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Square pegs, round holes, the 4-5-1, and Bolton's strike "force"

Bolton's strikers are playing with added weight on their backs.
Bolton's strikers are playing with added weight on their backs.
Tony Marshall

On Saturday, Bolton Wanderers failed to win three points for the sixth match in a row, losing their fourth straight in disappointing circumstances. In three of the season's opening six matches, Bolton Wanderers' have been held scoreless without a single goal from any member of the Trotters' striker corps. It sounds like a broken record but this is an extremely important stat line because, simply put, this is where the goals are supposed to come from.

Against Leeds United, at the Reebok, Bolton Wanderers fired off some 16 shots in the general direction of Paddy Kenny's goal. I say "general direction" because only one of those shots was on target and, even then, it was debatable everywhere but the stats line. The one effort in question was a late chance from Darren Pratley that looked like it was headed to hit the post (the inside of it, at best) that Paddy Kenny managed to get fingertips on and push wide. The 15 other attempts from the forwards were all wide of the mark.

Dougie Freedman's relatively short managerial tenure both at the helm of Bolton Wanderers and Crystal Palace before that has seen him favor the 4-5-1 (or 4-2-3-1) formation for his teams. This usually sees Freedman's team line up with a straight back four, two defensive-minded midfielder, two wingers, one central midfielder, and one forward. It is a formation that, when used with the correct personnel, can reap benefits for a team. The pair of defensive midfielders can add bite to bolster the back line while allowing the fullbacks to overlap with the wingers to hopefully supplement the offense. The forward should be a target man that can create a chance or, at the very least, bring his teammates into play in or around the opposition's penalty area.

It all depends on the personnel and Bolton Wanderers do not have that, especially up front. Thus far this season, Dougie Freedman has rotated between the trio of David Ngog, Jermaine Beckford, and Craig Davies and league play, hoping that one of those three can finally make the breakthrough for Bolton. Thus far, it has not happened. Each striker has his own style of play and each is radically different but it doesn't seem like any one of them is well-suited to playing in the 4-5-1.

David Ngog is the strong hold-up man who is comfortable with the ball at his feet, able to carve out space, and willing to hold onto it for a few extra seconds to bring teammates into the play. What he lacks is the ability to finish. After doing all of the hard work, the vast majority of Ngog's efforts are either entirely off the mark or seemingly right at the goalkeeper, resulting in a missed opportunity for Bolton Wanderers.

Jermaine Beckford was said to be the instinctive finisher when he signed for Bolton. The kind of striker that just knew where the goal was and the kind that tended to be in the right place at the right time to put the ball in the back of the net. Thus far, we have seen Beckford make excellent runs into the area only to see the opportunity wasted after either a poor pass or no pass at all. In the rare instances when the ball does find him, Beckford scuffs the opportunity. We saw it twice in the loss at Blackburn Rovers when the striker was one-on-one with the goalkeeper and a pair of glorious chances came to nothing.

Then, there's Craig Davies. He's the battering ram type of forward in that he loves to shoot on sight. He's not great with the ball at his feet nor is he the type to hold it up. If there's space and a sliver of goal is visible, the odds are that Craig Davies will try it. On opening day, at Burnley, we saw this right from the moment that Davies was substituted into the match. The forward drove a long-range effort from goal, forcing a brilliant save from the goalkeeper and robbing the striker of what would have been a fantastic goal. The problem with Craig Davies is when he does not get the opportunities to shoot. Without the chances, Davies is, in a word, useless in the match. He needs people to get the ball to him and it is just not happening.

Bolton's striker corps, at the moment, is not made for the 4-5-1, especially with the supporting cast around them. Against Leeds United, we only saw the attacking impetus from the Trotters when Dougie Freedman introduced Jermaine Beckford for Zat Knight and the formation shifted to a 4-4-2.

The supposed benefits of the 4-5-1 have been missing this season with Bolton Wanderers leaking goals here, there, and everywhere. Would the 4-4-2 (or 4-1-3-2) really expose them that much more?

Perhaps it is a question of finding the pairings that work best. The combination of David Wheater and Zat Knight simply has not worked, so maybe it's time for something else at the back. At the tail end of the Leeds match, Freedman employed Matt Mills and Tim Ream together and they held out well enough. What if we saw the return of the premier league combination of Wheater and Ream, one that worked well enough in the top flight and offers something different.

Up front, it could be the return of the Craig Davies and David Ngog partnership that saw the Trotters actually scoring goals in the middle of last season. The Ngog & Beckford pair has been tried this season and might be worth another shot as well with Ngog providing hold-up play in either scenario.

Dougie Freedman has a lot of work to do with this Bolton Wanderers team but hammering square pegs into round holes is just breaking the board rather than providing anything positive for the Trotters.