“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: https://theburndenway.org/2020/08/02/this-is-only-the-beginning/ & here: https://theburndenway.org/2020/08/26/supera-moras/

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. 

Supera Moras

One year since a club, aged 145 years, did not only teeter on the brink; it had began its descent. Shrouded in mystery and “the unknown” yet one thing was clear: we won’t have a football club much longer. 

This was the ultimate and inevitable climax of the preceding decade. A decade that left fans angry then apathetic then deeply concerned and then devastated. 

In 2019, I wrote the attached images (below). The impending loss of Bolton Wanderers and Bury was more than just two football clubs running out of money. It was a culture, community and an escape being torn away from hundreds of thousands of people. 

The matchday on a Saturday is the refuge of the working-class. 5 or 6 days a week of toil in order to afford and enjoy the Wanderers. Although this notion is often confused with a vendetta against modern football; it remains a core value for many supporters, particularly in the lower leagues. Ian Evatt himself insists the need to entertain “the working man” on the weekend.

The hope of survival had faded.

And then… it had bin dun.

Football Ventures’ new-ownership of Bolton sparked the suggestions of a rebuild. It needed so much more than that. 

This was a football club on its knees with no players, kit, staff, sponsor, dignity or positive outlook. It needed healing, it still does need healing. The club will have the remains of the very recent fragile and vulnerable past however it is growing once again.

With still just over two weeks to go to the season, Bolton have made 16 signings as well as having already played five pre-season matches. The organisation and planning is evident. 

The transfer business, the season ticket details, the kits, the photographer, the social media and the manager; all basic and fundamental requirements. However there has been an underlying efficiency, relentlessness and belligerence to this summer’s activity.

The assertion and ambition is reflected in the manager’s persona. I don’t think this is a summer of hot-air and bluster. I think we are seeing the start of “somet special”. 

As I say, it was clear the club needed more than just a “rebuild” and it’s getting more than just a rebuild. Without being needlessly cliché and overly indulgent of the marketing motto; it’s getting a rEVOlution. 

FV’s work hasn’t just been impressive in relative terms to Bolton’s recent past; their work is impressive in comparison to League Two and the rest of the EFL.

Cynicism, scepticism and pessimism has been the mindset and thought process of Bolton supporters for too long.

The club and the town has, does and forever will overcome difficulties. 

Myth of the Poacher

Nearly every EFL team believes they’ll gain promotion once they’ve found that missing piece: the prolific goal scorer. Yet, many fellow League One and League Two supporters’ criticise Bolton’s signing of Eoin Doyle as being based on “one good season” and it being “too risky” because he’s shown that perhaps we “don’t know what we’ll get”. The truth is, if you look at his Wikipedia career statistics, you don’t know exactly what you’ll get.

This is a piece on why those critiques of Bolton’s business are vaguely and generally correct yet, in this precise instance, completely incorrect.

In the 2019-20 season, in the EFL, only five players (three in the Championship, one in League One and one in League Two) reached the celebrated and much vaunted 20 goal mark. 

The COVID-19 pandemic prematurely ended the League One and League Two seasons’ but did not contribute to this low total of goal scorers as nobody else from those two divisions were on course to score 20 goals, based on their goal to game ratio. For example, Nicky Maynard had 14 in 33 for Mansfield so with only 9 games of the season to go, he was not on course to reach that 20-goal total; he finished second in the League Two goal scoring chart. 

The last time Bolton had a player hit 20+ goals was in 2001 when Michael Ricketts contributed 21 league goals in promotion to the Premier League.

11 seasons in the top flight as a side with flair players for half of that time but, as a club, punched above their weight and battled relegation the other half, followed by a decade of off-the-pitch chaos and styles of play in which the attacking intent was: “if we don’t concede, we can then maybe nick one” were not conditions for a poaching striker to thrive. 

