Bolton Wanderers have not been very good thus far this season. With ten matches played in the 2013/14 campaign, the Trotters have amassed just five points, all of which have come from draws. That's ten matches without a win and ten matches without a goal from any of the strikers.
It was in nine straight matches that Bolton had allowed at least one goal with that streak finally coming to an end. It didn't conclude without taking its toll. In those nine matches, Bolton allowed 17 goals (an average of 1.89 per game) while scoring just seven times. Allowing that many goals per game while failing to score is a recipe for disaster. While the midfield and forwards have not been carrying their respective weight, it is the Trotters' defense that particularly struggled.
With the fullbacks more or less established since the season's opening match, it is the center of the pack that has come under question. The combination of David Wheater and Zat Knight showed almost immediately that it was not working with the two defenders too big and cumbersome to deal with pacy onrushing attackers. Dougie Freedman was reluctant to bench what he hoped would be his first choice pair.
When the time came, it was the captain, Zat Knight, that would be the first to go with Matt Mills taking his spot for the match at Brighton & Hove Albion. In that match, Bolton Wanderers did well to hold out against a strong Seagulls attack for all but an important ten minute stretch. In that short burst of time, the Whites quickly allowed three goals which, when coupled with an utter failure to capitalize on their own chances earlier on in the match, quickly sunk Bolton's boat.
Matt Mills had previously impressed the Capital One Cup match against Tranmere Rovers (one that Bolton would ultimately lose on penalties), keeping Tranmere to just one goal with Bolton again not taking (and being extremely unlucky with) their chances. The defender had earned his spot, acting as one of the stronger links in a weak chain against Brighton & Hove Albion. In the next match, it was David Wheater that was benched.
After a long time on the outside looking in, Tim Ream had experienced a rebirth in the midfield this season. In the center of the park, rather than at the back, Ream had room to breathe without constantly being under pressure. For four straight matches, the American anchored the midfield, playing behind the likes of Jay Spearing, Medo Kamara, and Darren Pratley, while providing defensive cover in the new role ahead of the back line. In those four matches, Tim Ream won our Man of the Match award (or came as runner-up) in each outing due to his tenacity, attitude, and skill on the ball. Ream, a player that had been very heavily criticized by the fanbase, was now riding high on confidence and deservedly so.
Against Yeovil Town, Dougie Freedman made another change: sitting David Wheater and throwing Tim Ream back into the center of defense. It was a move that made some of the fanbase understandably nervous given Ream's struggles in that position over the last year-and-a-half.
The match against the Glovers was not a good one for Bolton Wanderers given Yeovil Town's relative class (or lack thereof). Simply put, they were the kind of team that the Trotters should not only have beaten, but the kind that Bolton should have scored three or four on. If the strikers were more prolific, perhaps that would have been the case. Instead, it was Ed Upson's 79th minute effort coupled with an Adam Bogdan howler that saw Yeovil take the lead. Thankfully for Bolton, it was a late Alex Baptiste goal that saw Wanderers rescue a point.
For the vast majority of that match, Bolton's defense held firm, minus a few Yeovil Town opportunities that forced saves from Adam Bogdan. When all was said and done though, Bolton Wanderers allowed just one goal. One freak goal that occurred after Tim Ream had moved to left back to cover for the injured Marc Tierney with Zat Knight and Matt Mills in the center. The shot came from the edge of the area with Jay Spearing covering Upson after he broke into the center with the defenders all standing much deeper.
It was in the Yeovil Town clash that Bolton Wanderers lost Marc Tierney to a fractured foot injury, meaning that Dougie Freedman would be forced to ring in even more changes than normal for the quick turnaround at Blackpool. The trip to Bloomfield Road would see Matt Mills and Tim Ream start in the center of the park once more with Alex Baptiste filling in on the left and new man Kevin McNaughton taking his spot on the right. The Cardiff City loanee provided a calming, experienced presence at the back that allowed the rest of the defense to concentrate on their respective jobs and, ultimately, to succeed.
The defense held strong against the Seasiders and their formidable Championship attacking options in Tom Ince, Ricardo Fuller, and Michael Chopra. All three of those players had punished Bolton before, each scoring a goal in a previous appearance against Wanderers. Tom Ince had leveled matters at 1-1 in the same fixture last season after Mark Davies had put Bolton ahead while Ricardo Fuller had scored twice against Bolton in his Stoke City days. Michael Chopra, the late substitute for Blackpool, came on in similar circumstances against Bolton for Ipswich Town last season to score a late winner at the death.
Still, Bolton's defense held out thanks to an assured Matt Mills and Tim Ream at the back, claiming what would be their first away clean sheet since 19th of January, 2013. It was a match that saw Bolton travel to Crystal Palace and leave with a point from the 0-0 draw. It was that match that would be the precursor to the late season run (with Craig Dawson's inclusion into the side) that would see Bolton run up the table. Bolton lost the next match out, 2-1 at Watford, before going unbeaten in their next eight matches, taking 20 points from a possible 24. The Blackpool result was also Bolton's first clean sheet in general since the 6th of April, when Wanderers beat Wolves 2-0 at home.
In the last 180 minutes of play with Matt Mills and Tim Ream at the back, Bolton Wanderers have allowed just one goal. It was a goal born out of an individual mistake from the goalkeeper and not one indicative of a defensive breakdown. The defense should now be high on confidence and should take it forward to face a Birmingham City team just six spots above them but fielding the now free-scoring Jesse Lingard.