We used to be good at this sort of thing. - Michael Regan
It wasn't too long ago that Bolton Wanderers were known primarily as a defensive football club. A grind-it-out side who were "tough to play against." Emotionally, this seems a distant memory to Wanderers' supporters. What has gone wrong, and more importantly, can it be fixed?
This post is not about Adam Bogdan. The young Hungarian goalkeeper has been solid, yet unspectacular, for most of this season. He has had a few good matches and a few bad moments. The entirety of the blame for Bolton's poor defensive performance over the last 18 months cannot be laid at his feet. Bogdan is, however, the most reliably present part of a defensive unit that has not been able to find consistency or quality since the early part of 2011, just about two years ago.
Bogdan has started all 29 league matches for the 2012-2013 Bolton Wanderers, while Andy Lonergan has started all four cup matches. Lonergan has conceded six goals and Bogdan has conceded 42. For the sake of comparison, we can look at Birmingham City keeper Jack Butland and Blackpool keeper Michael Gilks, who have both started 30 matches and let in 45 goals. Other notable Championship Goalkeepers?
Tomasz Kuszczak (Brighton & Hove Albion) has started 29 matches and conceded 34 goals.
David Marshall (Cardiff City), 29 matches, 30 goals.
Kasper Schmeichel has only conceded 24 goals in 29 starts for Leicester City.
Overall, Bogdan is middle of the pack, as are Bolton Wanderers. Goal difference and goals scored also fall into that category for Bolton. So, if all statistics appear to place Bolton in the middle, why aren't the club comfortably mid-table, not far off a playoff berth? Why has Dougie Freedman seen his charges fall into a relegation fight?
Well, nobody is laughing, but Bolton's defending does have one thing in common with comedy; Timing is everything. As we have all read since Saturday, Bolton have dropped 24 points from winning positions. The club has conceded eight goals in the final 15 minutes of matches. But here's the shocker; In that same time period, Bolton have scored eleven!
Every Bolton match is close. Ten have been draws. 14 have been decided by one goal (Nine losses, five wins). Five have been decided by two goals (three wins, two losses). And that's it. There has not been a single Wanderers match decided by more than two goals this season.
One of the principal theories behind defending, at least in England, is that team performance can be improved with familiarity. Partnerships are important. So let's take a look at what Bolton have had in the center of defense. Wanderers have five true central defenders on the books, plus one fullback by trade who is capable of slotting in the middle.
David Wheater is probably the Trotters' best defender, but he is still working his way back from a long term knee injury and has yet to make a first team appearance this season. There is a good chance Wheater will start every week once he is fit, but he has never worked with Dougie Freedman before, so we can't be sure.
Craig Dawson is on loan from West Brom. He has yet to appear for Bolton, and only made a handful of cameos for the Baggies back in August. The rest of the defenders have played, and played quite a bit. But we can't tell much by looking at individual performances, we must look at partnerships.
Tim Ream and Sam Ricketts started against Middlesborough in central defense. This was Jimmy Phillips' last match in charge, and Bolton lost 2-1. Jimmy Phillips' first two matches, a win and a draw, featured a Matt Mills-Tim Ream partnership. Four goals were conceded in those two matches. That's really not a significant sample size though. Both of Bolton's permanent managers this season, Dougie Freedman and Owen Coyle, saw fit to start Zat Knight in every match they managed. Let's take a look at how he did with each of his partners.
Sam Ricketts has started matches this season at left back, right back, and center back. He has partnered with Knight in the middle five times. Three of those matches ended in Bolton victories, and two of them were clean sheets. Since the club has only stopped the opponent from scoring five times all season, doing it twice in five starts is impressive. This combination most recently played together in the 2-0 FA Cup win over Sunderland. So, that all sounds good. Why haven't we seen more of this pairing? One word; Peterborough. That's right folks, Ricketts and Knight were the starting defensive partnership for the 5-4 disaster of a game on December 22.
If we just look at the overall numbers, Knight-Ricketts has allowed eight goals in five matches, or 1.6 goals per match. Peterborough had a big effect on this club though. Looking back, supporters as well as management were absolutely furious. We demanded sacrificial lambs be led to slaughter. One of those casualties was Sam Ricketts. Looking back, maybe it should have been Bogdan (or Knight). That said, the question is apparent. Was Peterborough an outlier? Just an inexplicable catastrophe? The numbers seem to support that idea. That match is one of only two this season in which Bolton have conceded more than two goals. The other was a very early 3-1 loss to Hull City. If we drop the nine-goal-thriller, Knight-Ricketts has conceded three goals, kept two clean sheets, and won three of four matches. That is a partnership worth a second look.
Tim Ream has partnered Zat Knight in central defense eleven times, including in eight of the last nine matches. The Knight-Ream partnership has kept one clean sheet, and conceded 17 goals in total, or 1.55 per match. There is no outlier though, no mathematical explanation. This pairing has been bad. They were bad together in the tail end of last season, when relegation happened, and they have been bad this season. The most damning number is one. As in, one win. Of the eleven matches that Tim Ream and Zat Knight have started in the middle of the back line, Bolton have won one. There have also been three draws. One win, six points, and seven losses in eleven matches. That is atrocious.
The most common partnership in defense this season has been Matt Mills and Zat Knight. They have started 14 matches together, conceded 18 goals, and kept two clean sheets. I think most involved with Bolton would agree, this is our first choice, at least until Wheater comes back from injury. Unfortunately, Mills' own injury recovery has taken longer than expected. When he first hurt himself on December 8, the club announced that he would be out for six weeks. We are now coming up on nine weeks.
So what should be done? What are Dougie Freedman's options? In the short term, I think Tim Ream needs to be dropped, and the Sam Ricketts-Zat Knight partnership revisited. Once everyone returns to fitness? The best option in my eyes is a Matt Mills-David Wheater pairing. Sadly, by the time we get those two, as well as the rest of our first choice starting XI, back on the pitch, it will be too late to win promotion this season. And then, it's a complete rebuild. With a second year in the Championship looming, the summer 2013 exodus is going to be painful, and the 2013-2014 Bolton Wanderers will be a very different club from that which the supporters have become accustomed.
What would be your defensive pairing?
Tim Ream and Sam Ricketts (8 votes)
Sam Ricketts and Zat Knight (11 votes)
Tim Ream and Zat Knight (5 votes)
Matt Mills and David Wheater (even if they re still on crutches) (28 votes)
Other (Explain in comments) (7 votes)
59 total votes