believes Bolton is and will be the best team in the league. I, for one, believe him and agree with him… but good things come to those who wait.