There are many reasons used to explain away the torrid season Bolton Wanderers are currently enduring: The off field problems, the lack of a goal-scorer or we just have an awful team. The tactics of Lennon have largely gone unquestioned, after all the squad lacks such depth that the team practically picks itself. These excuses do carry some cache but despite all the losses the team has had this year, I know the squad to be capable of better than their position suggests. This takes us back to drilling and tactics.
Lennon has admitted on many occasions that we lack a goal scorer. This mean we have to rely on un-prolific strikers and midfielders to get the goals for us, this is extremely unlikely to yield a decent goal return. In light of this the tactic from day one should have been aiming to be the best drilled, fittest team in the league whilst conceding as few goals as possible. This would mean on the rare occasions we do score, the goal might mean a victory rather than just a draw or a concession goal in a defeat.
It is clear that our team is not one of the best drilled in the league. The defence is leaky, prone to mistakes and capitulating after conceding one goal. Statistics indicate we are ‘extremely vulnerable’ to conceding 2 types of goals. Goas from through balls and long range shots; both of which tactically speaking come from the shape of our defence.
If you look through the highlights of our last two losses, against Huddersfield Town and Rotherham, you realise where why we are so susceptible to through balls. The defence stays extremely wide with large gaps between each other, even when the play is down the centre. In the Huddersfield highlights, a 2 minute video, I count 5 through balls all causing havoc with our defence. As the pictures show; the defence stays very wide and which gives all the space in the world to pass and run in to.
What should happening in these situations (sourcing from various articles, videos and my own basic knowledge of Sunday league defending) is the defence should drop back and narrow simultaneously when they see a player shaping for a pass or a runner. They should all run as a unit to create a moving screen so that regardless to where a ball is passed, there is a covering player to tackle or show them wide. If we did this, the pass would no longer be on and we’d either win back possession or reverse the tactic when the ball is passed wide. This is only accomplished through drilling the defence to work as a unit. The midfield also has a similar role to play in this and it is a similar reason why we are conceding so many long goals, they simply have too much time and space.
To defend in this way also requires a lot of fitness from the whole team. Tracking back, tracking runners and covering team mates is energy intensive. Questions have been asked about the fitness of this team by the fans. Bolton News journalist and friend of the site, Marc Iles replied to one such fan questioning the lack of substitutions for obviously tired players and the assertion that a new manager would be unhappy with fitness levels. Iles tweeted back:
"A few people who know a lot more about football than me have questioned the lads' fitness levels…" He went on to clarify: "Think players have been chasing unnecessarily. Not 100 per cent sure it's down to training. More a lack of nous. I wonder if they’re just chasing the wrong things."
Even if the problem does not lie with the players inherent fitness levels as Marc speculates, a lack of nous would pay in to the idea the players aren’t being drilled enough defensively in my opinion.
An interesting footnote to this is the absence of Johann Mjallby. Lennon spoke when he was first appointed of how Johann took every goal conceded personally and was a man who prided himself on clean sheets. It becomes strikingly clear that defence’s prowess has dropped off a cliff since his departure, begging the question whether his defensive drills also did. Before his departure we conceded 7 goals in 7 games, a ratio of 1:1. Since he left the coaching team (after the Wolves victory), the ratio has gone up to 1.5:1 or in another way, 28 goals in 19 games. This essentially equates to an extra goal being conceded every other game since he left. So whilst many might say this defence has always been pretty bad regardless of manager, the change since Mjallby left shows they can be good and the blame of why they suddenly aren’t now has to lie with Lennon.
Even the worst teams can be hard to beat and we are not the team with the worst defenders in this league. Wheater and Moxey would get in to a lot of teams in the Championship whilst the others are all capable at this level. We are defensively being failed by our manager and coaching staff whom have all escaped questioning of their tactics and training methods. It was automatically assumed it was always the players fault; this now looks at least to be a partial falsehood.