There has been a lot of talk this summer of automatic promotion, and going right back up to the Premier League. My own previews by position predict World Class midfield play and goals galore from our young strikeforce. But there is trouble in paradise. You can't score when the other team has the ball. And when the other team has the ball against Bolton Wanderers, they are likely to score. Case-in-point, just recently we conceded three goals to a club that is not going to exist in a week and only has a squad of seven recognized professionals.
Some might say "It's just a friendly," or "It's only the preseason," but realistically, this has been going on in all matches, competitive or not, for well over a year. Last season Bolton allowed opponents to score 77 goals in 38 matches, over two per match. Relegation was inevitable. These problems predate the departure of Gary Cahill. They predate Fabrice Muamba's heart ailment. They even predate the signing of Paul Robinson. Actually that's not true, it all went bad after the signing of Paul Robinson.
The concrete-footed Englishman may be gone, but the problems remain. Let's look at our stable of defenders (in no particular order) and see what can be done.
Tyrone Mears: Missed just about all of last season, with the exception of one match. He played ninety minutes in that match, and looked OK. Mears was a journeyman for most of his early career, a borderline Premier League talent. Then he spent a year in France and remarkably improved the technical side of his game, despite seldom appearing in actual matches. He played very well for Burnley when they were in the top flight, and I thought this was a very good signing last summer. Injuries completely derailed Mears' first season at the Reebok, but I think he will have a good bounce-back year.
Marcos Alonso: A bit of a divisive figure. Some think he is a phenomenal talent whom we are lucky to be "borrowing" from Real Madrid for a few years (They have a buyback clause). Others think he is a waste of space, a defender who can't defend, and attacker who gives the ball away too much, an injury-prone lightweight ill-suited for the English game. I like him as a left back. I think he still has a lot to learn, but he is only twenty-one, and an inexperienced twenty-one at that. When he is fit, he will be the starting left fullback on this club.
Matt Mills: To be honest, I don't know much about him. He's spent his whole career in the lower leagues and didn't play in the second half of last season because he fell out with his manager. To be frank, I'm not expecting much.
Tim Ream: Appeared solid in the latter part of last season, which is OK considering the baptism-by-fire circumstances, but he will have to improve going forward. Coming up through the American system leaves him very inexperienced for his age, and leaves much more room for improvement in the next season or two.
Zat Knight: Not everyone was happy when Zat re-signed with Bolton for a further two seasons, and with good reason. He was exceedingly poor over the past twelve months, eventually losing his place. An optimist might say that the Championship is his true level, and that his size and strength will be too much for attackers to handle there. We will see. In my opinion, if he is playing every week, we are in trouble.
Samuel Ricketts: Mr. Versatility is back for another season at the Reebok. When replacing Paul Robinson it is easy to look good. He was adequate last season at left back, but that is not a great role for him. Ricketts is best used as a fifth defender, not first choice at any one position, but good cover all along the back line. If he gets fifteen starts at 3 different positions, with a few more appearances off the bench, that is ideal.
Joe Riley: The youngster had a few solid performances after being thrown into the fire. He was unable to stay fit and build on that, which was unfortunate, as the right back spot was there for the taking. With Mears and Ricketts both fit this summer, it will be much tougher for Joe Riley to make an impact.
Andy Kellett: Unlikely to feature much.
David Wheater: Out injured until at least February. A substantial loss for a club that can't afford losses on the defensive end.
Adam Blakeman: Blakeman is left-footed, and it is a pretty good left foot from all accounts. He is something of a man without a position. He has played a lot of left back for the reserves, but he has also appeared in central midfield and on the left wing. I think best-case-scenario for us is that Blakeman turns into a Matty Taylor type of player. He is still only twenty, and Taylor was a bit of a late bloomer as well.
Alex McQuade: Unlikely to feature much. If he does, you will know we have a crisis in central defense.
To summarize, Owen Coyle has not done enough to improve the defense. I fear we will be on the wrong side of several 4-3 and 3-2 matches throughout September and October.