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Twenty months ago Bolton Wanderers, with many of the same players, was in the top six in the Premier League. Now the manager has been sacked and they are eighteenth in the Championship. What has changed, what has stayed the same, and what can Owen Coyle's replacement expect?
On December 26th, 2010, Bolton Wanderers defeated West Bromwich Albion 2-0 behind goals from Matt Taylor and Johan Elmander. This gave Bolton 29 points from 19 matches, good enough for sixth place in the Premier League table. Unfortunately, Wanderers lost three of their next four league matches as they turned their attention to an FA Cup run that would culminate in a trip to Wembley Stadium, but ultimately end in heartache.
With the sacking of Owen Coyle, another new chapter in Bolton Wanderers history begins. The new manager will certainly want to play his own style, bring in his own players, and put his own fingerprint on the club. However, a lot of what he is able to do will be down to the players he inherits from Mr. Coyle. What, exactly, will he be walking into?
Coyle loved the 4-4-2. Worshipped the 4-4-2. Lived and died (too often the latter) by the 4-4-2. Inexplicably, he seemed to sign players that were better suited for a 4-2-3-1, or 4-3-1-2 formation. What formation to play will be the biggest decision our new boss makes. I hope the fans will be patient, and give him a few matches to sort this out, because it will ultimately determine our fate this season. In this post, I will take a look at the squad that remains, and what can be done with them.
Defense: This is where the new man will make his money. The defense, despite players who are individually talented, has been in shambles for most of the past two years. The loss of defensive midfielder Fabrice Muamba was tragic, and the sale of Gary Cahill to Chelsea certainly didn't help, but the problems at the back long preceded both of those events. Marcos Alonso and Stephen Warnock on the left are fairly settled. Same with Tyrone Mears and Joe Riley on the right. Samuel Ricketts is great as a utility man, but you don't want him to be playing every match.
The challenge is really in the middle. David Wheater is a good centre back, solid to say the least. But he will not return until February, at the earliest, and the problem needs to be solved long before that. Zat Knight is probably best known for his inconsistency. On the bright side, he usually follows change (New club, new manager) with a good run of form. Matt Mills is adequate. Tim Ream has the tools to be a really good defender, but he is inexperienced and a bit lightweight. I think a skilled defensive-minded manager could mold this group into a very good unit.
Midfield: In our glory days, Bolton were known for their holding midfielders. The class of Fernando Hierro and Ivan Campo. The strength of Abdoulaye Diagne Faye. The determination and stamina of Gary Speed. That eventually turned into the enthusiastic clumsiness of Gavin McCann and Tamir Cohen. Now we are left with Keith Andrews and Jay Spearing. Hardworking as they are, what was once a strength is now a weakness. Mark Davies has been poor all season. It is unclear exactly when Stuart Holden will be back and what he will be capable off.
Fact is, we need three central midfielders at all times just to avoid being overrun, never mind controlling the middle of the park. The lack of resistance here and the disorganization in central defense play into each other. As much as we like to blame individual mistakes for the goals we concede, they will continue to be conceded until we strengthen our spine. Can this be done tactically? Maybe. But I doubt any of the bigger name candidates will take the job without assurances of money to spend on this area in January.
Attack: This was supposed to be Owen Coyle's strong suit. While we never were what I would call prolific, his teams did tend to create a lot of chances. I think Coyle's problem here was that he never knew his best unit, so he tried to put square pieces in round holes, often with poor results.
I know opinion is divided on Ivan Klasnic, but it is hard to argue that he was not underused during his time at Bolton. The same can be said now of Marvin Sordell, Martin Petrov, Gregg Wylde, and (surprisingly) Chung-Yong Lee. I don't think we need new signings in this area, I think we need an identity. From week-to-week, our attacking players never seemed to be clear on exactly what their role was in Coyle's system.
Our new manager's primary role will be to put our players in position to succeed. This club was a favorite for promotion a few short months ago, and I still believe that goal is within reach this season. The new man will have plenty of raw materials to work with, and I think Phil Gartside and Eddie Davies will back him with some cash in January.
I just have one request for Gartside: Please hire someone who will wear a suit and look like a professional on match day, I can't stand the shorts look.