Thank God for that. I couldn’t bare the thought of losing to a Sol Campbell led side. I’ve been banging the drum since Hill’s appointment that we will stay up but this was our last chance to keep me from looking like a mug. We scraped past MK Dons, we collapsed against Stanley and we salvaged Wimbledon by the skin of our teeth. If we didn’t achieve a result against our nearest relegation rival and undoubtedly, the worst team in League One, then it would be very grim for us. But we did and what did we learn from it?
Here’s my 5 Things:
1. Stop conceding cheap goals
Both goals were very preventable today. The first was a combination of Jake Wright’s extremely poor marking of Harry Lennon and Remi Matthew’s hesitation in coming off his line to gather the cross. If either one of those 2 had done their jobs correctly, it would’ve still been 0-0 after 10 minutes. The 2nd caught me completely off guard as I couldn’t believe Remi Matthews hadn’t stopped it. It’s the kind of easy header goalkeepers love to face and to let it slowly bounce past him was a shocking sight. Lowe didn’t do a good enough job of marking his man, fine but such a tame shot and yet Remi stood watching like his legs were trapped in mud. We’re lucky that it didn’t lead to anything afterwards.
Either way, we have got to stop this extremely naive defending we’ve come to favour recently. Where have the rugged defensive displays of Oxford and Sunderland disappeared to in recent weeks? I was overjoyed to see Remi gather that troubling ball at the end amongst a sea of bodies as it showed that desire is still there but we’re not seeing it enough. Maybe competition is needed again to drive these lads to not be so complacent. Edwards return means hopefully helps that a bit in the centre but we either need Alnwick back soon or a new keeper all together to challenge/replace Remi in the net so we push each player to stay focused and give their true best each match. That way, even if we concede, it’ll be more often down to good play from the opposition rather than our own ineptitude like what has been commonplace in recent weeks.
2. Square pegs in round holes again
Continuing on the subject of the defence, I can’t for the life of me understand why Bridcutt and Wright played alongside each other yesterday. Sure, they’re both physical players but they’re also both on the small side for centre-backs and it really showed by how few headers we managed to win and get properly clear of in the air. This was especially notable in Bridcutt who once again was put in CB when really, either Zouma, Earl or Edwards should’ve been their to counteract Wright’s smaller stature. I don’t think wanting my defensive midfielder in his actual position is a big ask when we have the personal to fill the gap he occupied today.
Some may make the argument that Zouma was poor against Peterborough or that he may have been injured due to his complete absence from the side. Fine, I can accept that. What about Edwards? People will say that he’s just come back from a 3 month injury but he played Bridcutt who Hill himself said was a big risk at Peterborough. If he wasn’t ready why include him on the bench then? If you want to wait or ease him then I can reluctantly accept that too. Then there’s Earl. Now Earl did and does fairly well at LB but naturally, he’s a CB, plus I think he’s always played his best when he’s been central. I heard Chicksen was poor at Peterborough but he’s also been one of our most consistent players this season. Why not give him a chance to pick himself up again and play Earl in his natural position? I very much am a fan of Bridcutt but not at CB. Play him at DM where he belongs and drop Lowe who’s been poor for a few games if you insist on accommodating for him to play. Forcing him in and others out in positions they don’t belong is detrimental to our defence as demonstrated today. Better teams would and will punish us if we keep this up.
3. Southend were awful, save one
Southend weren’t the worst team to visit the UniBol this season. That will likely remain as MK Dons for the rest of the season but they still a fairly poor side. If we were on song like I saw us earlier in the season, we’d have absolutely pasted them. Their defence looked patched together, especially when Harry Lennon was injured and Sol brought on a right back who looked like he couldn’t block someone on Facebook, never mind a winger as tricky as Verlinden. Their keeper didn’t save a single shot on target. The defence completely fell asleep as Dodoo and Murphy both bagged some nice volleys to put us ahead. I don’t even need to reiterate the horrid mistake by Dieng that led to Daryl Murphy’s 6th goal in 7 games. They were also fairly blunt up front for the most part, goals only coming from horrendous errors on our part and having 14 shots off target. Their squad belongs in League Two.
