Bolton Wanderers playing appalling and gutlessly whenever I attend the game is starting to become an unwanted trend. My last Whites game was back in December, a 1-0 loss away at Chesterfield. Now, three months later, I was lucky enough to witness an even more disappointing performance as the Whites’ meekly fell to table toppers Sheffield United. What a buzz kill it was.
Here are five observations from that game.
1 - Where’s the Plan B
I really like Phil Parkinson and I’m extremely grateful for the work he has done this season. With a nothing budget, a small squad, an unstable boardroom and some poor players he’s managed to turn us from whipping boys to promotion contenders. But my affection doesn’t mean he’s immune to criticism.
His starting formation of a 3-5-2 and rudimentary tactics of trying to hit it up to the “big man” were easily thwarted by United, who proceeded to pass rings round us and pass us to shreds within minutes. That’s fine, everyone makes mistakes, sometimes things don’t work and we have been picking up points with the formation in recent weeks.
But when it became painstakingly obvious within ten minutes, and even more so when Billy Sharp confidently put his team into the lead, that the formation and tactics were hopeless and leaving the players out to dry, what happened? Nothing. Absolutely nothing changed.
I feel sympathy for James Henry and Adam Le Fondre, who were grafting as hard as possible to make something out of nothing, but they were both left completely stranded in the formation. They were hamstrung by a pathetic performance from Conor Wilkinson, though he wasn’t alone, and the fact that no one looked comfortable in the formation. Morais and Moxey were constantly being caught high up the pitch or weren’t high enough to support, Josh Vela is useless playing in a deeper role where he can’t effect games, Derik and Beevers were constantly exposed and Tom Thorpe was very bad.
Despite all this Parkinson didn’t change the system at all, even when he had the chance when an injury struck Thrope. Even if he’s rusty from a lack of game time, we did have a right back on the bench in new signing, Reece Wabara, and he should have been brought on within twenty minutes so a four at the back could be deployed.
The plan clearly wasn’t working and Parkinson did nothing but like for like substitutions, nothing changed and it has me worried. Does he have a plan B? Is he able to change games tactically? The evidence isn’t looking good.
2 - Sigh, we need Gary Madine
I’ve made no secret about my thoughts of Gary Madine, he is not a very good footballer. But no matter what you think, Saturday made it quite clear that he is essential to the way Parkinson plays, and it doesn’t look like the way he plays is going to change any time soon.
Whatever the reason for Madine’s surprise exclusion from the match day squad, his replacement target man Conor Wilkinson was tasked with replacing Madine’s physicality and ability to win the ball in the air. He was not up to the task.
When the news was first announced I was initially exasperated, but then consoled myself slightly. Wilkinson had a good loan spell earlier this year at Chesterfield, scoring on average a goal every three games. Surely, after being given such a massive opportunity in our biggest game of the season, he’d be chomping at the bit to prove all of his doubters wrong?
Well, if he was, he didn't show it. I can’t quite find the words to describe how bad he was, but he simply should not pull on the white jersey again. He’s been at the club since 2013, has embarked on no less than eight loan spells, now 22 years-old and he simply hasn’t improved an iota, if there was actually any talent there to begin with.
Madine’s importance was made clear, as much as it pains me to say it, if any injury should strike him down this season then we will be in trouble.
3 - We also really bloody need Jay Spearing
Madine was obviously a sorely felt absence, but the suspended Jay Spearing is who we missed the most. It may just be League One, but he’s been brilliant this season and his defensive nous and tireless running left us weak and vulnerable at Bramall Lane.
Had he been on the pitch the 3-5-2 may have fared better, as he would have been on hand to cover for the wing backs when they got caught up the pitch, but instead they were exposed which led to the entire defence being stretched time and time again.
His return will be joyously welcomed, especially as a run of absolute must win games are on the horizon.
4 - God Mike Dean is a (insert appropriate swear word)
I was stuck on what to write on this point. I could go into the Madine fiasco (though Tom has already covered that brilliantly on the site), how Derik should only be played in defensive midfield, how I was quite underwhelmed with Fillipe Morais (he’s clearly not a wing back, so I’ll let him off), the plight of constant hoof ball, how crap Tom Thorpe and Dean Moxey are but, to be honest, I’m already quite tired of writing about the shambles of a game.
Even now as I write this two days later, I can still feel my soul being sucked out of my body by just thinking about how utterly uninspiring our defeat was.
So I’ll talk about Mike Dean for a moment.
We’ve been plagued with lower league referees ever since our relegation almost half a decade ago. On the whole, they’re bad, really fucking bad. But, I do try to keep a level head and blame the FA, FIFA etc for not giving them all the help they need with an extremely difficult job.
But Mike Dean, Mike Dean can get fucked.
I don’t think he actually made any really wrong decisions on Saturday. The penalty is a debate and it certainly looked like a penalty in real time, and maybe Fleck (good player) should have seen red for his dangerous challenge on Thorpe. But by his standards it wasn’t too bad.
My problem lies with that watching Mike Dean referee your team is the most infuriating thing going. The pompous, arrogant attitude of the man. It’s all been said before but the way he struts about the pitch like the cock of the walk, like 27,000 people are there to watch him, is just rage inducing.
The one relief of not being in the Premier League any more is that we don’t get him on a more regular basis.
5 - There’s no stopping them now
There are several key factors that led to Saturday’s spineless defeat. Injury, suspension, tactics, a needlessly riled up Billy Sharp, a calamitous series of mistakes and a dive. But none of them really matter, because Sheffield United were miles better than us and probably would have won if none of the above occurred. Sometimes you have to just hold your hands up and admit you’re soundly beaten.
From the first minute when we had to clear a header off the line up until the last minute when they were taking the piss, the Blades were far superior in ever way. They were comfortable in their system, with everybody knowing their roles. They worked harder, pressed faster and bullied us into submission. They passed rings around us, with our players constantly looking like dunces. They knew how to combat the 3-5-2 and did so devastatingly and they won all the mind games. They’re the best team I’ve seen in this division and their victory was so utterly comprehensive that 2-0 really does flatter us.
The star of the show was Billy Sharp, who oh so obviously opened the scoring early on and celebrated by shushing the crowd and point at his, as matter of fact, not fat midriff. His celebration completely killed the away fans’ atmosphere and the victory was guaranteed from there. Sharp is a great player, easily the best striker in the division. His movement was excellent and he time after time found space in between the three Bolton centre backs. Had his teammates been on his level and looked up more, he’d have scored five.
Sheffield United are now clear at the top of League One and they really should finally escape this league and go up as champions. I imagine the only team that can stop them now is themselves.