One thing that particularly struck me as I miserably left the Macron Stadium, in the relentless rain, after yet another disappointing result the previous Saturday, was just how different Bolton Wanderers performed in each half.
Wanderers were facing Bristol City who sat a place and four points above them, a game in which they really needed to win in order to not be left slightly stranded in the relegation zone over the international break - they didn't obviously.
The first half was up there with one of the worst halves of football I have ever seen, at any level from any age group. Bolton were absolutely atrocious, with Bristol not being too much better, with the only real clear cut chance for either side of any note coming from calamitous defending.
As the scene unfolded it was painstakingly obvious that something was about to go wrong. A long ball was hoofed forward, David Wheater and Prince Desir-Gouano were caught too far apart from each other, leaving a gaping hole for the pacey Jonathan Kodija to exploit. As the three outfield players diverged on the ball Ben Amos came charging out of his net.
The scene almost felt as if it had come out of a parody disaster movie, as was the cringey inevitability of the whole ordeal. Amos and Prince came together, the ball looped high into the sky and bounced off our own cross bar. Heart pounding stuff.
To call the Whites' first half showing 'lacklustre' would be paying far too great a compliment. It was embarrassing and pathetic. So many Bolton players were getting the fundamental aspects of the game wrong: taking heavy touches, not tracking runners, not being able to pass forwards to a man five yards away, smashing cross field balls out of play, not talking to each other. It was as if a group of children who'd never played football before were put on a pitch together. Well,the children would probably show more enthusiasm, to be fair.
There was very little fight, grit or resolve. Our captain, the one who's supposed to lead by example and is now back to playing as if his legs aren't actually connected to the rest of his body, was constantly getting involved in petty arguments - and he was even doing that in a half arsed fashion.
Mark Davies, though not entirely his own fault as on this occasion he was trapped far too deep and wasn't able to get on the ball., went into hiding. Stephen Dobbie looked like a man who can't start football matches and can manage 25 minutes at best, who'd have thought? Josh Vela looked like a lad short on confidence, perhaps even ability. Prince was looking as if each one of his limbs was separately being controlled by four different members of the crowd, think QWOP, and Liam Feeney, oh Liam Feeney.
I try not to be too harsh on him, I really do, as without him this season god knows where we'd be, but he is the most frustrating footballer on the face of the Earth. In a matter of seconds he had me from going "oh well done Feeney" to "oh for fuck sake Feeney." Literally seconds. I've never known a player to go so rapidly from doing something quite good to doing something mind bogglingly stupid so frequently. It beggars belief.
The only players who came away with any sort of credit were David Wheater and Jay Spearing. The former was continuing his form of being our best player, and we probably would have been behind at the interval had it not been for his surprisingly astute reading of the game. Spearing was, again, looking like the player who we first signed on loan. He was hungry and passionate, but he wasn't reverting to his frustrating ways of shouting at everyone else without actually doing anything himself. He was winning the ball, playing nice, simple passes out and leading the midfield.
Also, although Jose Manuel Casado was finding it difficult, mostly due to the lack of support from the wandering Pratley, he was certainly not lacking in tenacity.
Those three players' attitudes aside, I really can't express how fucking dreadful that first forty five minutes of football was.
The second half, however, was actually a considerable improvement. We played some nice stuff at times, especially in one twenty minute period which should have seen us three goals to the good. Gary Madine came on at the interval and, I can't explain why, actually made an impact. He won a penalty, which Shola Ameobi took. The former Newcastle man had never missed a penalty in his entire career up to that point and was the right man to take it - but when it rains it pours. It was saved.
Bolton weren't deterred, for once, and kept the pressure on the visitors and were creating chances. Two excellent crosses from the right, both (I'm pretty sure both, it may have just been one) coming from Feeney found an uncontested Gary Madine at the back post six yards from goal, both headers were inch perfectly headed just wide of the post. In quite glorious fashion, it must be said.
A good passing move resulted in Pratley having the ball at his feet in the box having beaten the offside trap, his good pass across the face of goal found Shola who made amends for his penalty miss by tapping the easiest of chances home - but when it rains it pours. Ameobi hadn't beaten the offside trap and was flagged up just as the Wanderers supporters had started to be happy, for once.
More lesser chance came our way and we really, really should have won the game, but when the final whistle blew the score board read 0-0.
Despite the horrendous result which saw us drop a place to 23rd, the second half performance, in my eyes, was a sign that we can play football when we want to. We can't score goals like, which is obviously quite a big problem, but we can at least play something resembling attacking football and can fashion out chances - which, for now at least, gives me a glimmer of hope amongst the toxic sludge filled tunnel we're all currently crawling through.
The reason we played better in the second half is quite simple, Neil Lennon reverted to a simple formation and actually played (most of) the players in their actual, natural positions. We went 4-4-2. Two big strikers were put up top, we had an actual winger on one wing. We were able to utilise said winger who was able to deliver some quality cross that, if our striker didn't have a head shaped like a melted traffic cone, would have resulted in goals.
It is a wonder how we have three strikers who are known, even renowned, for their strength and prowess in the air, but yet we've supplied them all with so little crosses.
It should, if nothing else, send a clear message to Lennon. The time for experimenting with fancy formations and systems has long past, the players we have are simply not good or smart enough to make them work effectively. From now on, to ensure we don't go down to shitty cesspit that is league one, we have to go back to the basics.
No tinkering, no trying to be clever, no 'adapting', no playing fucking centre backs at right back. From now on, depending on the number of strikers at our desposal, we play a simple 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. We play wingers out wide on their preferred side so they can get down the line and put crosses in the box our tall strikers.
We practise attacking set-pieces so we may for once make use of a free kick in a dangerous situation or a corner. We play Mark Davies further up the pitch so he can get involved in attacks, we keep Prince and Wheater as our centre back partnership for as long as possible, we continue to play Spearing as an anchor in midfield to protect the defence, we probably keep Vela at right back until he does buck his ideas up and probably so much more simple, yet hopefully effective, stuff.
Nothing else has worked yet for Lennon and his team, it's really time they all went back to basics.