Welcome to the review of Bolton Wanderers' Premier League season so far. Half way through the season, it's clear to see that despite massive improvement in Bolton's form, the squad size is a major issue, and we're going to analyze these positive and negative aspects throughout this review.
Firstly, we can't hide that Bolton had a terrible start to the season, after of course beating Stoke 3-1 on the opening day. The next five games saw a winless run, albeit including defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal.
Nevertheless, in between all of this, Bolton lost to Northampton Town after extra time in the Carling Cup, which sent confidence even lower. A win versus West Ham in London, where the Whites had not won a game in some 16 visits, seemed to put Wanderers on the right path, but four defeats in the next five games saw Wanderers fall towards the wrong end of the table.
However, the fans' reaction to the results was tamed due to the good performances maintained throughout defeat, and the players remained confident.
This confidence turned in to results against local rivals Manchester City and then league upstarts, Hull City. A 2-0 loss against Liverpool was the expected result; however, Bolton tried hard to upset the Reds.
Johan Elmander's performance in recent games was under the microscope, having drawn a blank since the first match of the season and experiencing injury problems early on in his Bolton Wanderers career. With that in mind, his contribution and goal in the 3-1 win against Middlesbrough was pleasing to Wanderers fans as they got a taste of what might be coming from the £11m man.
His performance against Sunderland in the next match showed his predatory instincts and precise finishing, the reasons for which he was scouted by clubs all over Europe before signing on at the Reebok. The 4-1 win will be forever remembered as Roy Keane's last managerial experience at the Stadium of Light, perhaps his last ever, but Elmander took advantage of lax defending and great vision from Kevin Nolan to grab two goals in this rout.
Unfortunately, Bolton faced Chelsea after this great win, and couldn't have wished for a worse start, losing a goal early on and allowing Chelsea to capitalize. However, it's safe to say that losing 2-0 should not dent Bolton's confidence after the way that they have come back from adversity this season already.
Few players can claim to be consistently performing well for Bolton this season, but without a shadow of a doubt, Bolton goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen has "Player of the Year" written all over him. Performances such as the one he turned in during the win against Hull show that Jussi wins matches for Bolton Wanderers, and the fans should be delighted that he signed a new contract despite renewed speculation that clubs are still interested in signing him in the January transfer window.
Personally, I doubt that this long servant of the club will leave for pastures new and he will continue to deliver as Bolton's No. 1 until Ali Al-Habsi is too good to leave out. These sentiments are echoed by manager Megson, who said "I wouldn't have thought Jussi would be going anywhere else," in The Sun. "He seems settled here." That's good enough for me.
Some players have stood out as much improved, in particular Gavin McCann, who had some indifferent displays in his first season at the Reebok. His recent performances, pulling the strings in midfield and improving his pass success ratio, have caught the eye of local media and fans.
While Kevin Nolan hasn't been captain fantastic, his performances have been consistent and while he's no Steven Gerrard, his motivation empowers his team to perform. He always gives 100 percent.
Gretar Steinsson is undoubtedly Bolton's unsung hero at right-back. He’s definitely a legend in the making if he stays at Bolton and emulates his Icelandic compatriot, Gudni Bergsson, who recommended Steinsson to Bolton in the first place. He is not only a fine defender, but he can get forward and provide for the forwards, and as shown in recent games, score goals himself.
Finally, who can forget to mention Gary Cahill? With calls for him to be called up to the England squad after injuries to some first teamers, this young defender seems to have all the tools to become a great at the Reebok, and undoubtedly anywhere else. A £5m bargain and one of the team's best signings in the last two years.
Last season's disappointment was losing Anelka to then champions Chelsea, but this season's disappointment is a lack of strength in depth.
The consistency in the team is proof that we have a good first team, but does Ebi Smolarek give Johan Elmander a run for his money? Is Danny Shittu really worth another shot in the premiership after an error-strewn first appearance in the league?
I'm not so sure, but it is certain that Gary Megson will need to invest whatever cash he can get his hands on, probably on every section of the pitch.
Wanderers have quality players like Ricardo Gardner and Mustapha Riga waiting (literally) in the wings to get a regular shot, but cover for the strikers and in the middle of the park may be most important. Despite having a consistent back four, apart from Danny Shittu, cover is lacking.
It would be quite easy to say that Bolton could still be in trouble, however, this Premier League has proven to be quite a tight one. Clubs can easily jump between Champions League places and relegation places within three games, which shows how tight the league has become. Bolton's future success depends entirely on strengthening their squad, especially during winter when injuries plague small squads, and they will have to buy quality players who can get in their first team, not just first team cover.
Bolton have a difficult fixture list over the Christmas period, with matches against Aston Villa and Liverpool, both of which are in the top five at the moment.
However, they may well believe they have a chance to get points out of both teams, as well as against Pompey and Wigan, who have both been skulking around mid-table like Bolton.
In the next ten games, Bolton also meet Manchester United and Arsenal, but at least it means it will only be Chelsea of the "top four" that the Whites have to meet during the remainder of the season, which gives some relief toward the end of the season that could see Bolton take back their over-achiever status after last season's escape.
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