Watching Bolton Wanderers play away from home is never a pretty sight, but if yesterday’s defeat to Queens Park Rangers was indicative of life in a post-Gary Madine world, then it’s about to get a whole lot uglier.
A 2-0 defeat at Loftus Road leaves Bolton with just one win from their last 41 away matches in The Championship, going all the way back to a 3-0 win at Cardiff in April 2015. Looking at more recent stats, Wanderers have just one victory since New Year’s Day ahead of a massive game against fellow relegation battlers Sunderland on Tuesday evening.
The more worrying problem is there seems to be a total lack of a gameplan and goals look almost impossible in the absence of our big striker.
Phil Parkinson tweaked his side for the visit to West London, with Tyler Walker coming in for a second start up front alongside Sammy Ameobi, Mark Little returning at right-back and David Wheater coming back into the side in place of Dorian Dervite.
The hosts lined up with 6 foot 6 inch striker Matt Smith up front alongside Conor Washington. No prizes for guessing what their plan was.
The first half began as we all expected, with QPR in near total domination, and Wanderers once again had goalkeeper Ben Alnwick to thank for it remaining close to being a contest. I counted Alnwick making seven saves by the 23rd minute as his defence was repeatedly opened with effortless ease by a not particularly threatening QPR attack.
Bolton went close to an opener through Derik Osede, whose flicked near post header across the goal was well turned away by Alex Smithies.
Then the hosts thought they had broken the deadlock just before the half hour mark as yet another cross from the right hand side was flicked on by Washington and inadvertently turned into his own net by Reece Burke. But the linesman’s flag was up for offside, in what was probably the only decision that linesman managed to make for himself all day.
Wanderers were struggling to keep the ball, mainly due to the fact that there’s no passing influence in the midfield with Josh Vela anonymous and leaving gaps in behind with his one-man pressing game. Wanderers were also struggling with QPR’s long throws. Three times the ball was slung into the box and created clear opportunities for Smith, who somehow managed to spurn all of them.
Just after the half hour mark, Walker got his first real sight of the ball as Derik Osede played a nice ball into him, he turned and looked to be in on goal from 30 yards out. He turned and, coming under pressure from QPR’s recovering defenders, he hit a low shot that was comfortably dealt with by Smithies. That was a sign of what we could potentially do if we got the ball into Walker’s feet, which we managed about three times all match.
A few minutes later Karl Henry was booked for an innocuous looking challenge on Josh Scowen in the QPR box, and moments later Nedum Onuoha went right through the back of Walker and the referee didn’t even award a free-kick. This was our first sign of how inept and inconsistent this official was.
QPR pushed for a goal and nearly found it as Scowen ran through our midfield, then past Mark Beevers, who just about recovered to clear. A moment later the referee was at it again. Vela battled for the ball, was clipped by a QPR player then deemed to have fouled him back. The resulting free-kick was swung into the box, met by the head of Jake Bidwell and well saved again by Alnwick.
Wanderers were probably relieved to get in at half-time without conceding, and at half-time Parkinson switched things up by bringing Jem Karacan on for Josh Vela, who reportedly had a twisted ankle but had been bypassed for 45 minutes.
Bolton went close soon after the break as David Wheater’s near post was turned behind by Smithies. But six minutes later the game was effectively up as Little received a straight red for a challenge that looked wild and out of control from our position at the far end of the ground. Parkinson wasn’t so sure, and blamed the referee for an overreaction - which honestly, would be in keeping with the rest of his performance.
Wanderers rallied with ten men, buoyed on by the raucous support of the visiting fans, and could easily have taken the lead just before the hour mark as Karacan played a lovely ball through to Walker, who fired wide from a narrow angle. That was the first and only time all match that a Bolton midfielder looked to get the ball in behind the QPR defence for Walker to run on to.
Then four minutes later Bolton put together their best move of the match, as Karacan linked up with Ameobi then played a nice ball out wide to the overlapping Burke, whose cross towards Ameobi was well cleared. Adam Le Fondre was brought on for Walker to try and breathe some life into the attack, but we failed to even get the ball close to him.
And QPR soon began to seize control, forcing another good save out of Alnwick as Burke left his man totally free on the edge of the box. Then on 72 minutes their pressure told and the breakthrough came, and unsurprisingly it was from a set-piece. Luke Freeman crossed the ball in, Smith squared a header across goal and Joel Lynch nodded it home.
The hosts should have doubled their lead on 79 minutes when a cross from the left somehow evaded everybody, then a minute later two huge Beevers challenges prevented a certain goal after Ameobi’s blocked clearance caused havoc.
Eventually they did seal all three points in injury time, as substitute Paul Smyth crossed for Smith to eventually score, even though it looked like he’d pushed a defender in the back for the 352nd time in the match in the process.
Yet another poor away day
This was a weak performance from Wanderers in a game that should have been an opportunity to pick up points. It’s clear we’re struggling without a big man up front, we did create a couple of chances that on another day could have been converted but those opportunities were few and far between.
QPR are not a good side, but we once again struggled to deal with set-pieces and long balls into the box which, with Beevers and Wheater in situ, you’d think would be our bread and butter. Little’s dismissal didn’t help matters, but even with 11 men on the pitch we looked well and truly second best.
But for me, our problem stems from midfield. Karl Henry looked like a bad version of Darren Pratley yesterday. He can’t pass, his touch was appalling, and he was sitting far too deep - almost on top of his three centre-backs. Karacan was the only midfielder who showed even a glimpse of creativity, and he now has to be starting if we’re going to have any chance of scoring goals. And if hoofing long balls at Ameobi is our new go-to option, then it’s not even worth bothering.
The home clash against Sunderland on Tuesday is huge.