Bolton Wanderers’ first home game under their new management team ended in a hard-fought 0-0 draw with Oxford United, a team who had scored 16 goals in all competitions thus far this season. This result also saw an end to Wanderers shipping of goals in recent weeks with Remi Matthews, who had conceded 26 in his last 5 games, keeping a clean sheet in goal. Though this aspect of the game will have pleased both Hill and his assistant David Flitcroft given the defensive struggles up to now, the fantastic attacking intent shown in the first half in particular will have given them just as much pleasure.
2 changes from the 6-1 defeat to Rotherham were made to Bolton’s starting line-up with Jason Lowe and Will Buckley replacing James Weir and Luke Murphy. Buckley started in a central striking role, something unseen from him thus far in his Bolton career and it was the re-signed winger who had Wanderers best chance in the first half in which they started very brightly.
After seeing a tame header saved by Simon Eastwood in the 5th minute, Buckley went clean through on goal in the 17th after a long ball from new captain Liam Bridcutt sprung the offside trap. Buckley raced in, one on one with Eastwood, but his chipped finish cannoned back off the crossbar. It was a great opportunity not only to score, but for the former Brighton and Sunderland man to win over some of his doubters and it is a real shame he didn’t bury it.
The brightest spark for Bolton, however, was the man who had scored their first league goal of the season at the New York Stadium, Thibauld Verlinden and his constant threatening runs down the left flank ensured he was double marked for the remainder of his time on the pitch after an impressive first half. The young stoke winger looks a real prospect and with him on one side and Dennis Politic on the other Wanderers at long last look to be dangerous in attack.
Other chances during Wanderers spell of dominance fell to both wingers but also to Ali Crawford and Lowe, the latter being a very good shot fired just wide of the bottom corner after a powerful run into the box. The fact that none of these were converted into goals gave Oxford the opportunity to get back into a game they had hardly threatened in.
Their best chance came after Matthews punched a corner half-clear and a shot from Tarique Fosu-Henry was deflected. With barely any time to react Matthews not only dived to his left to save the shot but also held onto it with Matty Taylor in close attendance. It was a real boost to his brittle confidence.
In amongst this Oxford pressure came another golden chance for Wanderers. Josh Emanuel, much improved from his poor showing at Rotherham, clipped a ball into Verlinden to strike on the half volley. The Belgian did not look focussed on the strike and lazily fired way over the bar when he had enough space in which to build a house before shooting. It was a real disappointment as his display deserved a goal.
Oxford came out after the interval with the intention of keeping up the pressure they had built late in the first period with Cameron Brannagan forcing Matthews into another good save, this time with a header directed towards the top corner which the former Norwich ‘keeper parried for a corner. The same man would go on to have two further shots saved by Matthews soon after but neither as testing as the first header.
The game then became very scrappy with the exciting free-flowing football Wanderers had shown in the first half making way for Bridcutt and Lowe to come to the fore in breaking up play. Lowe did, however, break character somewhat in firing a rasping drive towards Eastwood’s top corner with his former Blackburn teammate saving the effort comfortably. Lowe has only scored 3 goals in his career but looked to have somewhat of a licence to go forward with Bridcutt as the main holding midfielder. It looks to be an interesting pairing.
The ‘curse of the ex’ almost struck late on as James Henry fired a shot towards goal that was reminiscent of the one that gave Bolton a win 2-1 on New Year’s Eve against Scunthorpe in 2016, a moment which was probably the high point of his career at BL6, though thankfully this deflected effort bounced off Matthew’s post and out for a corner instead of trickling inside the post.
The final opportunity of the game, as the two tiring sides battled to keep a point each, fell to Wanderers as substitute Weir saw a shot blocked by John Mousinho after good work by Crawford and Politic. Had the former Manchester United product shot first time, he may well have won it for Bolton.
Nevertheless, after such an appalling run of league results, this represented a big step forward for Wanderers in their battle for survival. What was most notable however, despite the added defensive stability and exciting attacking play, was lack of a striker. The sooner Daryl Murphy gets fit, the better. He will certainly get the service to deliver regular goals if we continue to play like this.