Friday, April 15, 2011

Stoke/Bolton FA Cup Semi-Final: The Ugly Stepsisters meet at Wembley

While it's derby season, what could be the best game this weekend won't be the Spanish Superclasico in La Liga or the Manchester Derby in the FA Cup. It could well be the ugly stepsister FA Cup Semi-Final between two of the EPL's more unfashionable teams, Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City.

Both teams started in the Premiership strictly playing Route One football: defend, long passes to a burly centre-forward and goals scrambled from inside the box or set pieces. Both have survived, for years now, played what amounts to "The Beautiful Game for uggos". Both clubs are still somewhat prone to the long ball - Bolton centre-forward Kevin Davies has an astonishing 200 more "flick-ons" than any other player in the league - but each of their current managers came to terms with being seen among the division's thugs and set about modifying their games.

For Bolton, that came the instant Owen Coyle walked in the door after being pinched from nor'west rivals Burnley. He'd led the Clarets to promotion and had them sitting mid-table in the Premiership when he departed to take over his alma mater Bolton. He brought with him his chief tactical asset - an ability to instill respect in his players for a passing game. Where former boss Gary Megson eschewed the use of creative types like Stuart Holden, Coyle has embraced them; his biggest coup so far has been to lure Martin Petrov to the Reebok at the expiration of his Man City contract.

With Petrov and Matty Taylor on the left, Lee Chung-Yong on the right and the regrettably injured Holden between them, the new face of Wanderer football has become apparent. Their supply has even managing to excite Swedish forward Johan Elmander into his best year on English shores after being a bust as a 12 million signing from Toulouse three years ago. It's no coincidence Bolton occupy the EPL's seventh place and harbour hopes of Europe next year.

Neither is it random that Stoke City in twelfth position. In perhaps the best coaching job in England that no-one talks about, Tony Pulis has taken a side of Championship stalwarts and Premiership rejects from relegation certainties into a club which can challenge the best. The Welshman initially bred an uncompromising unit and then has proceeded to add elements of flair once Top Flight safety was assured. It's fitting that these flair players too, should be cast-offs: Matthew Etherington was little-used at West Ham, Jon Walters toiled at the Championship's Ipswich Town and Jermaine Pennant has cashed paycheques from nine different clubs.

Despite Pulis' best efforts, that creativity hasn't blossomed magically as Coyle's men have at Bolton and the Potters remain a team heavily reliant on set-pieces, particularly the patriot-missile-like throws of Rory Delap. This is unsurprising: rather than add flair pieces to a staid unit, it often produces more goals to scrap one tactical method and employ a more fluid style of play as has been proved by Liverpool since Kenny Dalglish usurped Roy Hodgson. Unless you're Ian Holloway, the old adage applies: once a defensive coach, always a defensive coach.

For either club, any newfound creativity or offensive spark hasn't come at the expense of their toughness or defence. It could well be a clash of the immovable object against the other immovable object, which brings back memories of the mid-00's in Australian football. During the early part of last decade, the AFL suffered from "flooding", where most - if not all - players were positioned behind the ball. This made for low-scoring games and unsettled spectators because the game wasn't free-flowing. What it did make for, however, was a spectacular contest: with very little space or time in which players could operate, skills were at a premium and with the intensity ratcheted up it begat eminently watchable, if not high-scoring, matches.

Expect the same at Wembley when Stoke and Bolton meet - a match high on intensity but low on magic, no matter how much the respective gaffers try tacitly to encourage such feats. An element of high skill in the box (or just outside) from any of Fuller, Etherington or Petrov could be enough to take the biscuits this weekend, which makes this match as interesting as any across Europe this week.

1 comment:

  1. I read your blog with interest - and it shows exactly what you know about football!