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Bolton Wanderers: Reversing the Decline

It has been well documented over the past month that the mighty Bolton Wanderers are suffering from a terrible headache on & off the pitch. Although if we dig a little deeper, it seems like we've been in steady decline for a while now. We can't change the past, but what exactly can we do to change the future?

Paul Thomas

It's a situation that has left myself and many fans scratching our heads, wondering exactly what could be done.

I've decided to try and look at a few of our problems, to try and shed some light as to whether there is a way forward from this point. I also don't intend to 100% answer these issues, but rather promote debate...

Problem: The Manager

I'm not the first to consider this topic. It's clear from match days, articles, tweets & Facebook abuse that the majority of fans have lost faith in Dougie Freedman.

It's a real shame because nobody wants him to fail, people want him to succeed. But Dougie is in his second full season now, and there hasn't really been any on the field improvement.

Unfortunatley as everybody knows, it's a results driven game and patience comes few and far between. We could be wrong, we could go on to win the majority of the fixtures left, but it seems unlikely.

This has seen calls from fans to have Freedman sacked to bring in a fresh face, this however is doubtful. From his post match comments and from what's been reported, the board are prepared to stick by Dougie.

Personally, in the past I was a Freedman supporter. I believed we needed to give him time to address the issues we seemed to have. But I was hoping for much better this season. On paper, we are still an extremely strong team, but we have taken 1 point from 15 available.

I'm losing faith. Dougie seems negative and naive both at the Macron and away from home. We don't seem to play great football and we look lost, with little confidence, unable to string even a few passes together.

His constant informing of the fans that we can 'see what we are trying to do' is beginning to grate, because at the minute I can't. Unless we are 'trying' to get relegated.

Evidence would suggest that the majority of clubs would have dispensed with his services at this point.

Solution: The Manager

So what is best for Bolton Wanderers?

It could be argued that Freedman was given an extremely tough gig. Although inexperienced, he wasn't given any money, he had a squad of Premier Leauge players sitting on wages that he had to heavily reduce and get them back into the Premier Leauge.

After that initial season passed which saw us just miss out on the play offs, it seemed Dougie was going to be given the freedom to do it his way, and in his own time, providing there was somewhat improvement.

Davies and Gartside knew what a tough gig it was when they offered it to him, would they really be that cruel and sack him when he's not even had chance to finish his initial contract?

Maybe there is a solid plan in place, unless we are in that meeting... we don't know?

Maybe it does take time for something like this to happen and we should have more patience. 

Or do we change our manager?

Personally, I preferred the way we played our football under Owen Coyle. I looked at a graph recently that showed me under Coyle in his first 10 games, we took more points than we did subsequently under Freedman.

Which begs the question, did we sack Coyle too soon? Should he have been given at least till Christmas? But as I said, we can't change the past, just putting that out there.

Even if Freedman was sacked, who would take the Bolton job? I can think of a handful of managers available, but probably wouldn't take it. Curbishley, Mackay, Billie Davies, Di Canio, De Matteo, Roy Keane? 

Realistically, would any of those take up the reigns?

Or do we give Jimmy Phillips a go?

It's a really tough question. 

If it was me, I think I would do what the board have done and dig in and carry on.

Problem: The Midfield

On paper, we have one of the strongest midfields in the leauge, if you include everybody, it reads:

Mark Davies, Stu Holden, Chung-Yong Lee, Liam Feeney, Neil Danns, Darren Pratley, Liam Trotter, Jay Spearing, Medo Kamara, Keith Andrews, Josh Vela.

But personally I believe it's currently our weakest area. Obviously we are missing two key players in Holden & Davies, and now Trotter is out for 10 weeks too. But there is still some quality there.

I said during my immediate reaction to the Leeds game that I believe our midfield doesn't seem to work. Which means that our already slightly shaky defence doesn't get the cover it needs, and our strikers don't get support it needs.

Liam Feeney came into my workplace just before the Leeds game, so I took it as an oppertunity to try and get his viewpoint. 
He told me that Freedman prefers to hurt teams through the middle with the diamond formation. When I asked him where he preferred to play, he told me down the wing, which is his natural position. 

Medo & Spearing can't play together, but they somehow keep starting together.

