City Edged Out In Tight Affair: Bolton Wanderers 2-0 Imps

Credit Graham Burrell

I found myself quite surprised after yesterday’s game with some of the criticism on social media. I don’t know why as it’s pretty standard these days; even a 6-3 win is met with negatives, so why would a 2-0 defeat be any different?

I’m by no means a happy clapper, you’ll know that from reading about the Peterborough game, and especially the Cambridge trip. I call what I see, and whilst I’ll rarely call a 2-0 defeat in a hugely positive light, I feel that there were plenty of positives yesterday against a team who should comfortably be top six given the players they have at their disposal.

Before I go onto the game, let’s talk a bit about Bolton. There may be this misconception that because they were League Two a while ago, and in 2019/20, we beat them 5-1, they’re some sort of equal to us. They’re not. They play in front of 17,000 fans every week, and their players cost more than ours. Yesterday wasn’t a game we should have won, and as fans, we have to accept that in those games, we’re going to try and nick something in a different manner. You only have to look at one of their changes yesterday to understand the difference between us; Elias Kachunga has played 39 Premier League matches and appeared in the Bundesliga (more than 30 times, scoring six). He came off for Bodvarsson, who has played at the Euros, been in a World Cup squad and made the bulk of his appearances in the Championship. That’s their subs bench – they’re maybe not seen as Ipswich, Derby and Sheff Weds level because they’re come up, not down, but they’re every bit as big, if not bigger, in terms of Premier League experience. There’s no shame in going there and trying to keep things tight.

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I’m sure I don’t have to explain this, but successful football isn’t all free-flowing passing, goals and attacks. Sometimes, teams do well by keeping things tight, getting points away from home where points are not expected. Okay, we didn’t get that yesterday, and I’ll explain why, but we deserved a point yesterday. In fact, on the balance of open play chances, we actually created enough to get a 1-1 draw. I love xG; it’s not a hard and fast stat, but it does explain plenty about chance quality, and if you took the penalty out of yesterday’s game, their xG was 0.96, and ours was 1.06.

Still, I’ve already triggered the ‘not good enough’ brigade, so let’s go back to the start, shall we?

There was a shock in the starting line-up; three at the back. Now, I don’t agree with much Joey Barton says, but he did say that three at the back is the way forward to get out of this league. I think if you’re Lincoln City, with the squad that we have, he’s almost right. Our fullbacks are not quite the flying wingbacks you need in an attacking sense, but neither was Mark Bailey and Stuart Bimson, and they both did alright for us 20 years ago. Three at the back can be a 5-2-3 (which I felt we went with yesterday) or even a 3-4-3, but it had shades of 2002/03. Back then, we were shorter on dollar than everyone else and needed to play to our strengths at times. This season we’re going to have to mix it up, and that’s what Mark did. There’s no criticism from me on how we started the game.

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However, having Tom Hopper not involved was another blow. I won’t sound like a stuck record, but we needed another striker in, especially with Ben House going off injured. Two for every position, in my eyes, is not effective when that position is not one with a degree of flexibility. One thing Big Keith always said was you can never have enough strikers and despite Ben House looking lively in spells, not having Tom as a focal point for a 3-4-3 is a blow. When you need to counter, sometimes that means finding a striker in the middle of the park for the ball to stick to, and Ben just gave it away a bit too much yesterday.

Actually, a few players did. I felt the opening exchanges saw us executing the perfect game plan; we looked tight and rarely troubled, and the only pressure we found ourselves under was often of our own doing. Bolton are a very good side, they’d won four out of five (the fifth was a penalty shoot-out win) and you can see why. They were lively up front, and they kept picking up the ball in front of our back four. That’s on the midfield, and it was a surprise to me. Going back to the Keith era, the midfield was often bypassed, but that’s not possible when the opposition has the ball. That means runs need tracking, and when you do get possession, you have to take care. We didn’t, certainly not in the midfield. In fact, of all our central players, if you were to ask me which two I thought would suit this formation best, I’d say (on the meagre evidence we have) Davenport and Sanders. The former is injured, and the latter came on and did well, but Virtue and Sorensen probably found the first half tough going.

So, even with one component of the formation not working and against one of the division’s better (dare I say best) sides, we still stayed in the game. Had we got to halftime at 0-0, would the vocal minority have been so unhappy? Was there any huge difference in terms of gameplay between this and us drawing at Sheff Weds last season? The formation was different, but in that game, the opposition created much more and didn’t score. Bolton weren’t able to create a huge amount of meaningful chances, and although we didn’t either, that was the plan. If we came away with a draw, everyone would have been happy.

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Instead, we dusted off that big old red ‘self-destruct’ button from last season and gave it a push for the penalty. Perhaps a better analogy would have been a self-destruct level was given a pull, in the form of Adam Jackson’s hand on a shirt. He will be massively disappointed with that moment of madness because there’s zero doubt it’s a penalty. It’s really simple, a player goes past you in the area, DON’T pull his shirt. If you do, it’s going to be a penalty, and for anyone who says it was soft, I refer you to a fortnight ago, Ben House and Bristol Rovers. It’s a pull, it’s a penalty and whether the referee waves it away and then gives it or not is irrelevant. I did have a bit of belief Rushworth might save it, but alas, no, Bolton took a lead. Some say deserved on the balance of play, but that would be talking possession, rather than them being scintillating. That’s not entirely on them; our defence remain strong throughout.

We didn’t have a great first half at all going forward; we created zero chances, but aside from their penalty, they had almost nothing to show for their endeavour either. It was a damp squib, a game of chess played out in front of a crowd that wanted high-octane football. That’s why many get disappointed – but there’s no winning with some, is there? We go away, play swashbuckling football that leaves us open, and we’re labelled sloppy (despite scoring six). We go away and create little, but aside from a moment of madness should be 0-0 against a bigger club, and we’re not adventurous enough. It’s rhetoric that leaves me feeling so angry, I even left my phone upstairs last night because I could feel the anger inside me, wanting to engage with people. I’m pretty angry at the moment anyway, away from Lincoln, so it wouldn’t have taken much.