Despite being early-season favourites for automatic promotion, Dougie Freedman’s Bolton Wanderers side have found themselves languishing in the lower reaches of the Football League Championship for the bulk of the campaign. Having been in a similar position last season before a late surge took them to the brink of the playoffs, what can Bolton do this term to salvage their season and give themselves a chance at reaching the Premier League?
In an ironic twist of fate, Wanderers fans have found their team beset with the exact opposite of the major cause for the ill-fated 2011-2012 season that ended their stay in the top division. Former manager Owen Coyle steadfastly refused to switch from his beloved 4-4-2, despite the overwhelming evidence that his underdog squad was more resilient and, ultimately, more successful when employed in a 4-5-1 system. This season, Freedman has presented the mirror image, favouring the conservative system that Wanderers were crying out for under Coyle’s tenure, despite having the personnel to take the game to any team in the division. A switch to 4-4-2 on Saturday yielded Bolton’s first league win of the calendar year.
Following the departure of talismanic stalwart and club captain Kevin Davies in the summer, Freedman elected to choose the much-maligned Zat Knight as the new bearer of the armband. The oldest member of the squad, Knight has never looked settled in a Wanderers back line, and has only been involved sporadically after being dropped following a poor start to the season. The last thing an ailing team needs is inconsistent leadership on the field, and should the rumours of an impending switch to the MLS for Knight come to fruition, Freedman must ensure that his successor is a reliable fixture on the team sheet.
A season-salvaging exercise with an eye on next season. Bolton’s financial problems have been well-publicised, and currently Freedman finds himself in a one in, one out situation—still saddled with a group of Coyle’s relegation squad and unable to truly stamp his authority on the team with permanent signings. He has attempted to assimilate some, like Knight, into his plans with mixed success. But others, like the high-earning Tyrone Mears, have eaten up the wage bill and rarely featured. Freedman has proven himself to be an astute operator in the loan market, but the lack of a solid, consistent core to the team has proven detrimental.
There’s no denying that—man for man—Bolton have one of the strongest squads in the league, with strength in depth at virtually every position. One spot they have been caught short in, however, is left fullback. It is now one of the most notoriously specialist positions on the pitch, thanks to the required combination of stamina, speed, and defensive instincts. Marc Tierney began the season in fine form, but an injury just a couple of months into the campaign has left Wanderers looking to various combinations of Tim Ream, Alex Baptiste and others to fill in. A deal for Swedish international Mikael Dyrestam appears to be dead, but despite not being the most glamorous position, Freedman should make a left back a priority if he wants to ensure an improved end to the season.
It's a cliché, but one of the most striking aspects of Bolton's play this season has been their lack of self-belief. Despite their early season billing, the team—even those players with significant top flight experience—appears intimidated by second-tier opposition. Truthfully, despite the modern focus on scientific tactics, sports psychologists and finely tuned physical fitness, there are few substitutes for good, old fashioned confidence. The lack of belief has resonated throughout the team for the duration of the term, seen in everything from missed penalties to hesitant defending. Unfortunately for Freedman and Bolton, unlike the other ways they can save their season, confidence is very much a self-perpetuating cycle—without any, it's hard to win, and without wins, it's hard to be confident. It's up to the Wanderers' young boss to break the chain.