Danns & Feeney, possibly our best players currently aren't starting together to do any damage.

These kind of mishaps can do damage to a decent midfield.

The Solution: The Midfield

I think part of the solution lies within what Feeney told me. His desired position is down the flanks. We are playing the wrong formation, which doesn't play to our teams strengths.

Should we revert to a simple 4-4-2 formation? Do we bench the under performing Lee until Davies comes back? Playing Feeney & Danns on the wings, and two in the middle?

Which two? Spearing is pretty much guarenteed a start due to his captaincy. Would you start Pratley or Trotter with him? Or opt for youth with Vela?

4-4-2: Feeney - Spearing - Vela - Danns OR Spearing - Feeney - Lee - Davies

4-4-2 Diamond: Spearing - Danns - Vela - Davies OR Spearing - Lee - Danns - Davies

4-5-1: Spearing - Pratley - Danns - Lee - Davies  OR Spearing - Trotter - Vela - Lee - Feeney

It's actually really difficult to see what works best. But we have to try. We seem to constantly make errors in the midfield. It needs to be changed around in order to get some kind of benefit.

It's where our creativity does lie, but I think with negative tactics & build up play it doesn't allow for our midfielders to be creative.

Problem: Style of Play & Tactics

Dougie continuously tells us that he needs the right players in order to play a particular way. I do believe we have enough quality to play a number of ways.

I personally believe that part of why we can't seem to win or see a game out is our negative style of football.
I don't see anybody else play like we do.

We seem to let the other team play football, and soak up the pressure until they score through our leaky defence a couple of times, and then go into absolute panic mode.

First comes Dougie's bewilderment at the fact his flawless negative & deep system which allows absolutely no creativity - doesn't work.

Then he sticks Wheater upfront and we chase the game we have been 'controlling' for the last twenty minutes.

If we are drawing 0-0 or winning 1-0 in the second half, Dougie seems to wait for the opposition to score before he decides to change it round.

We make our substitutions far too late on, leaving little or no time for the new players to make an impact on the game, which is surely what the players are there for?

Too often it's been too late for Feeney to make an impact after we went 1-0 down. Taking Medo off for Trotter isn't a good tactic. Taking Craig Davies off for Beckford and going like for like isn't a good tactic.

Sticking Wheater up front for the last five minutes in the hope of getting on the end of a header isn't a good tactic. 

We have lost our identity because we don't have a style of football.

The Solution: Style of play & Tactics

I want to see my beloved Bolton Wanderers playing positive, attacking football again. It's the kind of football everybody wants to see when they come to a football match.

Let's use our wings again. Our players are suited to playing the flanks. I wish Dougie would have kept Eagles on the books because this is where he could have come into play.

Feeney, Danns, Lee can play the wings especially well, we need to give them the freedom to bloody use them. Stop cutting on the inside and trying to 'hurt teams through the middle.'

I want to see our football players running at the opposition, lookign dangerous. Defenders panic when players run at them.

Stop playing so deep. Stop having such a focus on soaking up the pressure then attacking on the break. Our defense isn't strong enough for that. Get the ball and get moving. In the past I have seen such a lack of movement from some of our players. Pass and move, it's basics. Get the ball and get up the pitch. Let's see some confidence.

Abandon this strict formation, be creative, move about. 

We need to make substitutions earlier. Fair enough if we are 2-0 up and in control, but more often than not, we aren't. So whatever isn't working at half time won't be working at 60, or 70 or 80. We need to change personell, system and style before  we go 1-0 down, or concede.

We just need to adapt to our opposition during the game better. It's all well and good preparing beforehand, but they could come out and play completley differently, we need to be prepared for that.

Teams seem to know they are going to score against us, we need to combat that.

When we make our subs, we need to make them not just for fresh legs, but for impact. If you're taking a defensive midfielder off in Trotter or Pratley, replace them with an attacking midfielder to change the shape. If you're withdrawing Craig Davies, it better be because we are winning and under some pressure.

We need to play to win, fans are hoping for draws at home. It's not good enough for our Football Club. We need our confidence back.

I felt it was time we looked at a couple of these areas of concern and talk about them. Please feel free to give your opinions too.