Bolton Wanderers began life after Zach Clough with a visit to 15th placed MK Dons, knowing they needed a first win of 2017 to keep up the pressure at the top of League One. But you’d be forgiven for not realising this side was one focused on the possible reward of promotion.
Yesterday's performance at a poor MK Dons side must rank as one of the most uninspiring I've seen in a while. I think we only created two goalscoring chances from open play, didn’t have an actual shot on target, lone striker Gary Madine was completely isolated, and left-back Dean Moxey reminded us all why he's been usurped in that position by Andrew Taylor.
Wanderers replaced Clough with Filipe Morais - who Bradford City deemed surplus to requirements. There was also a debut for Chris Long in place of James Henry and Tom Thorpe was replaced by Derik Osede, who did little to justify the clamour for his inclusion from many Bolton fans. The aforementioned Moxey unfortunately came into the side after Taylor suffered a groin injury in the warm-up.
The home side were celebrating the city's 50th anniversary and did so by giving away a load of free tickets to their fans. This of course got the obvious “you're only here for the freebie” chant from the Bolton fans throughout, but it did mean the ground was pretty full - especially with a travelling support of over 1,200 away fans.
The extra support did not, however, spur either side on, as the game began in tepid fashion and continued in the same vein pretty much throughout.
Long missed a decent chance for a debut goal after 12 minutes as he glanced a header wide from Morais’ cross, following a Bolton breakaway from a very dubious MK Dons free kick that resulted in an even more dubious booking for Lawrie Wilson from a totally inept referee.
A very dull first half saw Wanderers not only totally incapable of keeping possession, but also not even making an attempt to keep it. Every time Mark Beevers got the ball in the inside left position he totally ignored viable short passing opportunities and instead booted diagonal cross-field balls at no-one in particular. Fair play if he was trying to bring Madine into the game, but the striker wasn't within 20 yards of a single one of them.
MK offered little but did go close to an opener as the stadium announcer revealed the added-on time but were well denied by Alnwick.
Bolton were equally ineffectual, but somehow managed to grab the lead moments later with the last kick of the first half. Jay Spearing floated a free-kick into the box from the left of the penalty area, it evaded everyone and landed in the far corner. It'll go down as our only shot on target in 90 minutes but it wasn't a shot in a million years - but still, somehow, we went in 1-0 up at the break.
You would have thought that such a fortuitous goal scored at such a great time would have breathed confidence into the Bolton side. But oh no. I have no idea what Phil Parkinson said at half-time but it seemed to do the exact opposite. Our players looked lethargic, nonplussed and as if they thought they'd already won the match.
Case in point being Dean Moxey. In the first half he looked OK after not playing for a while, despite a series of blatant foul throws that the dreadful team of officials failed to pick up. But the second period saw the left-back implode.
It began with the home side’s equaliser on the hour mark. A seemingly innocuous move saw Moxey inexplicably try and head the ball to Clayton when he should have booted it to safety. MK easily intercepted it, knocked ball into the box, a shot was blocked and fell to Kieran Agard, who hit a nice volley past a helpless Alnwick.
It was an entirely preventable goal, if Moxey had even an ounce of footballing sense in him. This gave a very average home side a sniff of hope in a game that Bolton should have been killing off with ease.
Max Clayton had replaced Morais minutes before the equaliser, and Parkinson responded by also bringing on Viv Solomon-Otabor for Long, who clearly isn’t a winger despite being fairly quick. Clayton touched the ball abut twice as the midfield was incapable of getting the ball out to him, while Solomon fell over the ball the first time he touched it and generally looked well out of his depth.
Fans clamoured for a reintroduction of Adam Le Fondre and Parkinson eventually obliged, only to bizarrely deploy him in an attacking midfield role that saw him not get anywhere near the increasingly isolated Madine. A prime example of this was a throw-in on the right wing, for which Madine was the only man in the box with Clayton and Le Fondre hanging five yards outside the box. Lo and behold the move ended up with the ball dropping into a hole that would have perfectly suited a goalscorer of his ilk, but with no-one there to stick it in the net.
In truth, neither side looked like winning as both struggled to create opportunities. But at least the home side showed some kind of urgency and interest in winning. Madine headed one over, but Bolton offered nothing of an attacking threat, seemed totally devoid of ideas and struggled to put passes together.
Lawrie Wilson departed the game with a hamstring injury, leaving us with ten men for the last ten minutes and it was then clear we weren’t going to get more than a draw from the game.
If this game is a sign of what's to come post-Zach Clough then I'm afraid we are in for a painful last few months of the season. We haven’t won since New Years’ Day after failing to beat four teams in the bottom half of the table, in Swindon Town, Coventry City, Charlton Athletic and MK Dons. Our next five games until the end of February are all against teams in the top half, including visits to leaders Sheffield United and fifth-placed Bradford - in both of which, defeat could be costly.
Something has to change, and Parkinson will have to find a way to fit Le Fondre into the side as a striker. And that means ditching the now ineffectual system of playing non-wingers in a 4-2-3-1 formation. We had four wide players on the pitch yesterday, and not one of them beat their full-back and knocked a cross into the box all match - so what is the point of playing that system?
Le Fondre was played well out of position at MK, but we have to find a way of getting him into the box and giving him chances to score. If that means dropping Madine then so be it, as the guy hasn't scored in nine games and has amazingly only scored in two of his last 24 matches.
I'm loathed to blame Madine himself, as yesterday proved he's not being given chances to score at the moment. But it was blindingly obvious that we have to change the way we are playing. It was far too easy for a weak MK side to get back into the game, and very nearly win it against us - which is unacceptable if we harbour any thoughts of making the play-offs, let alone achieving automatic promotion.