Preview: Bolton v Wycombe

The Basics

As it stands: Bolton 28-5815 (23rd, 11 pts*, GD -35) | Wycombe 31-1588 (4th, 53 pts, GD 3)
Form: Bolton LDWLL | Wycombe LWLWL
Last time out: Doncaster 2-1 Bolton | Wycombe 0-1 Fleetwood
(Only) Previous meeting: Wycombe 2-0 Bolton (League One, 03/08/19)

*Started the season on -12 points

Setting the Scene

From our end, there’s not much more to say than… Massive reaction needed  after what we had to suffer through in the freezing cold on Tuesday night. If we get it, we might just see that rarest of phenomena: an away goal. And with it, potentially an even rarer one: an away point. I’m not going one further for fear of jinxing it. There’s nothing wrong with, as a supporter, seeing this as another big day out at an impressive, former Premier League ground – but the team must go there and take the game to the hosts. Following the Blues on their travels in 2019/20 has been a monotonous, miserable undertaking for the most part, but we’re long overdue some respite. Aren’t we?

As for our fellow Wanderers, well, they are literally a different team now. Our opening day win was handed to us on a plate, but we’ll have to work harder if we’re to achieve the same outcome this time around. No longer concerned about even continuing to exist – thanks to August’s takeover by Football Ventures, a consortium led by South Bucks-linked Sharon Brittan – and with relegation to League Two all but certain, Bolton really find themselves playing for pride and laying the foundations for their future. Their only wins in the last three-and-a-half months have come against the other two sides in the bottom three – Tranmere and Southend – and they’ve been on the end of 7-1 and 5-1 thrashings at the hands of Accrington and Lincoln respectively, but a Boxing Day draw with Sunderland and narrow losses to promotion-chasing Coventry and Doncaster would suggest that they shouldn’t be taken lightly – not that Gareth would ever allow us to slip into that kind of mindset.

Opposition Overview

Last season: 23rd in Championship
Manager: Keith Hill (appointed August 2019)
Top scorer: Daryl Murphy (FW) – 8
Most assists: Ali Crawford (CM), Joe Dodoo (RM) – 3
Style of play: Direct, long balls, aggressive

A Deeper Look

Bolton v Wycombe Basic Comparison of Styles
*Bolton average 10.1 shots/game, the fewest in League One, and hit the target with just 34% – the worst ratio in the Football League | **1st in League One in dribbles and tackles attempted per game with 14.9 and 25.8 respectively – Wycombe 9.5 (17th) and 15.2 (23rd)

 

After consecutive unsuccessful attempts at deploying a 4-4-2 – something we have made work at times in the last couple of seasons and does afford us more width, but is no longer in vogue for good reason – it’s probably time to just go back to back to our basics: 4-3-3. While Gareth expertly adapted his line-ups and tactics to the opposition throughout the first half of the season, perhaps we’ve ended up trying too hard to do so and outfox opponents, not focusing sufficiently on ourselves as a result – just a theory. We’re not going to see a seismic shift from route one to tiki-taka, but we should have a number of key personnel back in action and be better able to implement our system. On Tuesday, we were a disorganised mess at the back, barely contested the midfield battle, and posed effectively zero goal threat until we stuck four up front at the end. David Stockdale, Darius Charles, Curtis Thompson and Matt Bloomfield were all massive misses – as, given our over-insistence on pinging it long, was Adebayo Akinfenwa before he entered the fray. Despite maybe thinking or hoping otherwise earlier in the season, we do not have great strength in depth – and that’s fine for a club of our current stature.