Note how I said “most part” though earlier. The one exception was their number 7 up top. Stephen Humphrys. Now he’s a player who belongs at this level and one I would seriously consider us getting either in Jan or in the summer because he does not deserve to get relegated with Southend. He was threatening in the air with some tidy feet to compliment his physicality. Anyone remember his lovely footwork to send both Lowe and Luke Murphy for hot dogs before his long shot just inched wide? He’s only 22 and from Oldham so there’s a lot of potential there to develop him along with that local(ish) tag that both FV and Hill love. Imagine if he got to study under Daryl Murphy for a year to work on his finishing? He’d be a serious player at this level. Am I being presumptuous basing my opinion of just this game where I criticised our defensive setup and performance today? Possibly, but he was the best player on the pitch from my view. Maybe more scouting is in order but I’d have him shortlisted already if we’re going off this game.
4. Scoring goals is easy, creating them is still hard
I don’t really know how I can summarise it clearer. When we get proper chances, I actually have faith that we’ll score them a lot more often than not. What a far cry from last season where I could watch Clayton Donaldson be stood one yard from an empty net and I’d still expect him to miss. Daryl Murphy is obviously a bagsman, his composure is a sight to see in front of goal and his current record attests to that. Dodoo is slowly starting to add goals to his own game after breaking his duck against Wimbledon. Not to mention the other lads like Luke Murphy, Thibaud Verlinden and Chris O’Grady chipping in every now and again. I’m no longer concerned about us scoring when we get the chances.
My God though, why are we still struggling to create those chances? Our final balls continue to be so poor 9/10 times. Too many crosses over shot, too many misplaced key passes, too many times picking out the wrong man in a vital counter attack. It’s so frustrating that a side that can obviously find the net makes it such a difficult task for themselves. We need to get the likes of Emmanuel, Verlinden, Darcy etc. in for more crossing training so it’s less hit and hope and more picking out the man. The entire squad needs to be braver and smarter in their play and not be so static when out of possession on the attack. We need to create more options in and around the box when we’re driving forward so our momentum doesn’t grind to a halt before we’re forced back. The onus should be on the opponent to force us back, not from us slowing our play down to wait for our teammates to catch up. To borrow the often spoken words of our manager, we know what we can do, we just have to work on the processes to get there.
5. The Christmas Spirit
I have mainly been critical so far in this piece so I want to end with some positivity. At the end of the day, we came away with 3 points and now we’re on 5 points. We’re 2 behind Southend. We’re 12 behind MK Dons and 15 behind both Tranmere and Wimbledon, the 2 teams hovering above the relegation zone. We have at least 3 games in hand on most of those names. There’s still 23 games to play outside of that. We have a good amount of our wounded on their way back sooner rather than later. We have a January window to further bolster and clear our ranks. Survival is still very much achievable.
Yes, we have a limited squad size and an embargo that won’t truly go away until FV properly settle the administrator fees according to the Daily Mail. Yes, the EFL are challenging the independent panel that wanted to give us a suspended points deduction and a smaller fine so they can attempt to screw us further. Yes, we still have a mountain to climb in the league and Yes Keith Hill is undoubtedly a gobshite. Yet despite those obstacles, when I see the quality of life changes the club are making within the club, coupled with the hard work everyone is putting in to mend and strengthen the community links that we previously prided ourselves on, it gives you belief the next decade will be better. It warms the heart seeing how on side everyone is now about wanting to return our club to how the older fans remember seeing it. After the dark ages this decade has put us through, we can celebrate this Christmas knowing that the grind we’re going through on and off the pitch is showing signs of paying dividends for our current and future fans.
Merry Christmas Bolton Wanderers Staff and Fans!