Monday, May 14, 2012

Where to now for Bolton Wanderers?

The Premier League season concluded with one of the more exciting final days in recent memory. While it was certain that either they or QPR would drop to the Championship, the manner of Bolton's ultimate demise was unexpected but eventually deserved. Since a promising start to 2010-11, the Trotters slid rapidly from an FA Cup semi-final appearance to a horrible 2011-12 season.

There was bad luck, such as key forward Chung-yong Lee breaking his leg or Stuart Holden missing most of the year; lack of form and age plagued Kevin Davies and Martin Petrov; decisively the Bolton defence was so leaky one imagines the architect planned it that way.

That Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch at Spurs was again an incident even the best planning couldn't anticipate.

Coyle, only a year ago rumoured as a potential Arsenal manager, has an almighty job to lead his club back to the Premier League. Considering Bolton's rather unsound fiscal state, it is a task he'll likely be expected to complete at the first attempt. Here are four steps which will allow Bolton to earn back their Premiership status:

Keep Coyle

Coyle has one promotion on his C.V., having led tiny Burnley to the Premier League in 2008-09. He also has the respect of the Bolton players. Given that his high-salary guys aren't on super wages, the Scot may even be able to retain a few of his expensive starters: Klasnic would rule the Championship. The club will have to cope without defender (and YouTube sensation) David Wheater, who ruptured his ACL last week.

Overall in England, Coyle's record in two competitive divisions stands at 65 wins, 44 draws and 82 losses, and he has taken only 42% of all available league points during his time at Burnley and Bolton. At Wanderers, however, his squads have failed to break 41%. In comparison, the average League squad takes by definition 50% of all available points; Sam Allardyce's spell saw the club achieve a thoroughly respectable 49.1%.

Despite these figures, Coyle remains well regarded as a motivator and his task at Bolton has been complicated by bad injuries to key staff, especially Holden and Lee.

While Coyle's stint at the Reebok Stadium hasn't been nearly as impressive as Sam Allardyce's, he has shown that he could be the club's first long-term boss since Big Sam. The pocketbook of Bolton Chairman Phil Gartside requires results, and Coyle has the right mix of experience, credence and inside knowledge to bust the Wanderers back up a division.

Sort out the squad flux

Perhaps the greatest problem at the Reebok – outside a slippery financial outlook – has been a lack of team identity. While under Allardyce and “Megatron” Megson the club took heart from a reputation as overachieving lump-it-long types, Coyle has attempted to add more portions of elan. Hence, players like Stuart Holden and Chung-Yong Lee have found themselves (deservedly) featured; however the team's key constituents still bear the visage of a long-ball squad: Kevin Davies, the entire defensive unit – minus newbie Tim Ream – and centre midfielders like Sean Davis, Fabrice Muamba and Darren Pratley.

In short, Wanderers are a team without an identity – half the team like to move the ball quickly, the other half just concentrate on clearing the ball from threat areas. Coyle had several options, yet failed to fully commit to one tactic. Focusing squad decisions in one direction would certainly help Coyle trim his squad.

The only Trotters to enhance their reputations this season were Chris Eagles, Mark Davies and Holden – the last by dint of his absence. Holden is expensive and fragile, but his ability to get the Bolton midfield operating smoothly is something no-one else has seemed able to do. He should stay – but requires watchful protection.

Quality – and relatively cheap – Championship players who also play to type include Eagles, Ream, Gregg Wylde, Rhys Bennett and Pratley. Players who have outlived their usefulness (or value) include Gretar Steinsson, Paul Robinson, Nigel Reo-Coker, Robbie Blake and Sean Davis.

The most obvious place to trim the wage bill is forward of center: Kevin Davies, Martin Petrov and Ivan Klasnic all either disappointed or struggled for goals this term. Davies seems likely to abide at the Reebok; whether the same could be said for the efficient Klasnic or the startlingly-formless Petrov is much more unclear. It could be that their greatest contribution to the Trotters could be to remove their lofty wages from the club's ledgers.

Stalwart 'keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen has suggested he would like to re-sign. Such is his standing with the club, should he want to return he should be able – if the terms are right – and he should come at a significant discount.

Find a forward who can score

Presuming the likes of Mark Davies, Holden, Lee and Eagles remain, their creative energies require an outlet. If those shots can't be provided by Kevin Davies, Klasnic or even David Ngog, a veteran second-tier striker should be brought in to serve as the focus for the Trotters' attack.

The top three clubs in the Championship this season boasted a forward array of castoffs and slow learners: Ricardo Vaz Te, Noel Hunt, Billy Sharp, Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Nicky Maynard and Rickie Lambert. That sextet managed 92 goals last season, striking at nearly one goal every four shots.

The same quality exists elsewhere in the lower leagues.Michael Chopra has proved that with good supply he will score Championship goals, while New Zealand international Chris Wood has had an outstanding season for Birmingham and Bristol City. Other options in the second tier abound, ranging from expensive (Ross McCormack) to the senior (Kevin Phillips) – none is the sort to turn a team around, but certainly can help finish some of the midfield's lead-up work.

A season removed from the glare of the Premiership could provide a wonderful re-boot to Ngog's career, while Sordell could well prove his partner of the future.

Make more shrewd loan signings

 The manager's best ability may be to accrue wonderfully talented youth from "big" clubs and employ them in effective manners - where their skills are highlighted and the genius that allowed them to be signed by the likes of Arsenal or Manchester City is able to be displayed.  Not only has Coyle coaxed a wonderful half-season from Jack Wilshere, but Ryo Miyaichi and Vladimir Weiss also played well for the Trotters throughout their loan spells.

While Coyle won't have the same outstanding talent to pick from, he could well develop some outstanding youth prospects on loan at Bolton; players who aren't likely to challenge their club's First XIs for the season.  Examples include Junior Stanislas or Ravel Morrison at West Ham, several Aston Villa youngsters (Chris Herd?  Eric Lichaj?) and even one of Arsenal's bevy of similarly-skilled central midfielders - Francis Coquelin, for example.  Bolton have struck garlic with every supertalented loan signing so far - now they must do likewise with lesser talents.

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