We caught up with our SBN sister site and resident Bolton experts the Lion of Vienna Suite to gauge the feeling in the opposition camp ahead of this weekend's third round FA Cup clash at the Reebok. The lovely Matilda Hankinson and kinda dreamy Mark Yesilevskiy were on hand to help.
So, Bolton upset a nation by saving QPR's skins and got relegated from the Premier League on the final day of last season. What happened next? Catch us up!
Matilda Hankinson: Unsurprisingly, the squad underwent a lot of changes in the off season. 15 players were released as their contracts came to an end, but largely it was a case of shedding dead weight in the squad, which desperately needed to be done. I said before the fact that getting relegated would be a good chance for the club to scale things back and then build on a sustainable level, something Bolton had lacked since the departure of Big Sam Allardyce. However as the season went on, it just became more and more clear that Owen Coyle was a bit lost and had no real plan for the club, or even for individual matches, and so he and the club parted ways.
After a relatively brief search, the club settled on poaching Dougie Freedman from Crystal Palace. That was a little over 2 months ago now, and that time has definitely been up and down. Overall, he's done well with the mess he inherited. He's managed to instill some discipline in a defense that was hardly worthy of the name before, and is on his way to properly utilising the midfield talent Bolton possess.
We are not too far removed from a managerial change ourselves. Was there genuine sadness at seeing Owen Coyle fail or was there little more than anger left at the end?
MH: For me personally, it felt like a breakup with someone you were still genuinely fond of, but just weren't right for each other. When he came into the club, we had just gone through some really bad times towards the end of Gary Megson's reign, there was a desolate feeling for supporters and the team. Then along came this charismatic, lively Scotsman, and at first he seemed to be putting the team in the right direction (remember the heady days of the 2010-11 season with a fit Stu Holden?!). After Holden's injury, the team slowly and painfully collapsed. We tried making the relationship work, gave Coyle lots of second chances, but ultimately it was a bad fit. It was very bittersweet, as opposed to the glee I felt when Gary Megson was fired, but it was the right move for the club at the time.
What has changed, tactically, under the new manager?
MH: Honestly, just about everything. Coyle was famously tactically inept, and oftentimes his strategy was to chuck the best 11 players he could on the pitch, which obviously had varying results. Dougie Freedman on the other hand is renowned for his systematic approach to the game. He is very serious about sports science, and has a very carefully thought out program of training, carried out by a tight band of backroom staff, many of whom came with him from Crystal Palace.
On the pitch, he heavily favours a 4-2-3-1 system, which has been good for a Bolton side that has greatly struggled with building meaningful possession. The back two midfielders - mostly Jay Spearing and Keith Andrews - provide a stable platform for the offensive triangle to build on. Given Bolton's strength in the wings (Chris Eagles, Chung Yong-Lee, Martin Petrov) this is a great way to give them creative freedom, opening up a lot of options.
While this formation has been a bit hit or miss, I think a big part of that is the squad adjusting to a radically different operating system, which is to be expected. In spite of my early reservations about Dougie, I am really excited about the direction he is taking the club.
Bolton are currently lingering in the bottom half of the table but the play offs are far from out of reach. Is the cup therefore seen as a welcome distraction or a pointless irritant interrupting the pursuit of bigger goals?
MH: This is a question for pretty much every club, and personally I come down in favour of the cup. I do think a good cup run can really improve morale (and Bolton could use a bit of that) as well as give the boys the opportunity to test themselves against different levels of opposition. One of the biggest readjustments Bolton has had to make coming down to the Championship is the massive increase in matches, so I doubt a few more will make much of a difference fitness wise. Hopefully Bolton can use this platform to show that as a team, they're better than their league position would indicate - although I wouldn't bet on it.
Have you seen much of Sunderland, and if so what do you make of them?
MH: In all honesty, I think I've watched maybe one Premiership match in total this season. This partially has to do with the fact that I don't get any football on my television, but it has more to do with the excruciating nature of being a Bolton fan this season, which means as soon as I'm done covering a Bolton match, I generally want to think about anything but football. Because of this, I asked my co-blogger Mark to cover this. He says:
Mark Yesilevskiy: Sunderland aren't relying as much on Steven Fletcher's goals at the moment as they were at the start of the season. The win against Manchester City surely must have been a huge confidence boost but it is a shame that the Black Cats couldn't build on it against Tottenham and Liverpool. Sunderland have been on the better side of a number of good results but unfortunately, it seems that the Black Cats have lost a number of matches that they arguably should not have.
It seems like Martin O'Neill is slowly but surely implementing a similar counterattacking style to the one he had at Aston Villa. It will certainly be interesting to see what he makes of the January transfer window.
Who should we be looking out for as potential danger-men for Bolton?
MH: Although his form hasn't been great recently, the undeniable standout of the season has been Chris Eagles. He has really come into his own, especially during the early parts of the season when he was quite literally the only outfield player doing anything positive at all. He has great passing skills, and has formed a solid partnership with Kevin Davies, as well as being lethal on set pieces. Eagles is always one to watch.
Anyone in the Sunderland side you worry might ruin your day?
MY: The obvious answer is Steven Fletcher. Despite the fact that he's cooled off since his house-on-fire start to the season, clinical finishers like him have majorly troubled Bolton over the last few years. He's a very major worry.
The other issue that Bolton have is stopping quick players on breakaways, especially if they breach the back line. Recovery in that sort of situation is a rare thing for the Trotters. Because of that, James McClean is another man that really worries me. One of Wanderers' major issues is defense on the wings. This stems from the likes of Chris Eagles, Chung-Yong Lee, Martin Petrov, and whoever else is stationed there not tracking back and it leaves the fullbacks out to dry.
Can we trouble you for a prediction?
MH: Bolton have settled into the Championship nicely in that they're very difficult to predict. We just had a pretty terrible match against Leeds, definitely one of the most boring of the season, so I'm going to say that we'll bounce back and have a good game against your lot. An optimistic prediction of 2-1 to the Wanderers.
Many thanks for the fabulous Lion Of Vienna Suite, and Mark and Matilda in particular, for their time and help. Make sure you check them out for a Bolton perspective of the game this weekend.