Our man in the stands, Chris Manning, takes a look at the recent 2-1 victory at home to Burnley and wonders what we could have gleaned from the performance both on and off the field.
1) Two up front please
Marvin Sordell has been in excellent form lately and fully deserved his starting place ahead of Craig/Kevin Davies and Ngog. However I came away from the game this weekend feeling sorry for him. He was asked by the manager to plough a lone furrow up front, ostensibly to use his strength and ability to hold the ball up and bring others into the game - presumably the onrushing midfield trio of Lee Chung-Yong, Chris Eagles and Steve De Ridder - however it didn't quite work out that way.
Sordell was left isolated at times, and outnumbered every time. He was up against an old-fashioned centre-half in Jason Shackell who gave him absolutely nothing and this stunted Wanderers' attacking options in a first half where we saw plenty of the ball but very rarely ended up in positions in which we could threaten the goal.
Therefore it was no real shock when he was substituted on 58 minutes for David Ngog, who arrived on the field at the same time as Craig Davies as Wanderers went on the attack following Edgar's goal for the away side. This prompted a change to a more aggressive 4-4-2 formation and allowed the likes of Lee Chung-Yong and Chris Eagles to concentrate on traditional wingplay, with Darren Pratley and Jay Spearing providing the midfield assistance.
As soon as the striking changes were made there was a change in the flow of the game - where Wanderers had previously looked frustrated in their attempts to force Grant into a save they now looked a threat going forward. Ably supported by Tyrone Mears and Marcos Alonso,who were excellent, gave Wanderers some added width and stretched the play more in ten minutes than in the previous sixty.
The goals came from the substitutes on 66 and 81 minutes, with the first being an excellent diving header from Craig Davies (Davies, not Cravies), who twisted his body to nod home a lovely cross from Lee Chung-Yong - the winner coming from the left boot of David Ngog with an instinctive finish from Jay Spearing's mis-hit shot which wrong-footed the goalkeeper and gave Bolton the points.
Whilst I can see the benefit of playing 4-5-1 I do believe that in home games it would benefit us more to go with the two up front. The difference in our play from having the one sole lone striker to having a partnership up front was marked. One permutation that comes to mind which would fit into Dougie Freedman's philosophy would be to use one of Craig Davies or David Ngog as the furthest-forward member of an attacking three behind a lone striker in order to provide more advanced support than others could possibly provide.
2) The new boys
Dougie Freedman has long said, since signing Craig Davies, that he's the type of player that he wants to see at Bolton Wanderers. Some of the fans took a little more convincing, looking at a player who has had a good few clubs and a reasonable goalscoring record and wondering why we didn't make a move for someone with a brighter ‘name', such as Frazier Campbell, but the manager was adamant that the hunger and desire that the likes of Davies could bring to Bolton Wanderers would make the £300,000 spent to bring him in from Barnsley seem like a real bargain by the end of his three year contract.
It was the first time that I had seen him since the Barnsley game earlier in the season which was also the first time that I had ever seen him play. I was left moderately impressed by his performance against Wanderers and was interested to see what he could bring to our side. He came on to the field in a double substitution with half an hour to go and immediately took his place up front alongside fellow sub David Ngog. He hassled and harried the Burnley defence in tandem with Ngog and was rewarded for his endeavour and directness with the first goal which was a difficult diving header from a Lee Chung-Yong cross with 25 minutes remaining. He did well and I am looking forward to seeing more of him over the coming weeks.
Craig Dawson is someone that I have been aware of for a while, forever having my ears bent by a Rochdale-supporting friend of mind telling me about their dynamic captain who ran their midfield. I remember him being devastated when Dawson was sold to WBA for a measly £500,000 and he'd been off the radar since, except for whenever I met my friend and he would reminisce about this goal-scoring midfielder that, in his opinion, Rochdale had ‘given away'.
Since his signing on loan with Bolton I was reminded by text on a daily basis that we had signed a cracker. His debut was solid and assured, and this even transmitted to Zat Knight who ended up looking something like a £4m centre-half by the end of the game. Dawson set out his intentions early on, being dominant in the air and comfortable on the ball - preferring to play short passes out to his fullbacks or to Jay Spearing than humping it long and losing possession. Barring one or two sloppy mistakes which can be put down to a lack of match-sharpness, he was very impressive at both ends of the pitch. One minor criticism that I have of his performance is that it wasn't topped off with at least one goal. We know from looking at his career record that he has goals in him, and I'm sure he was equally disappointed that he didn't make the most of some excellent corners which found their way to Dawson at the back post. An encouraging start.
Now, Steve de Ridder. Hmm. I struggled with how to define this performance having come away from the game with one opinion, and then reading the thoughts of the masses online and wondering whether I'd seen the same player. I thought that he had his good points - a directness and willingness to attack and take on his defender stretching the play and worrying the Burnley back line.
However I was reminded somewhat of a previous loanee in his ability to put his head down and try some tricks and flicks without an end product. Often he would miss the chance to play a short pass to a teammate in favour of turning round and attempting to re-beat the defender. I don't know whether it's a case of enthusiam getting the better of him, seeing as he has been without first-team football in some time or whether he just lacks a little ‘football intelligence' is something that only he can answer.
One question that has remained with me since is Dougie Freedman's post-game comments in which he mentioned that he withdrew de Ridder because of a lack of match fitness - the same reason that has so far meant that both Craig Davies and Mohamed Kamara have had to wait for first-team action. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that de Ridder is only here for a month or so but then again, I'm not the manager!
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3) The boo boys
Now I've written about this before, but I think the whole thing is starting to get a little bit out of control. The reaction to Bogdan catching the ball, the reaction to substitutes going down the same route. I am no psychologist but I can't imagine that the reaction of the supporters is going to fill the players with confidence.
