Here are my five talking points from what I think was our best performance of this crazy season.
Case for the defence
Was it a sliding doors moment when the increasingly error prone Ryan Delaney saw a second yellow in our desperate defeat at old foes Tranmere?
His suspension, coupled with his awful ear injury picked up in the frankly ridiculous award of a penalty, meant a space became available in Ian Evatt’s newly formed back four.
Up stepped veteran defender Alex Baptiste. A man roundly mocked for his performances in a white shirt in his first spell at the club, despite often playing out of position at left-back and even scoring some important goals from there.
His second go in Horwich had generally been underwhelming on the right of a back three. Moments of quality, such as the two assists at home to Southend in the mini-revival in November, had been punctuated by the types of brainless errors that had littered his spell under Dougie Freedman.
Here was an opportunity, though. In came the Mansfield-born veteran, a week before his thirty-fifth birthday for the final throes of that dark day on the Wirral. Evatt stuck with him ahead of Reiss Greenidge for the visit of Leyton Orient. Ten games and 26 points from 30 later, we’ve gone from 17th to 7th and are unbeaten, with the pairing of Baptiste and Ricardo Santos marshalling a completely unrecognisable outfit.
They complement each other’s game perfectly but both have that ability to bring the ball out from defence with a purpose and genuine penetration that is exactly why Ian Evatt wanted us to persevere with his master plan and why we are playing the way we are right now. It was one of his ‘non-negotiables’ that he referred to as he took the reins at the club and boy am I glad he stuck to his guns on this.
The pair look confident and composed in all they do and six clean sheets bears testament to how seriously unflustered they’ve been. It really should’ve been more shut-out’s as well, as two Matt Gilks handling errors have both led to goals and Morecambe’s late equaliser came when we’d been wrongly reduced to ten men.
They’ve really given us the platform for this much-needed run and long may it continue.
There’s an old adage that football is all about partnerships on the field.
The central midfield pairing; one going forward while one sits. The full-backs overlapping their winger and the wide men tracking back to help their full-back.
It’s a pretty simple concept but it’s one that, when an alliance is allowed to forge and build over time, can bear some pretty spectacular fruit. You can see now that these types of relationships are emerging between the players entrusted with the roles above. There is a cohesion and certainty about every facet of our play recently that is an absolute joy to see.
The link up between Declan John and Dapo Afolayan, particularly in the past few matches, has epitomised the huge improvement I’ve seen from our side, after having been imbued with the confidence that a winning streak breeds, lucky or not.
Going back to the back line, what a difference it makes to have two guys understanding each other’s games and forming a proper rock solid partnership. The issue with playing three at the back is that all three components need to work in tandem, all needing to be in sync for it to work as intended. There’s more scope for errors.
The trust and bond between two individuals is far easier to foster and maintain. This is occurring all over the field now and I think we can only credit Evatt, firstly for the foresight in his January recruitment drive and attracting the calibre of player that he did and secondly for clearly drumming into his men on the training pitch the patterns of play that are now becoming second nature to his reinvigorated unit.
Only five of the side that started against Tranmere featured from the start yesterday and the difference in quality is an absolute chasm.
Fingers crossed for Dapo!
The only thing missing from the just-turned 23 year-old’s game right now is goals and that first strike that could really open up the floodgates for him continues to elude and frustrate this exciting talent.
His work-rate, intelligent pressing and fleet of foot mean he is a vital cog in our improvement and he fully deserves a goal to top off such an encouraging beginning as a Bolton player.
Part of me hopes that he doesn’t get too many actually between now and the end of the season, alerting clubs higher up the pyramid to his ability, as we really need to sign this guy when his West Ham contract expires in the summer. Of course, in reality, I really hope he breaks his duck in the very next game at Vale Park and boy will there be some celebrations behind tablet and laptop screens when he eventually does.
Possession is nine tenth’s of the law
The way we moved Cambridge about, lest we forget a team who’ve spent a fair chunk of this season sitting atop of this league, was exactly what Evatt intended from the get go when putting together his squad. The dubious input of Tobias Phoenix and the fact the team was newly formed meant the sometimes vast amounts of possession we had in the early parts of the campaign looked sterile and lacked purpose.
With the additions of metronome Kieran Lee, the neat and tidy MJ Williams, who also has the ability to find his man with line breaking passes and the introduction of youngster George Thomason with his cross-field balls and cultured left foot has slowly but surely turned this possession-heavy approach into what it was always planned to be; a method of controlling the game, limiting the opposition’s impact and tiring them out, leaving gaps to exploit eventually.
This improvement in quality of the midfield, along with the ability of Santos and now Baptiste to bring the ball out, breaking that first line of the opposition press, has been pivotal in turning the system into what we’re seeing now. The fact we now have the pace, agility and drive of a left-footed left-back in Declan John and the ability to beat a man of Dapo Afolayan, means we can finally exploit the advantages this way of playing gives us.
I’d imagine if fans had been back there’d of been many a shout of ‘get it in the mixer’ at the UniBol during the more turgid displays in the early part of the season especially. We had neither the shape or the personnel to play the system effectively, nor the confidence for it to at least make it look like it was taking shape. It’s taken time, my god it’s taken time, but aren’t we now glad that we have this possession based identity.
#BWFC average possession past 5 games... . %— BWFC Analysis (@analysis_bwfc) March 10, 2021
v SCU - 57.1%
v BAR - 72.9%
v OLD - 65.8%
v BRA - 58.2%
v CAM - 60.9%
Possession doesn’t win games...but it is useful:
- Fatigues opposition players
- Opp have to be so efficient when they do get the ball
The main thing I took away from the second half display at Valley Parade and the first 70 odd minutes on Tuesday evening was the sheer intensity of the press we put upon the U’s. This kind of intense will to win the ball back high up the pitch throttles the life out of teams and it’s no surprise that the majority of the best teams and top coaches in world football are huge advocates of this way of playing.
Look at the average position of our team from BWFC analysis’ tweet below:
Average Player Positions v Cambridge— BWFC Analysis (@analysis_bwfc) March 10, 2021
Quite incredible how high the average positions were
Don’t think I’ve seen this many #BWFC players finish with an average position so far into the opposition's half this season
Almost like we’re playing a 2-1-7 at times pic.twitter.com/EY3bO11pel
This clearly illustrates a team on the front-foot, looking to take the game to their opponents.
The ability to bring on five substitutes also means certain players can afford to give their all and forget about conserving energy for the latter stages of a game.
That’s one thing I noticed about our skippers performance on Tuesday. His energy and effervescence in and out of possession. Only he would know, yet I’ve felt Sarcevic has often conserved his energy for bursts of play or even the all-important latter stages of the match where we’ve thrived the most overall in terms of goal difference.
Whether it was a pre-meditated arrangement that he would play an hour before giving way to Marcus Maddison I don’t know but possibly so given his recent return from a lay-off. If so, this meant he could go hell for leather in this time and it certainly showed.
Onto Vale Park and revenge is in the air. Who’d of thought that at 6-1 down after an hour at the UniBol on the first day of what would be a dismal December, that we’d be playing like this and sat in the play-off places to boot.