x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Leaky Bolton Wanderers need to stem the tide of goals

Owen Coyle's progressive brand of football can entail trying to outplay more talented teams, a risky policy that has started to backfire on the Bolton Wanderers manager.

Think of the modern-day Bolton Wanderers and one figure towers above all others. More than four years after his departure, Bolton remain the club that Sam Allardyce rebuilt.

Perhaps the most statistically minded manager in English football used the numbers to justify his pragmatic approach, so it is the safest of assumptions that he would shudder at the factual evidence of his former club's problems.

Bolton have taken three points from a possible 36, conceding 21 goals in six successive league defeats and made their worst start to a season for 109 years. In Sunday's 5-1 thrashing at home by Chelsea, they were 4-0 down after 27 minutes; three weeks earlier they were three goals adrift of Manchester United at the same stage. Some fans have scarcely arrived when others are heading for the exits.

What the figures do not illustrate is the difficulties Bolton have faced. Of those six setbacks, five came against Manchester City, Liverpool, United, Arsenal and now Chelsea. The odd game out, Norwich City's visit to the Reebok Stadium, became a must-win. Abject again in the first half, Bolton lost it.

Injuries have had a debilitating effect, too. Chung-yong Lee and Stuart Holden, the most important figures in the midfield, are long-term absentees. Full-backs Sam Ricketts and Tyrone Mears are yet to feature this season.

Yet absentees do not excuse a dire defensive record. Bolton's failings are both systemic and individual.

At left-back, Paul Robinson endures a harrowing afternoon on a weekly basis. His immediate opponent, whether David Silva, Nani, Elliott Bennett or Daniel Sturridge, seems to excel. His lack of pace is all too apparent, as is the absence of any protection from the left winger, Martin Petrov. Chelsea's first attack, placing a pass behind Robinson, hinted at a pre-planned tactic. It led to the opening goal.

Sturridge headed it in from a corner, another familiar tale. Both Norwich goals came from badly defended dead-ball situations.

With goalkeeping errors, whether Jussi Jaaskelainen's against City or Adam Bogdan's in the Chelsea game, another constant and an inability to track midfield runners, such as the predatory Frank Lampard, there is no one-stop solution.

Nevertheless, David Wheater, rather than Zat Knight, ought to be granted the chance to partner Gary Cahill in the centre of the defence. The unfortunate Robinson, all too obviously a weak link, should be put out of his misery, and switching Petrov, whose creativity means he must play, to the right would give the replacement left-back more help.

The signs are that Coyle's attacking ethos is already being subjected to a rethink. The Scot was wedded to 4-4-2, the predictability of his tactics enabling Norwich's Paul Lambert to outmanoeuvre him two weeks ago, but attempted to deploy a fifth midfielder against both Arsenal and Chelsea.

Allardyce understood the principles behind a policy of safety in numbers. Coyle's more progressive brand of football can entail trying to outplay more talented teams, a risky policy that has started to backfire. The sole bonus of Bolton's demanding start is that now they encounter sides of similar ability.

If the Premier League is officially a 38-game season, its lesser lights could be forgiven for deeming it a 26-game campaign, the matches with the sides outside the top six offering the greater chance of procuring points. By that rationale, Bolton, with 24 such encounters remaining, have games in hand on their relegation rivals.

That is only beneficial if points are procured, which requires cleverer tactics, clean sheets and a commitment to winning ugly if necessary.

Idealism and excitement may have characterised Coyle's first 15 months in charge, but now reality has bitten Bolton. If the hard-headed Allardyce left his handbook behind, they should take a few tips from it.

Swansea's impressive defence continues

Four games, four clean sheets: Swansea City's start at the Liberty Stadium is remarkable. While Brendan Rodgers's side have rightly received plaudits for their passing football, their defensive record on their own turf offers the best chance of survival.

It is all the more admirable as the promoted club find themselves short of specialist defenders.

Then again, the Swans' ability to keep hold of the ball - and they were in possession for 59 per cent of the time in Sunday's win over Stoke City - might serve as their best form of defence.

Agbonlahor back to his best

A change in management has long been an effective way of reviving players' careers. The latest beneficiary is Gabriel Agbonlahor. The Aston Villa forward seemed to become an afterthought during Gerard Houllier's time in charge, when the Frenchman first set about revitalising Emile Heskey and then paid a club record £18 million (Dh102.5m) fee for Darren Bent.

Under Alex McLeish, however, Agbonlahor has already scored more league goals this term than he did in the entirety of last season. After losing his way, the 24 year old is starting to realise his potential.

A season of struggle ahead for Wigan

Wigan Athletic entered the last international break unbeaten. They go into the current one with a 100 per cent record in the intervening period, having lost each of their four league games since the last hiatus, including Saturday's setback against Villa.

As their first three games were against the promoted teams and the last four against established Premier League outfits, it suggests a season of struggle where the relegation six-pointers will take on huge importance for Roberto Martinez's side.

sports@thenational.ae