The consistent 20-goal a season striker is not only not essential; it simply does not exist. A player will score 25 one season for a certain manager in a certain style of play but then 7 or 8 the following season with a different manager in a different style of play. For example, Eoin Doyle would not score 20+ this season in a Phil Parkinson team because no player has ever scored 20 or more league goals for a Phil Parkinson managed side; despite him being promoted with three different clubs. 

The thing that is essential: the tactics of the manager. 

Last season, Barrow created the most chances in the National League. They averaged 1.81 goals per 90 minutes. For context, Bolton averaged 0.79 last season and have averaged less than 1.81 for the last 23 years. 

Scott Quigley scored 20 in 35 for Barrow despite having only scored 10 in 28 previous appearances in the National League for Wrexham and Halifax. This is not a rising star or somebody that has come out of nowhere. At 27, this is a player identified as somebody who would fit Evatt’s system and be able to thrive in a side that creates lots of chances.

On to Bolton’s marquee signing. 

In 2017-18, Eoin Doyle scored 12 in 26 during the time in which Richie Wellens was manager of Oldham in League One. 

Oldham finished fourth from bottom and were relegated however they did not finish lower than 15th for any statistics related to chances created, shots taken, shots on target or any of those stats per 90 minutes. This shows that, despite struggling and eventually going down, Doyle did continue to score because the chances were being created; even in a weak side.

His following season at Bradford also ended in relegation. However, he scored 4 fewer goals in 14 more games that season. It is not a coincidence that he played in a Bradford team that created the least amount of chances of any team when playing at home and a team who failed to score in 20 of their 46 games that season, which was a league high.

Now, this is not to say that any striker can only be as good or as bad as their team allows. Some strikers score more than they should. In fact, Eoin Doyle is one of them.

Swindon, last season, had the second highest percentage of their shots hit the target and scored the second most amount of goals per game despite having the 18th most amount of shots in the division. 

So, despite quality chances being created, Swindon still took less shots than nearly everybody else. This highlights how impressive it was for Doyle to reach 25 goals. I’m not going to use the term xG because, although often helpful, it is frankly tedious and pretentious. Let’s just use the preferred terms of “efficiency” and the more football-y term of “clinical”. 

This is not an argument necessarily for or against the idea of actively searching and recruiting that “poacher”. It is more an argument to advocate a more balanced view before summarising a team’s problem as: “the only thing we’re missing is a 20-goal a season striker”.

The key is balance.

The balance being a combination of creating more chances, creating more good chances and ensuring that the player who has the responsibility of finishing the chances has plenty of them. This is good tactics and can be beneficial for any player. However, a good striker will then manage to create his own chances or finish the more difficult chances that have been created, this is not something you could say about “any player”.

It isn’t blind optimism and it isn’t short-sightedness based on “one good season” for Wanderers’ fans to be and get excited. 

There is a balance and a combination which could lead to a potentially very prolific season that Bolton Wanderers fans’ haven’t season for almost two decades. 

The Evolution of Evattism

In a Tifo podcast entitled Barrowcelona, Ian Evatt suggested his style of play and his intent was based on and influenced by playing under Ian Holloway at Blackpool.

That Blackpool team was, bluntly, fun. A gung-ho, let’s see who scores more approach that led them to the Premier League where they continued that style only to be relegated by losing 4-2 away to the champions Manchester United, after leading 2-1, in a fitting tribute to their season.

However, the gung-ho approach is not something I’d suggest we expect at Bolton. 

Although Evatt’s passing style of play and insistence on the constant movement of the ball has an emphasis on attack; the stats would suggests there is more to the former centre-half’s tactics than is perceived via the entertaining soundbites and clips.

Last season, Barrow had the most clean sheets in the National League (15). You could argue that the reason for this would be that averaging 59% possession every week means it is a rarity you concede a chance let alone a goal and that would be a fair argument.

Having said that, only Maidenhead and Yeovil collected more than Barrow’s 77 yellow cards last season. This would suggest that defensive efficiency is not just a by-product of attacking dominance. 

