After two league matches thus far this season, Bolton Wanderers are winless but they are also still undefeated. After two league matches, the Trotters have conceded two goals, the same total at this point last season yet are one point worse off. Of course, this is early days and 95% of the Championship season still lies ahead. Yet, this point last season was where Wanderers capitulated, conceding five goals in the following two matches before finishing the season's first ten matches with 11 points.
Thus far this season, the defense hasn't exactly been confidence inspiring but it is also very easy to see that the pair of new fullbacks, Marc Tierney and Alex Baptiste, are growing into their roles at a quick rate. The novelty of having defenders on the flanks that can actually, well, defend, is something pretty new to most Bolton fans.
The supporters have had to sit through the performances of Marcos Alonso, Paul Robinson, Gretar Steinsson, and Sam Ricketts over the last few years with their abilities on defense ranging from "serviceable" to "godawful." While Tierney and Baptiste have not yet proven themselves in a Bolton shirt by any stretch of the imagination, they certainly do look promising.
So, after two league games, it's not on the wings where Bolton's defensive issues lie. It's in the center. The season's first match, an away trip at Burnley, brought those issues to light as any ball over the top immediately saw the central defensive pairing of Zat Knight and David Wheater left for dead.
It's clear that barring any new signings, Knight and Wheater are Dougie Freedman's first-choice central defenders with Tim Ream as a backup and Matt Mills out in the cold. Wheater and Knight are not without their issues on defense but they are also not bad defenders by any stretch of the imagination. Their problem is one born of their partnership and the fact that they are two big, slow central defenders. Should one of them falter, there is almost no chance that the other will have the ability to cover the position.
What Bolton Wanderers could well need is a smaller, positional central defender to help cover the big man. That is partially what made Craig Dawson such an important asset for the Whites at the tail end of the 2012/13 Championship season but it would be foolish to thing that it was Dawson's only ability. Craig Dawson was supreme in the air and comfortable with the ball at his feet in addition to being able to help Zat Knight out at the back. That is why he was vital.
The odds of Dougie Freedman going out and splashing the cash are admittedly minimal at best. In that case, the question becomes: "do Bolton Wanderers already have the solution in-house?" The answer to that could be a pretty confident "yes."
Alex Baptiste, signed to be a right back, has plenty of experience in the center of the park. He often played there for Blackpool, starting off on the right after signing from Mansfield Town. Over the next season, he would make the transition to central defense, switching off between there and right back after cementing his place in the team. Over the next few seasons, Baptiste would play primarily in the center. This of course included Blackpool's Premier League season in 2010/11 and the successful 2011/12 season that saw them reach the Play-off Final, ultimately losing to West Ham United.
Baptiste isn't the big man at the back. He stands just shy of six feet tall. He's not going to win every aerial duel because that's the big man's job. If Baptiste were moved into the center, he'd provide cover should Zat Knight (the captain and first choice under Dougie) be caught out.
Should Baptiste shift to the center, it would leave the question of who to play on the right. Tyrone Mears, the much-maligned defender, is the obvious choice there given his experience and the ability he's shown in the Championship. Mears doesn't have many fans in the stands but his poor reputation is largely undeserved. He's not a star by any stretch of the imagination but is more than a serviceable enough right back.
Maybe Alex Baptiste is the answer and maybe he isn't. The one thing that's become pretty clear from the start of the season is that there is a very good chance that two big central defenders will not do Bolton Wanderers a world of good at the back.