After a long off-season, in less than 48 hours the Bolton Wanderers will once again take the pitch after the nightmare of last season. The importance of this season for the long term trajectory of the club cannot be over-emphasized. While I don't believe it necessary to get promotion in one season, the team does need to implement major changes to ensure promotion within two season, and a certain amount of stability after that, or flounder in mediocrity for the foreseeable future.
This will be the most challenging season in a while for the Wanderers, because it's both incredibly essential and largely alien. Owen Coyle and his backroom staff do know how to do well in the Championship, and some players have experience in the league as well, but for the most part, they are used to the comforts of the Premiership.
Injury, which played such a huge role in the downfall of last season, will have to be dealt with a lot better this season. With the increased number and frequency of matches, players will have less time to recover if they do get a knock, and will have to be more careful as a result. The physios will also need to step up and, frankly, take better care of the players. They were certainly not entirely to blame for the injury collapse of last season, but it must be said that there's only so much bad luck to be had.
The increase in games also means that depth, never Bolton's strong suit, will be much more important this season. Coyle has clearly kept this in mind, hence the number of different players and combinations used in preseason, but the limited success with which they were deployed will have to be much improved.
One of Bolton's biggest problems last season was the midfield, and the interface between the midfield and defense. The Men in White struggled to attain and maintain possession, and even when they had it, many players didn't seem to know what to do with it. We will, fingers crossed, have the two best players on our books, both midfielders, Chung-Yong Lee and Stu Holden back for most of the season, but as we learned last season it is far too dangerous to rely on them. Coyle has made quite a few signings in this area this summer, as well as promoting some youth players to the first team, which is a step in the right direction, but ultimately if that squad-wide chemistry cannot be found, then the Wanderers can look forward to another season of losses.
Last season Bolton found the most success with a five man midfield, and I believe the same will be true this season. With Chungy back, there are a pair of very talented wingers in the squad between him and Martin Petrov. This means if Chris Eagles, who had moments of such promise last season, and was quite possibly the player of preseason, will need to move more central if he wants to retain a regular starting spot. I would like to see him in a very attacking role, taking advantage of his slick feet and pinpoint passes, right behind the striker. Keith Andrews looks like he will fill the hole left by Nigel Reo-Coker, and he looks to be a good bet in the Championship. This leaves the final spot between Mark Davies and Darren Pratley (until the return of Stu Holden of course, which is expected to be in October). Little Davies looks the best bet to me, but if he does end up departing to the sunny south of Swansea, then Pratley isn't a bad back up.
That is not to say that the defense was blameless last season. The back four received limited and unreliable help from their midfield, which put a lot of pressure on them, but they also failed to rise to this pressure. The team was very susceptible on the counter-attack because they defense was slow to get back, and uncommunicative once they were back. Just as the midfield needs to find a better chemistry, the back four need to as well. They have a top goalkeeper behind them, but it's unfair to rely on him alone.
Depth is a big worry in the centre-backs, as David Wheater's long term injury leaves Bolton with just three: Tim Ream, Matt Mills, and Zat Knight. While Knight earned himself many critics last season, but it is still unclear whether he really deserves to be dropped. The fullbacks are a bastion of youth, with Joe Riley, Tyrone Mears, and the newly-fit Marcos Alonso all making impressions in preseason. Sam Ricketts, proved himself capable on both side, and will bring experience to the table.
The forwards received a lot of flak from Trotters fans last season, and it is true that with a few more goals, Bolton would have stayed up. However, this is an easy criticism to make, especially considering the number of other what-ifs. It's true that our strikers failed to convert a number of important opportunities, but they just didn't receive that many to convert. The lack of service from the midfield was a huge handicap last season, one the midfield needs to work out.
If it is, then Coyle appears to have a good spread of forwards to call upon. Kevin Davies and David Ngog make up the veteran contingent, although Ngog is still quite young. Both Marvin Sordell and Benik Afobe, who is on loan from Arsenal, showed a lot of promise in preseason. There are also quite a few younger players who were promoted from the reserve side this summer, and it will be interesting to see what they can do.
The goalkeeper situation is unquestionably solid at this point. Adam Bogdan proved himself incredibly capable last season, in what was a surprise to me, and fully earned the right to start week in and week out. However, if he does falter or get injured, there is a long line behind him waiting for a chance. Robert Lainton and Jay Lynch were both brought up from the reserves this summer, and will be itching to prove themselves. Recent signing, 28 year old Andy Lonergan, is used to starting at his club, and will be hoping to do so again at some point for the Wanderers.
With the exception of the centre-backs, the squad is looking pretty solid going into this season. There are no holes that absolutely need to be filled, and any that become apparent can always be taken care of in January. This just leaves it to Owen Coyle to find that chemistry that was missing all of last season. He's got many talented players on his hands, the challenge will be to find the right combination, and most importantly to inspire them.
This is not going to be an easy season for the Wanderers. The Championship is a very different league, with challenges all of it's own that will need to be taken on. It's not absolutely necessary to get promotion this season, but it will be vital to create a club that has a coherent vision and knows how to work together. If Bolton can attain this platform, then promotion will come, and hopefully stability.
Come on you White Men!