I can appreciate that the ire of the supporters upon the hour was for the players (or player) who was staying on the field, rather than those coming on - but this mentality seems to be contagious at the moment and it's definitely spreading. I believe it was mentioned both on Sky Sports and on the BBC that the Bolton Wanderers supporters were reacting angrily to the manager's decision and this sort of negative press cannot ever be a benefit to the image of the club in the wider world.
Modern football fans seem devoid of patience. Neither is this limited to the youngsters and hot-heads under the scoreboard. So far this season I've seen anger like never before from the older folk who sit around me - anger at players, anger at (both) managers and anger at the anger of others. It's becoming a very hostile stadium when things are not going our way. I wondered whether over time our fans would become more comfortable with the style that the new manager is bringing to the club, that the defensive outlook at the start of the game would become the norm and people would accept it, even if they are not ‘happy' with it. However this has not happened as yet and it is with sadness that I read every interview with the manager in which he has to justify his decisions to answer the interviewer's questions regarding supporter dissatisfaction to his decisions.
I was unhappy with some aspects of the game on Saturday - I wanted us to be more attacking and take the game to Burnley a little more - I wanted us to go two up top and really go for the jugular a little sooner than the manager did - but then again I'm just a supporter and not a professional football manager and Dougie is - he proved that he's the man for the job with the cojones to take the gamble on our behalf and we should be a little more trusting that he does, actually, know what he's doing.
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4) The treatment of Chris Eagles
I debated whether to write about Chris Eagles over the weekend, and decided that he is an issue that needs discussing further. Even his biggest fan could not deny that he was incredibly frustrating on Saturday, another in a series of poor performances over the last few weeks. However for the majority I believe that this frustration is because the fans know that he's capable of so much more. On his day I believe that he is one of the best players in the division - but the response to his play and eventual substitution from the crowd against Burnley was nothing short of shameful.
I am not exaggerating when I say that after TWO MINUTES of the game this weekend that Chris Eagles was getting cat-calls and abuse. The most pathetic example of this was in the second half when Adam Bogdan threw the ball out to Eagles to start a counter-attack. Now normally you'd expect the goalkeeper to throw the ball out in front of the attacker so that he could run onto the ball and use that momentum to burst forward - however on this occasion Bogdan chose to throw it at Eagles' head and unsurprisingly possession was lost but somehow this became Eagles' fault and he was roundly booed by the East Stand Lower experts.
I understand that the response to the substitutions after an hour was due to the fact that Eagles remained on the field, but then when he was withdrawn for Kevin Davies near the end I thought that we'd scored a goal that I'd somehow missed - I saw a joy on the faces of some fans that I rarely see unless we've hit the back of the net. I really felt like the response was completely over the top and unnecessary. I can only imagine that to those watching on the television or listening on their radio that Bolton Wanderers supporters - to a man - haven't got a clue. After all, on Saturday a good number chose to boo the subs that won us the game, or so it seemed.
In the grand scheme of things, I'm glad that Dougie Freedman got one over the ‘fans' who chose to respond in that way. I'm glad that his decisions were vindicated and that the substitutions and team selections were proven to be the right ones - whether he got there by luck or by design I care not.
I overheard someone at the game claim that this mentality can be traced back to the Megson era. Bolton Wanderers supporters got the idea that they could get whatever they wanted by complaining. Nobody expects the ground to be relentlessly positive, burying our head in the sand and not reacting whenever something happens that provokes an emotional response, but it seems to me that these days people are actively looking for reasons to piss and moan and relish the chance to vent. It doesn't seem to happen anywhere else. I know lots of Burnley fans who are not happy with Sean Dyche, but they're not spitting mad whenever he takes someone off. It seems to be a problem that we, as a club, suffer from worse than anyone else around, and it shows no sign of abating.
5) The rest of the season
So we're now firmly into the second half of the season, with sixteen games remaining and Bolton Wanderers being almost as close to the Play Off places as to the bottom of the entire division. It's clearly too early even now to write off our promotion chances (both mathematically and realistically) - as much as it's too early to claim that we're doomed to League One.
We've made many, many mistakes this season - the first being the time it took to change the manager - but I do sincerely feel that we're heading in the right direction. Granted the results having not been especially sparkling since Dougie Freedman took charge, but I get the feeling and the sense from watching the games that the squad have had a change in mentality - that the fragility that so defined the final stages of the Owen Coyle era has begun to slowly disappear.
I am impressed with the signings that we have made, and I am impressed with the way that the manager conducts himself. He could so easily have had a smug response to the booers on Saturday, but instead calmly explained that whilst he may often get the decisions wrong, he'll also often get them right and get them right he definitely did. The trouble is that in this day and age supporters demand instant gratification and this transmits itself to everything about the footballing experience. We demand cheaper shirts, we demand cheaper tickets, we demand better play and in some extreme circumstances I've seen some idiots demanding refunds from the club after a heavy defeat or poor performance.
With the forthcoming home games offering a chance to get more positive results and performances under our belt I do firmly believe that there is a lot to look forward to and a lot to be positive about both for the remaining fixtures and for the future under this manager. I believe that he is the right man to lead us forward and whilst it may not be the instant improvement or changes that some might want or demand - in the long run we'll be just fine.
I think that the Play Offs can definitely be reached this season and we all know that it doesn't matter if you finish 3rd or 6th in that mini-league that anything can happen. It's happened to us before and it could happen again this season. The return to fitness of David Wheater will strengthen the backline and the thought of Mark Davies joining the front three behind a lone striker is an encouraging thought. Stu Holden and Medo Kamara can add steel and class to an already-solid midfield plus the form of Marcos Alonso offers encouragement for the remaining sixteen games of the season.