This should be a meeting of similar styles. While Keith Hill initially implemented a free-flowing, aesthetically pleasing game, the introduction of Chris O’Grady – who signed at the beginning of September but didn’t make his debut until mid-October and has only just become a regular starter – has prompted the adoption of a more direct approach, built around aiming long balls towards the 34-year-old target man – who actually seems to have been operating from the left of a front three – and looking to him to create scoring chances. The Trotters have played exactly 100 long balls in each of their last two games – a 2-1 defeat at Coventry preceded the one at Doncaster – more than we have in any match all season except the win over Burton. They had 2% less possession in those two than we did versus Bristol Rovers and Fleetwood. In fact, in terms of long balls relative to possession (i.e. less possession – more long balls, more possession – fewer long balls and vice versa), Bolton rank second in the league – while we, maybe surprisingly, come in down in tenth.

I’ll be honest, trying to figure out what formation Bolton have been playing is a bit of a mindfuck – hence the uncertainty about O’Grady’s exact position. It appears to be a variation on a 4-3-3, with top scorer Daryl Murphy through the middle – although as something more resembling a false nine – and the pacey and powerful Joe Dodoo or promising academy product Dennis Politic on the right. Captain Jason Lowe puts himself on the line in the holding midfield role, while Man United loanee Ethan Hamilton – quite the flair player, who we faced in August’s 4-3 thriller with Southend – and former Leeds man Luke Murphy have more licence to roam. It’s definitely a back four, featuring Ipswich loanee Toto Nsiala but missing Yoan Zouma – an absolute force on the opening day but injured since mid-January. When you put it all like that, it’s a mirror image of our own default set-up – but I’m prepared to be wrong.

As I’ve already touched upon, let’s hope we do revert to that default set-up. We’ve experienced mixed fortunes against teams as or more long ball-orientated than ourselves – losing to Gillingham and labouring to a draw with Accrington but seeing off Rotherham and Blackpool, for example – so seeing some of ourselves in Bolton won’t necessarily help us, but better that than a slick, relentlessly passing outfit. We did turn on the style in phases en route to beating Rochdale and Blackpool last month, and it would be encouraging to witness that on the road for once. Besides, we do have individual magic: Josh Parker came within millimetres of smashing in the goal of the season against Fleetwood, while Fred Onyedinma has FINALLY stepped back onto the green thing and maaay start. That result was more down to team selection and enforced changes not fitting the system rather than the system itself, so there are reasons to be positive. If we’re to regain some semblance of consistency, though, we probably need to imbue our agricultural MO with some of the not quite champagne but prosecco football that’s been on display in the last few home games. Gaz’s respect for all opposition is admirable, but it’s about time we went away from home and did a job on someone.

Oh, yes, a note about the weather: It’s forecast to absolutely bucket it down between 2 and 5pm. As one of the best facilities in the division, the University of Bolton Stadium is well equipped for such conditions, but every pitch can obviously only take so much of a battering from the elements. Given the prevailing mood among the light and dark blue army right now, though, would it be such a bad thing if this one was called off?

Possible Line-ups

BOLTON

Nsiala is set to return, but Kean Bryan – who’s joined on loan from Sheffield United and started the last three matches at centre-half – has been ruled out. Don’t read too much into Remi Matthews’ wobbles in the reverse fixture (if you even remember that far back); he’s settled since then and made the number one spot firmly his own. As with Tuesday night’s loss at Donny, the Trotters may only be able to name six substitutes.

Bolton XI v Wycombe

WYCOMBE

We need to see a raft of changes and probably will – only Jack Grimmer is confirmed as out. Stockdale should not have been dropped in the first place, but if Ryan Allsop – who looked bereft of confidence in the week – is being held to the same standards as him, the Birmingham loanee will be back between the sticks. Charles, Thompson and Bloomfield sound likely to make it, while starting the Beast is a must for the necessary psychological boost as much as anything.

Wycombe XI v Bolton

In the Middle: Graham Salisbury

Games in 2019/20 Yellows Reds Penalties Last refereed Bolton Last refereed Wycombe
25 77 1 4 Bolton 0-1 Burnley (Championship, 11/02/14) Wycombe 1-2 Tranmere (FA Cup, 20/11/19)

Header image by Dan Clark
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