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Football Manager Experiment: Episode 4

Virtual cash-rich Wanderers begin their second campaign in the Premier League as we continue our experiment via Football Manager 15

Wanderers secure their first ever Champions League qualification in 2016/17
Wanderers secure their first ever Champions League qualification in 2016/17

Having succeeded in achieving a mid-table finish and winning the FA Cup and enduring two managerial changes in their first season back in the Premier League, the pressure was on Marcelo Bielsa and his side for further success. And it's safe to say the Argentinian did not disappoint the Bolton Wanderers faithful.

Summer Transfer Window

Following a dry transfer window in the previous January, Bielsa went on somewhat of a spending spree when provided the opportunity for the first time. His first target was Cameroonian defender Joel Matip, which set the club back a cool £21m. He had clearly prioritised defensive improvements at the top of his list as he then spent £10.5m to bring in Everton's Seamus Coleman and £13.75m on QPR's Steven Caulker. He further added to his defence by signing Atletico Madrid centre-half Emilio Velazquez (£3.9m), brought in Sporting Lisbon right-back Cedric (£5m) and two left-backs in Eugenio Mena from Cruzeiro (£3m) and Faouzi Ghoulam from Napoli (£9m).

Attacking options were bolstered in the form of Arsenal's Danny Welbeck for a £4.9m fee. That took Bielsa's total summer spending to £72m.

The manager also began trimming his squad, selling Tim Ream to FC Kobenhavn (£2.1m), Josh Vela to Brentford (£2.7m), Mark Davies to Nottingham Forest (£2.4m), Oscar Threlkeld to Southampton (£1.9m), Max Clayton to Sheffield Wednesday (£350k), Hayden White to Ipswich (£275k), Liam Palmer to Forest (£1.7m, at a near £7m loss) and Fabio to Burnley (£1.5m, also a £7m loss).

Early Season Form

Wanderers started 2016/17 well with a 2-0 home win over Blackburn, but then went six games without a victory - including a 4-0 home defeat to Manchester United - to slump to 14th in the league. And this poor start duly led to Bielsa being swiftly shown the exit door at the Macron, and he was soon replaced by Spaniard Ernesto Valderde.

Bolton improved a little under Valverde and suffered indifferent and inconsistent form in the run up to Christmas, but did enjoy a six-match unbeaten spell through November and into December before suffering defeat at Manchester City. One major highlight was a Boxing Day victory at Arsenal, thanks to goals from Zach Clough and Younes Belhanda, which set the team up nicely for the second half of the season in eighth position.

Wanderers did, however, top their group in the Europa League, where they were up against Stuttgart, Olympiakos and Sparta Prague, to progress to the second round.

Winter Transfer Window

Valverde was clearly happy with the squad he had inherited, as he didn't purchase any players during January, but did ship out a host of players on loan including big money signing Eugene Khacheridi, Chris Gunter and Gabrielle Angella.

End of Season

Wanderers had a good start to 2017, with four league wins sandwiching another defeat to Man United. They then endured a strange run of fixtures that saw them play seven straight cup matches, which included an exit in the second round of the Europa League to Roma and losing the Capital One Cup final to Chelsea 1-0, and not playing a league match in over a month.

Bolton then won five league matches in a row to rise to fourth position in the league at the start of April. But then three consecutive 2-0 defeats to newly promoted Brentford, Southampton and Swansea saw hopes of a first ever Champions League threaten to disappear with five games remaining.

Those fears were further heightened as the final five games saw Wanderers facing four of the supposed big six. But the side somehow went on an unbeaten string of games that saw them beat Man City 3-2, Liverpool 2-1, Arsenal 4-2 and Chelsea 3-1 on the final day to secure a fourth placed finish.

Bolton have also developed somewhat of a love affair with the FA Cup. Having reached the Capital One Cup final against Chelsea, Wanderers went a step further and defended their FA Cup crown, beating Chelsea in the semi-finals to play Reading in the final. Aron Johannson gave Reading a first-half lead but late goals from Welbeck and Luciano Vietto saw Wanderers home for another famous day at Wembley.

Player Performances

Having secured his role as Bolton's key player in the previous season, Zach Clough went one better and won the Premier League Player of the Year for 2016/17. Clough scored 20 goals, grabbed 11 assists and 10 man of the match awards in 38 league appearances, and set a new Premier League record average rating of 8.01. He scored 30 in 58 appearances in all competitions, with an average rating of 7.96.

That form has seen Clough handed a princely £145k a week deal at Bolton, and the 22-year-old is now worth £42m. He also furthered his England career and now has 21 goals in 31 appearances for England.

Other star performers in Bolton's first ever Champions League qualification were Memphis Depay, who scored 21 goals in 52 appearances, and Antonio Candreva, who scored ten goals in 35 appearances. Welbeck also chipped in with 14 goals in 37 matches, of which 25 were as a substitute. John Stones and Joel Matip provided solidity at the back with average ratings of 7.35 and 7.24 respectively.

Youngster Progression

Non-existent. Valverde has further undone any opportunity of young players getting anywhere near the Wanderers first-team squad. However, Bolton could have a superb youngster coming through the ranks in the form of 15-year-old Connor Matthews, who has potential ability of 175, but will he get the chance he needs to establish himself?

In the next episode we'll advance to the end of the 2017/18 campaign to see how Bolton get on with their first taste of the Champions League, and whether they can make the next step beyond their top four finish.