Only Wycombe would end a five-match losing (and six-match goalless) run on the road thanks to a comedy own goal and a penalty. Ten months on from ending the same streak – although, of course, a much longer one overall – with that win at Southend, is this the result which truly reignites a promotion push? Hmm, it’s still too soon to say, but it feels good for reasons beyond just relief.
* ➡️ Ofoborh (73) | ** ➡️ Samuel (81) | *** ➡️ Parker (89)
|Passes (completed)||491 (351 – 71%)||251 (136 – 54%)|
|Long balls (completed)||77 (30)||78 (30)|
|Shots (on target/off target/blocked)||11 (4/4/3)||7 (3/3/1)|
|Big chances (missed)||0 (0)||2 (1)|
An almost complete performance
The closest we’ve come to a fully accomplished display since the 2-0 win at Tranmere back in November – 15 games ago. Even without their points deduction, Bolton would still only be second bottom – but take out those first five farcical fixtures – one of which was our opening day victory, of course – and they’ve picked up almost twice as many points per game as Southend (ok, that’s not hard), more than Tranmere in 22nd, and almost as many as AFC Wimbledon in 21st. They will go down and probably still would have done had they started the campaign on an even keel, but the other Wanderers are no pushovers and were certainly not the worst team we’ve faced ‘on the day’ this season. Their centre-halves marshalled Adebayo Akinfenwa extremely well and they moved the ball slickly and positively in the final third. We had to work hard for our precious points at a ground where Sunderland were held to goalless draw and Portsmouth only scraped through by a goal to nil.
From the very announcement of the line-up, it was clear we were going to go out and attack, attack, attack – David Wheeler, Fred Onyedinma, Paul Smyth and Bayo all starting. While the final shots figures might not reflect that – we managed just seven in all, three on target – we certainly came flying out of the traps. Inside three minutes, Wheeler headed inches over and Smyth got straight to work wreaking havoc down the right – where he looks most at home and at his most threatening – unleashing a rasping effort into the side netting after his first of three dazzling dribbles, all successful. Bolton responded in the latter part of the first half, but our initial offensive endeavour and intensity set the tone and sent out the message that, for once, we were going to throw a bit of caution to the wind on the road.
It may have taken 44 minutes to force the breakthrough, and it may have taken a helping hand (face), but save for a brief spell midway through the half when the hosts came back at us and went fairly close with a couple of half-chances, our opener had been coming. It will be remembered as instant blooper material, but it stemmed from typical Wycombe effectiveness – the kind we’ve clearly been severely lacking on the road. Ryan Allsop can take as long as he likes over goal-kicks if he puts them on the money – as he did, ultimately not finding Bayo but putting it right in his vicinity, leaving Nsialawith no option but to head clear somewhat aimlessly. Jason McCarthy and Paul Smyth did the hard work with their ball recovery and ball-carrying wizardry respectively, the former recycling the latter’s well saved effort and knowing straight away where he was going to put it. It was a delightfully dangled carrot for Fred and the big man, one of whom would have tapped it in had Toto Nsiala not done his best Chris Brass impression.
After the interval, we started the slower of the two sides, but we were never unduly troubled before doubling our lead. Joe Jacobson may have stepped into his office to complete the assignment, but the preceding move was just as reward-warranting as that for the own goal – if anyone was fortunate, it was Trotters stopper Remi Matthews to not see red despite making no attempt to play the ball. Ok, fine, we did get a touch of fortune as Nsiala’s nightmare afternoon continued when he let JJ’s long, volleyed hook bounce, allowing Bayo to rampage through, play it off the blunder-prone Ipswich loanee to Wheeler, who deftly played Fred through on goal with the kind of first-time ball we’ve become accustomed to seeing from arguably our player of the season. From there, Fred was either going to round the ‘keeper and score – or, as transpired get flattened.
We could have had more – 90th minute substitute Josh Parker’s blushes were spared by the offside flag – although even with half an hour left, two always looked it would be enough. From there on in, it was just a case of a controlled cruise to the finish – although it would have been nice to have kept pushing for a little while longer. Ultimately, though, we did the most important thing: lifted the increasingly heavy burden of all those despair-inducing away days.
A small system tweak with big potential?
As Smyth received treatment on the pitch 21 minutes in, Gareth Ainsworth seized the opportunity to make maximum use of the stoppage, implementing a tactical change which worked an absolute treat. Fred moved up, the recovered Ulsterman moved wide right, and Wheeler dropped into a now three-man midfield, with Dom Gape able to take up his natural role as the anchor/defensive shield. While generally allowing us to get forward with decent intensity, the 4-4-2 had again left a little too much space between the lines and Bolton were posing a moderate threat from the ‘Gape zone’, much of it through Man United loanee Ethan Hamilton’s intrepid maneuvering and testing long-range efforts.