That defensive efficiency would be linked to the famous 6-second rule. Evatt cites this implementation as influenced by Guardiola. Winning the ball back within 6 seconds or foul. The second half of that rule tends to be an unspoken bit of the rule; or even something that is denied.

There are more elements of sophistication to the style of play and details we might see at Bolton next season as opposed to the Holloway ‘brand’. 

We could also see a minor adaptation to the fledgling philosophy of Evatt. Barrow conceded 39 goals last season. Of those 39, only 18 were not from a header, a set-piece or the penalty spot. The heights of the 3 most used defenders in Barrow’s back 3 were 6ft 3, 6ft and 6ft.

It is possibly a coincidence that Bolton have signed two defenders over 6ft 5 and one who is 6ft 4 to accompany another centre back who is also 6ft 5. However, I think it could be an attempt to find a solution to a reoccurring problem from last season for the manager. 

Ian Evatt has the flexibility and innovations of an impressive young coach combined with the assertiveness and motivation of an authoritative leading figure. He describes himself as a “modern day coach with old school values”. 

His drive, ability and personality makes objective success feel like an inevitably and just a bit of collateral on the search for subjective perfection. 

The Floor & The Ceiling

Moneyball is the term that is often used to describe a sports team using in-depth statistical data for their recruitment strategy. This has led to the diminished requirement for the scouting “eye-test”, however, that is still a tool that is utilised.

In the summer of 2016, Bolton Wanderers signed 11 players. 4 of the 11 were 26 or under, only 1 was under the age of 23. Bolton gained promotion and, if we are to be generous, the signings were made with the aim of guaranteed short-term success. 

There was little risk involved. They were well-known with solid careers and “enough” ability to complete the objectives of the 2016-17 season. 

4 years later, Bolton Wanderers are now in League Two following back-to-back relegations, a 12-point deduction and administration. The club began the month of July with 11 professionally contracted footballers. A combined total of 80 league appearances for the club. 

Now, of course, there were lots of reasons for this demise. However, it is fair to say that on-field planning and recruitment was never structured to be profitable, both on and off the pitch, in the medium to long term. The £6,000,000 sale of Gary Madine in January 2017 had not been forecasted by data analysts when he joined the club in 2015. 

A manager telling an owner “I think this 30 year-old right winger recently released by a mid-table Championship club would do a job for me on a 1 or 2-year deal” should not be how a club operates. 

The policy of signing well-known and “good enough” journeymen raises your floor but lowers your ceiling. 

A balance can be struck. 

To carry on this metaphor, you can sign a 32-year old striker who scored 28 goals in the division you’re playing in last season. This raises your floor. Bolton have all but guaranteed the avoidance of relegation or a lower-half finish with the signings of Eoin Doyle and Antoni Sarcevic. However, if there were 11 of these signings on 2 or 3-year deals, your ceiling next season and the season after would be limited.

There is undoubted risk. The signing of a 24-year old Guyanese centre-back from the Norwegian third tier is nothing but a risk. However, the use of modern scouting software and structured analysis of numbers as well as a trial period, that eye-test tool, means you are minimising those risks involved.

We do not know the “floor” of Reiss Greenidge. Unlike the signing of Mark Beevers in 2016, we don’t now know whether Greenidge will be cut out for the level we are playing at. However, we knew Beevers hadn’t been and probably wouldn’t be good enough in the Championship. Greenidge, on the other hand, could be valued at upwards of £1.5 or £2 million in 12 months time.

The risk and association with a gamble is reasonable when you look at the backgrounds of the most successful implementations of this philosophy in England. Matthew Benham at Brentford, a professional gambler and founder of Matchbook and Smartodds. Tony Bloom at Brighton, a professional poker player.  

In contrast to 2016, Bolton have now made 10 signings this summer. 7 are under the age of 26 and 3 are under the age of 23. 

Of course, it is a gamble as we do not know where that “floor” may drop to but Wanderers have also placed some money on the Doyle & Sarcevic insurance bet, just to be safe. For what it is worth, I trust the process and I think we might hit the jackpot.