A cause for concern at Bolton Wanderers?

Owen Coyle attracted a lot of praise and hype last season for apparently transforming Bolton from long-ball merchants into an attractive and aesthetically pleasing outfit. However, with Bolton now registering just one win from their opening four games and with the club having lost eight of their last nine Premier League games, are the wheels beginning to fall off? Or to put it more pertinently, are we all guilty of buying into the Owen Coyle myth?

Last season, Bolton’s league campaign culminated in five successive defeats against the likes of Blackpool, Sunderland, Fulham, Blackburn and Man City. They were humbled at Wembley, capitulating horrendously to Stoke 5-0 and went from a side challenging for a Europa League place to one that finished in the relative obscurity of 14th place in a tightly congested mid-table. Yet, the criticism for Coyle is in short supply.

Coyle has certainly found favour on the terraces for a perceived change in the team’s style of play, which when you compare it to how the side played under his predecessor Gary Megson, was bound to be found in a positive light.

The Glaswegian-born manager stated in a recent interview with Four Four Two: “Football’s an entertainment sport. We’re all here to entertain, whether you’re at the top of the Premier League or down in the lower leagues. We can go toe-to-toe with anyone.” But are Bolton really striking that fine balance between successful and entertaining football?

Last season Bolton finished with an average of 46% possession per game, the fourth lowest in the league. Their pass completion rate came in at 67%, the third lowest in the league, which would go same way to dispelling the fallacy that this side has dispensed with an over-use of the long ball.

The amount of short passes attempted per game also came in at third lowest with just 274, ahead of only Stoke and Blackburn. With concerns to the amount of long balls attempted over the course of the campaign per game, Coyle’s Bolton resided in fourth place. While these may be raw statistics courtesy of the fantastic article on Zonal Marking about this topic, they would appear to completely fly in the face of the belief that under Coyle, Bolton have become a pass and move outfit.

They of course remain a physical, direct side which has the ability to play the ball on the floor – almost exactly as they did under the likes of Allardyce, Lee (briefly) and the much maligned Megson. All this proves is that if you tell people something enough times then some of them will at least start to believe it – a concerted PR stunt of sorts.

Admittedly Bolton do have a small squad and have been hit hard by long-term injuries to the likes of Lee and Holden in the last few months, but when does a bump in the road begin to constitute a fully-fledged crisis?

Towards the back end of last season and in the beginning of this, Bolton resemble a side devoid of a plan, without shape and lacking a cutting edge. Coyle has during his tenure at Bolton granted first-team opportunities to two England fledglings in Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge, and both performed admirably when given the chance – perhaps it is in part down to this positive perception that he is given such a relatively easy ride in the media.

It’s quickly become clear that this term the league will be placed into three distinct groups. You have the Manchester duopoly at the top, with Chelsea trailing on their coattails. Then there is the group between 4th-10th that will comprise of the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs, Everton, Stoke.

Then you have a group which comprises of nearly half the league, in which league places are keenly fought and easily swapped just as they were towards the end of last season. In this latter group it becomes extremely easy as the season progresses to find yourselves unexpectedly sucked into the relegation mire. Bolton will have to be mindful.

It’s hard to fully judge how the season will transpire for Bolton, after all, they have played against Man City, Man Utd and Liverpool in their first four league games. But with Aston Villa and Arsenal away and Chelsea at home still to come and Bolton could become seriously stranded near the bottom after such a tough start.

The perception that Coyle has garnered in the press is certainly a false one. Bolton are not a style over substance side with a particular emphasis on passing football as the above statistics go some way to pointing out. He has not transformed this team from one that plays ugly, tough, long-ball football into Barcelona-light. They are merely an old-fashioned styled outfit which plays with two wingers and gets the ball forward early.

When confronted in the Four Four Two interview over the Zonal Marking article’s findings Coyle gave the rather unconvincing and contradictory answer: “Facts and statistics…we get our ProZone stuff every week and I can assure you we pass the ball a lot more. Zonal Whoever, good luck to them. Your facts and stats will tell you anything you want but nothing can beat the naked eye in football.”

Interpreting attractive football is indeed, all about the naked eye and difficult to quantify, but perhaps as Bolton’s horrific run continues apace, the perception of Coyle’s Bolton may begin to align itself more alongside the reality as opposed to the myth, for Coyle has profited far too much false goodwill from that as it is and worrying times lie ahead for the club.

You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1

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Article title: A cause for concern at Bolton Wanderers?

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