As already implied, Smyth’s best position is on the right of a front three. With Fred out for so long and Wheeler largely making that spot his own, though, the pocket rocket has predominantly had to play from the left – where, given his propensity for and success with dashing round the outside – he’s been unable to make maximum impact. Now that Gareth’s seen the QPR loanee reproduce the scintillating stuff he did way back in the dawn of the season – most memorably turning Dean Lewington inside out in the dramatic 3-2 downing of MK – he’s got to start him there against struggling Tranmere on Saturday.
And he’ll be able to! Because Mr Consistent aka Dave Wheeler may actually be even more brilliant as a midfielder. The 29-year-old utility man has proven himself time and time again to be inventive and creative in central areas: the almost-assist to Fred; his sublime backheeled set-up for Alex Samuel against Blackpool; that lob to Alex Pattison in the build-up to Matt Bloomfield’s sealer against Burton; bursting through the middle to draw the foul for that wrongly-awarded spot-kick at Ipswich; even his audacious volleyed chip in the reverse fixture against the Tractor Boys. He makes things happen and Saturday was no different. After seeing his header across goal blatantly handled about ten minutes before we took the lead, ‘Wheels’ made minimal fuss, tracked his man like hawk all the way into our half and won the ball back to quell the Bolton counter-attack. That summed up his unwavering determination to carry out the unglamorous tasks – though he benefits from rarely, if ever, over-committing to a challenge – while nine times out of ten, he picks out and times that final ball to perfection. His performance in this unfamiliar role to us was described by one Gasroomer as Keith Ryan-esque. Now, I’m a relative yoof, but even I know that’s high praise indeed!
That just leaves the omnipotent Mr Onyedinma. Oh how we’ve missed him and the way he moves! Such a thorn in the side of Trotters right-back Josh Emmanuel that he was hauled off at half-time, our ultimate flair player looks like he’s never been away – which is somewhat crazy when you consider he’s almost certainly not firing on all cylinders yet. He embarked on four dribbles and completed three, completed 90% of his passes – again, a better indicator of style than substance, but unusual for anyone in a light and dark blue quartered shirt – and could – and probably would – have bagged a brace had the aforementioned goal situations panned out a little differently. Someone recently said to me that Fred = “promotion juice”. I’ll take a pallet-load.
The Darius Charles effect
The fact that this win came so soon after the nadir that was last Tuesday night probably amplified this, but everyone around him is better off for his presence. Anthony Stewart – while he could still do with taking a touch now and again before his customary diagonals – was back to his impassable best, consistently averting danger by winning 5/6 ground duels and making three tackles and four clearances. Allsop recovered strongly from his jelly-like return to action, rushing out to clear loose balls over the top several times at Charles’ apparent instruction, as well as parrying shots sideways rather than gifting rebound opportunities – something which is probably more down to coaching but positive nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Jason McCarthy put in a markedly more disciplined performance in the sense of his defensive positional awareness, and JJ – 33 years young and to the surprise of approximately no one – continued the form of his career, making three clearances and intereptions apiece, winning 4/5 ground duels and posting a long ball accuracy of almost 60% (7/12) – all higher than his 2019/20 average per 90.
The same graphics from the Fleetwood and Bristol Rovers games tell a different story
Oh, and how about THIS act of heroism from the Mango man with the score at 0-1?
What’s up with Curtis?
Last season’s Players’ Player of the Year hasn’t had a bad 2019/20 by any means; he’s just rarely looked his usual tenacious, show-running self. He came off with a knock in the loss at Popmey on Boxing Day, was rushed back for the drubbing by Coventry three days later and didn’t look right straight away – eventually leaving the field again after an hour – and appears not to have recovered since. Here, he was a good couple of yards off the pace, which particularly showed in one or two of the seemingly lethargy-induced fouls he conceded. If he’s not 100%, why are we risking him? Blooms – if he’s fit – or Nnamdi Ofoborh – who did feature for the final 20 minutes but alongside Thompson rather than in his place – should get the nod against Tranmere.
We know what we are…
Rocky stuttered and stalled his way into the referee’s notebook after 77 minutes – early even by Wycombe goalkeepers’ standards – which gives you an idea of just how prematurely we started slowing things down. Time-wasting is fine – it’s an integral part of the game which can be perfected down to a fine art (genuinely) – but come on, we didn’t need to ease up for half an hour. That’s the only real criticism I have about our performance. There was nothing to fear by then and we could have gone hard to boost our potentially promotion-denying goal difference. Oh well, we’ll just have to turn Tranmere over.