Wanderers previous two players of the year combined for 3 matches last season. Both operate in the midfield. Both are full internationals and extremely talented. Both make the players around them better. The difference between the midfield last season and the midfield this season is gigantic.
Some might say it is foolish to pin all the hopes or put all the pressures of the season on the surgically repaired knees of Stuart Holden and Chung-Yong Lee, but I disagree. These are two of the smartest and most competitive footballers in the world. That we were able to hang on to them this summer is just barely short of a miracle. But they are not the only talent in the center of the pitch.
Bolton have eleven midfielders on the books, and at least seven of them look likely to contribute to whatever success Wanderers will have this season. Let's start with those unlikely to play a major role, and work our way up to the big two.
Fabrice Muamba: We really have to get this one out first. I have always really liked Fabrice as a player, even with is limitations. I felt he formed a fine trio with Holden and Davies, each bringing complementary qualities to the mix. I really hope he makes it back on the pitch some day, but this season it seems very unlikely. Please prove me wrong Fabrice.
Joshua Vela: Still rather young and inexperienced. Looks like more of a hard worker than a footballing talent. With Muamba unavailable that could be an important quality.
Keith Andrews: We know what he is. We know what he does. The kind of player you need around in the Championship, but no one is really happy about that. If he starts more than ten matches, it probably means we are closer to relegation than to promotion.
Joe McKee: He is only 19, so there may be some improvement to come. He will probably play a lot less than Andrews and Vela, but be a bit more enjoyable to watch.
Chris Eagles: No longer an elite prospect, but certainly a double-digit goal-scorer in the Championship. Also showed some unexpected versatility last season, as he was as effective through the middle as he was on the wings.
Gregg Wylde: The Scot should be adequate, probably as an impact player off the bench. He is only 21, but made 48 appearances for Rangers before signing with Bolton. The Championship will be a step up from Scotland, but he will be used to the style of play, which could be a valuable asset. Eagles and Martin Petrov are both prone to lengthy dips in form, so having Wylde as another option can't hurt.
Darren Pratley: Dazza Prazza started off a little slow last season. His first few performances weren't awful, but they weren't very good either. He was being played out of position, and trying to fill the boots of reigning Player of the Season Stuart Holden, so it is not surprising that the fans turned on him rather quickly. He got better as the season went on, especially as he was able to spend more time playing his natural position, that of an attacking midfielder just behind the central striker. He is a proven Championship goalscorer, and as long as he is fit, I think he will get into double digits.
Martin Petrov: When Petrov is in the mood he is still a class player. However, it is anybody's guess how often he will be in the mood while playing in the English second division. If he wants to, he can be one of the best players in the Championship and help lead Bolton to automatic promotion.
Mark Davies: Seems to alternate between underrated and overrated depending on his most recent performance. Even during some of his best or most memorable games he has been poor for 50 minutes and then taken over in the second half. The increased physicality of the Championship doesn't bode well for someone of his size. One could make a case that Bolton's five best players are midfielders, and if Davies can play a more defensive role and shield the suspect defenders, it will bode very well indeed for Coyle's men.
Chung-Yong Lee: 20 months ago, Bolton were riding high, flirting with a position in the top 4, with a swashbuckling attacking brand of football. Much of this swashbuckling came from the wings, where Lee and Petrov were using pace and skill to tear opposing defenses apart. Lee has just missed a whole season to injury, but he is still quite young, and may even continue to improve. If Bolton are looking good bets to be promoted, and Lee himself is playing well, I think there is a fair chance he will stay beyond this season. On the other hand, if Bolton are struggling come January, I am afraid he will be out the door.
Stuart Holden: The American became the heart and soul of the team almost immediately after he arrived from Houston. What he is able to do in the center of the midfield, the ground he covers, the space he creates, the way he controls the match , is something we are only used to seeing from big-name players on huge clubs. If Holden were able to stay injury-free, and if he were European or South American, he would be making best-in-the-world lists and never would have come anywhere near Bolton. We are lucky in that regard I suppose. As long as he stays fit, I think Stu (and his hair) will lead us back to the promised land.