1) THE NEW FORMATION
We were forewarned that Dougie Freedman was a keen exponent of the 4-2-3-1 formation which is terribly en vogue these days, however, I think that pre-knowledge was still perhaps not enough to ready the Reebok crowd for what it meant in reality. Keith Andrews and Mark Davies were held back as the ‘2’ in front of the defence, in a surprising move – Andrews was to drop back and become a fifth centre back whenever Cardiff attacked, whilst Mark Davies was employed to bring the ball out of defence to prompt attacks.
The ‘3’ in front were more flexible. Lee, Eagles and Pratley interchanged throughout the game and brought a variety to our attacking line-up seldom seen under Coyle. The surprise was that Pratley was chosen to play that forward role whereas most beforehand predicted Mark Davies would be the man for the job with Pratley providing a little more physicality in front of the defence considering our recent trend for conceding from set-pieces.
The ‘1’ up front was an issue, for me. Whilst I love Kevin Davies more than certain members of my own family, I do not think that the Kevin Davies of 2012 is the ideal man to plough a lone furrow – we need someone nippier, someone able to run into the channels and spread the defence allowing the onrushing ‘3’ to fill the gaps and take advantage. Whilst as always he worked manfully and gave his all, which is never in question, I believe that this formation will ultimately be better served with someone with the attributes of Ngog.
2) SQUAD ROTATION
It’s a squad game. Bolton have been too loyal in the past to players who have long passed any real usefulness (ahem, Kevin Nolan). Dougie Freedman’s first game saw the removal of Mears, Ream, Petrov and Spearing from the line-up that faced Middlesbrough, all bold moves that had the terrace experts scratching their hands beforehand. However, the fact that we saw so many changes was predictable, indeed only on Saturday morning the manager was quoted as saying "I don’t think it’s healthy to have a squad as big as we have got".
It will, of course, take time for Dougie to learn his best starting XI, and the performances of those brought on in the second half against Cardiff will give him food for thought. It is perhaps not too outrageous to think that the game against Leicester City tomorrow (Tuesday 6th November) could bring an entirely new arrangement around the 4-2-3-1 formation.
3) THE GOALKEEPER
Adam Bogdan is 25. He’s still only just moved beyond his first year as first choice goalkeeper for Bolton Wanderers and at the moment he is struggling. It doesn’t help that the defence in front of him have been inconsistent both in terms of form and selection. However, it may also be a hindrance to know that behind the scenes he has no real competition at present because of the unfortunate knee injury suffered by Andy Lonergan. Bogdan can sometimes look nervous when coming to claim a ball, especially from set pieces, though of course this comes with experience, we all remember how flaky a young Mr Jaaskelainen looked in his early days.
One moment stands out in my mind from the game against Cardiff City, a cross came into the box and the goalkeeper elected to punch clear as opposed to catch, an action which prompted approximately 15,000 people to exclaim "BLOODY CATCH IT" in unison – having given this some thought since the end of the game I’ve come to the conclusion that criticism of the goalkeeper alone for this decision is unfair. As all Sunday league footballers know, it is impossible to be fully aware of your surroundings when you are concentrating on the ball – you rely on your teammates giving you the information, and so where that information is lacking then his decision to clear first, ask questions later, becomes reasonably logical.
That said, questions can be asked of his reactions and reflexes, not only in the Cardiff game but of late – though the talent of the player is not in question, just look at his save from the opposition goalkeeper in a 94th minute goalmouth scramble. The goalkeeper coach, Hughes, brought in at the expense of club favourite Barber has also come in for criticism since Bogdan began playing. However, I think that 18 months of coaching under a new man would be unlikely to overrule the years of coaching given under Barber.
4) IMPACT SUBSTITUTES
A manager’s impact upon a game in progress can be hard to judge. Tinkering with formations and personnel obviously can change things, but having seen his work in action I think we can be pleased to see that Dougie Freedman is a proactive manager, rather than reactive. The game was crying out for width, the 4-2-3-1 formation that we employed left us narrow, and concentrated our attacks through the centre of the pitch where Cardiff were strongest. The introduction of Petrov saw us drag the ball wider, and which in turn pulled the midfield across the pitch allowing our attacking forces to have more time on the ball to create chances for the forwards.
David Ngog was brought on to replace Kevin Davies, and his arrival saw the game stretched even further as he ran into the corners with fresh legs, and gave the Cardiff defenders another question to answer with his close control and pace. The arrival of both Ngog and Petrov showed that the manager was able to assess the play as it developed, and then he was able to formulate a change in strategy mid-match which allowed us to come back into the game and to dominate the final 30 minutes.
This again bodes well for the future, as under Coyle I often felt that his substitutions came too late in the game, and were overly reactive rather than proactive. The signs are positive that Dougie can have a real impact upon our performance to actively affect the game, hopefully with three points being the end result.
5) DAVID NGOG
Wow, what a performance! It had all the components of a Hollywood film – drama, action, romance and comedy. His arrival as a second half subsititute for Kevin Davies changed the game. He immediately was involved as Bolton began to play a more patient attacking game, spreading the play from wing to wing as we varied our attacks which to that point had been rather predictable.
Ngog became a focal point for the attack, using his natural strength to hold off the defenders and using his ability to bring others into play around him. Within ten minutes of coming on he had twice stung the palms of Marshall in the Cardiff City goal – doubling the number of shots that I have seen him have in home games in the past year alone. He soon put the ball in the net at the Reebok for the first time in his short Bolton career, though this was disallowed by the linesman – this was later proven to be a huge mistake on his part with television replays showing our man being at least a yard onside. It was an all-action performance.
Undeterred, Ngog was throwing himself into the action with great spirit, and his desire to impress the new manager was obvious. His keenness to get involved brought about a very harsh booking from the referee, the impact of which came only later in the game. Ngog was beginning to be absolutely central to everything right that Bolton did, never more so that when his deft flick to Sam Ricketts’ shot in the 74th minute gave Bolton the lead for the first time. It was a great display of skill and awareness as he diverted a shot into the bottom corner giving the goalkeeper no chance. It was a terrific finish, and his first home goal was richly deserved.
The comedic aspect of his performance came in the dying minutes, as a reckless lunge at a defender brought about the second yellow, and then the red card and he was dismissed, leaving Bolton playing a revolutionary 4-5-0 formation as we went into injury time. Whilst we can have few complaints about the second yellow, the first was a ridiculous decision from a referee whose only contribution to the game was to make us long for someone more slimline like Phil Dowd. It was a shock to me that he was even refereeing, as I’m sure I’ve seen him on television lately advertising Jacamo products, for the larger gentleman.
This childish barb aside, it was a superb performance from Ngog, and another which bodes well for the future under Freedman if the player can bring this sort of energy and desire to the next game after his suspension.