Season Preview: Bolton

by Chris Glover

Owen Coyle’s first full season at the helm in Bolton may have fizzled towards the end but nevertheless it should be regarded as an overall success. A hot start saw the Wanderers sit in 4th place after 14 games with 26 goals scored, including 8 from a rejuvenated Johan Elmander. The team lost just three league games in the first four months of the season as well as logging impressive wins over Spurs and Newcastle. It wasn’t just the results that were impressing either. Bolton have continued to buy into Coyle’s passing philosophy and while the results haven’t quite matched the heights of the Allardyce era, the quality of football on display is unarguably at a new level.

The purse strings have been opened a bit over the past couple of years at the Reebok with Megson and now Coyle getting some financial backing, which was often unavailable during Allardyce’s term. For all his considerable faults, Megson left Coyle with a decent nucleus of a side and the likes of Gary Cahill, Fabrice Muamba and Kevin Davies have been supplemented with talented, developing stars like Stuart Holden and Chung-Yong Lee. The action this off-season has been fairly subdued though, with Pratley, Eagles and Mears all failing to really spark the imagination. The Bolton faithful will likely be more excited by the rumours of Jeffren making the unlikely switch from the Camp Nou to the Reebok this summer.

Manager: Owen Coyle
Last season: 14th
2011/12 odds: To win 5000/1 (13th favourite), to be relegated 5/1 (8th favourite)
In: Darren Pratley (Swansea City, free), Chris Eagles (Burnley, £1.5m), Tyrone Mears (Burnley, £1.5m)
Out: Ali Al Habsi (Wigan Athletic, £4m); Danny Ward (Huddersfield Town, £1m), Matt Taylor (West Ham, £2.2m), Tamir Cohen (released), J’Lloyd Samuel (released), Joey O’Brien (released)

Keys to the season

The defence made some decent strides last year, cutting their total conceded goals to 56 from 67 in 2009/10 and, providing Cahill does not depart for new pastures, the backline looks to be fairly settled again this year. While Robinson and Steinsson/Mears isn’t the most exciting full back combo in the league, they provide a solid base, often protected by Muamba, which gives the teams’ wingers license to roam and avoid the burden of defensive responsibility. If Marcos Alonso is not slowed by off field issues, he could also make an impact as a more offensively minded full back as the year progresses and he adapts to the English game.

The wide players play an important role for the team given the lack of attacking help from the full backs, so you would imagine Coyle would like to bring in another body to support the excellent Lee and the frustrating Petrov. 21 goals were created from the wide areas last term and with 6’1 Klasnic getting more playing time alongside Davies up top, a repeat of this service is essential if the side is going to score sufficient goals to continue their progress under Coyle. Wright-Phillips’ name has been thrown around alongside the aforementioned Jeffren, highlighting Coyle’s ambition in this area.

Scoring goals would appear to be the biggest challenge for the year as the Whites have seen 20 league goals move on (Elmander 10, Sturridge 8, Taylor 2) without bringing in much in the way of replacements yet. Coyle is hoping Ivan Klasnic can pick up some of this slack, hoping a full pre-season and return to fitness will help propel the Croatian forward to his best season as a Wanderer. The addition of a proven goals corer like Robbie Keane or a return for Daniel Sturridge would be more than welcome too.

The Team

Compared with his predecessors, Coyle allows Bolton to play a relatively expansive game, based around a fairly vanilla 4-4-2. The team gains another level of energy when Holden plays, as the American links up defence and attack with apparent ease, allowing the full backs to push forward with at least some ambition while preventing Davies from having to drop too deep in search of possession. That isn’t to say that Davies remains a static figure up top. Few players do more for their team than Davies and while some sections of the media paint him as a brutish target man, closer observers will appreciate the flexibility he brings to his game.

Key Player

The obvious pick is Kevin Davies who epitomises the best about Bolton’s game, leading from the front with surprising skill and an unassuming nature. However, as the side moves forward, the key man could well be Stuart Holden. Holden was recognised as the fan’s player of the year at the mid way point last term, and only an injury prevented a terrific season getting even better. Bolton picked up 38 points in the 26 games he played, which extrapolated over the course of the season would have seen Bolton pick up 56 points, good for a 7th place finish. He might not play until October, but his return will be a huge boost to Coyle’s side.

Opening Fixtures

QPR (A), Man City (H), Liverpool (A), Man Utd (H), Norwich (H), Arsenal (A), Chelsea (H)

An unbelievably hard start for the Wanderers sees them travel to Loftus Road for their first taste of Premier League action since 1996 with five of the next six then coming against the league’s elite sides. Being slow out of the gates does not condemn a season to failure but as evidenced by West Ham last year, digging too deep a hole can sometimes put you in a tough position for the whole season. Bolton weren’t bad against top half teams last year, but lost six of their eight games against the top four, including losses in all the above corresponding fixtures aside from a solitary point at home against United. On the bright side, heading into October with a few unexpected points and a good run of fixtures to come could set the Whites up nicely for a good season.

Where will they finish?

You would expect more of the same from last season; caught in the log jammed middle of the pack, where a couple of breaks either way can see you finish 8th or 15th. A push any higher than that seems unlikely, though relegation also looks to be a comfortably long shot, provided Cahill is either held or adequately replaced. A lack of depth and the squad’s age is a concern but assuming a bit more help is brought in before the window closes, the season should be comfortable enough. 10th

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