Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bolton Wanderers 1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 0

Bolton were triumphant today in a huge battle at the bottom of the table. The biggest news is probably that Bolton finally had some good luck. After watching balls go off the post, penalties not given, ridiculous own goals and the like always seem to be against Bolton, today we finally had some benefits in this regard. Wolves had three shots hit the post, and two of them could have gone in if they had been an inch or two closer.

Another big piece of news was Owen Coyle's team sheet. It was a very attacking team, with two strikers (Davies and Elmander) as well as 3 attacking midfielders (Wilshere, Lee, and Holden). All 3 of the young midfielders played exceedingly well. Elmander, as usual, played well overall but was let down by his poor finishing. Kevin Davies was poor, as he has been for most of the season. His basic job is to hold the ball up and create opportunities for his quicker, more talented teammates, yet he has not been doing that recently. Every time he gets the ball it just stops, and any attack Bolton had been executing based on quick movement into open space just dies. Then, with all options vanished, Davies plays an ill-conceived ball that gives possession back to the opposition.

Stay bright today though, Wanderers have got 3 points, moved out of the relegation zone, finally scored a goal, and hopefully quelled some of the negativity that has been creeping up in the support.

Friday, February 19, 2010


I am off to New Orleans for the next week to recharge my batteries, meaning to eat delicious fatty foods and listen to live jazz music into the wee hours of the morning. I will resume writing in about 7 days.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

AC Milan

We all know they are not what they used to be. It is also strange that they make so many silly mistakes, since "experience" is their biggest asset. Milan played well early on, and well at the end, but this is the problem. They have too many players who can only be effective in 15 or 20 minute spurts.

The bigger question has to be; Is Ronaldinho back? He drifted in and out of the match, and didn't contribute anything defensively, but that was true even when he was at his best. When he was on the ball, and able to get players around him, he certainly looked good. He was not dominant like in his Barcelona days, but those heights on not easily reached.

Dunga will certainly be watching this closely from Brazil, as will I. If Ronaldinho plays this well in the second leg at Old Trafford, close to what he did to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge several years ago, this question will become a lot more interesting.

Manchester United

Alex Ferguson put out a very defensive team, with little creativity on display beyond Wayne Rooney. Nani has had a few nice matches, but to depend on him for midfield creativity in the Champions League against AC Milan seems a bit much. And it was, as Nani was largely ineffective and Antonio Valencia came on for him in the 63rd minute.

All in all, I think Ferguson was playing for a draw. And I don't blame him. Because the fact is this team is just not very good. They win a lot of matches through a combination of own goals, dodgy refereeing, Rooney's brilliance, fluke goals, guile, and reputation, but they are just not very good. Both of Rooney's headers were down to shambolic defending by Milan. None of their defenders had any desire to try and win the balls in the air. United has been living off this sort of thing all season. But I have to think that eventually they will come up against a good team that is not afraid to challenge them. I'll be shocked if Manchester United manage to win a single trophy this season.

Real Madrid

When I saw Sergio Ramos at centre-back I suspected Madrid would have some problems, and they did. In fact, they made a defensive substitution and moved Ramos to right back at halftime. Madrid's players looked as though they believe they are entitled to advancement into the next round. An interesting attitude considering it has been six years since they have advanced beyond the round of 16. Lyon's players showed no fear and made it clear early on that Los Galacticos would have to work if they wanted anything out of this match.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Does anyone outside of England care about the FA Cup?

Or more pressing, does anyone in England care about the FA Cup? There is plenty of handwringing about another round of low attendances and general indifference by the football watching public.

But I suspect these are the same people who are usually whinging about ticket prices, or matches not starting at 3 PM on Saturdays, or players not being loyal to their clubs, or too much money in the game, or foreign owners buying English clubs, or players not speaking English, or whatever else they notice on any given day is not the same as it was in 1953.

It is a shockingly small segment of the football watching population, and the small attendances at FA Cup matches, large TV ratings, and worldwide interest in Premier League clubs generally proves this. Yet this group makes for a good story. Some white haired pensioner moaning, "Me dad used to give me 15 shilling on a Saturday, and that would be plenty for me to go to the match, get a program, and a pork pie at halftime, not to mention the bus there and home again." All while some reporter nods knowingly.

Of course the reporter is quite happy to receive the extra stipend he gets for his Sky Sports appearances, as well as his minute-by-minute reports on a website. And he certainly doesn't complain when he gets to watch Burnley-Wigan on a rainy Tuesday in February from the comfort of his flat in the west end of London, saving himself a 6 hour roundtrip and an evening in the cold and damp.

My point is, it's 2010, a fact that most of us have accepted, including the reporters who choose it as an easy story subject so they don't have to any real work this weekend.

A Little More on Fabrice Muamba

I think a few things have contributed to the marked improvement in Muamba's play recently.

1. Natural maturity. Lest we forget, the boy is still only 21, and needs to continue to mature. Part of that is knowing what your strengths are. Muamba no longer attempts 40 yard cross-field balls because he has realized that he doesn't have that ability.

2. Tactics. Since Owen Coyle has come in he seems to have instructed Muamba to play shorter passes and not look for the long ball. His philosophy is to keep possession, rather than lumping it up the pitch as quickly as possible.

3. Positioning. It seems that Coyle has instructed other players, especially in the midfield, to get closer to Muamba when he wins the ball, so he can play shorter and more accurate passes. Tamir Cohen has struggled with this a bit, but Ricardo Gardner did it brilliantly today.

It really comes down to Coyle putting players, particularly Muamba, in a position where they can succeed, which is all a good manager does.

Wanderers Earn Replay

Bolton dominated the first half, but squandered several chances and were only up 1-0 at the half. Spurs really came into the match in the second half, although Bolton still created some chances. Sam Ricketts, again playing centre-half, gave away a stupid penalty, raising his arms over his head and blocking a pass in the box. Luckily, Huddlestone took the penalty quite poorly for Spurs and Jussi Jaaskelainen was able to save it. Overall, a draw was probably a fair result, and they will do it all over again at White Heart Lane.

As for individual players, a few stood out. Zat Knight played very well before going with some sort of injury, which has to be a huge concern for Owen Coyle.

Johann Elmander was outstanding in every aspect of the game except finishing, which is still a problem. He held the ball up well, ran at the defence when he could, and created chances for himself and others. In fact, his quick one-two with Lee Chung-Yong and excellent cutback set up Kevin Davies for Bolton's goal. This just showed that when he is able to play off another striker in a true 4-4-2 setup, he is a very dangerous player.

Fabrice Muamba was great in midfield, winning ball after ball and harassing Tottenham's creative players into mistake after mistake. His finishing was also poor, but he is still young, and if he can improve himself technically over the next year or two, he will really turn into a top class player. We have already seen him improve his passing this season through maturity. He doesn't panic as much, plays the simple pass, and gives the ball away far less than he did a year ago.

Paul Robinson was poor again. Nothing more to add really.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bolton Wanderers v Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs are looking really short on defenders, and don't have a great record at the Reebok, so there could be an upset brewing here. Given that Harry Redknapp may be planning an escape to a tax shelter in the Caribbean Sea, those chances are increasing every minute.

Owen Coyle claims he will put out his strongest team, but I am hoping to see a few squad players get an opportunity to show what they can do.

Stuart Holden may finally be fit enough to make his Wanderers debut, although I doubt he will feature from the start. As far as the rest of the attackers go, I would be pleased if Riga and Vaz Te were given a chance to do some damage. Lee Chung-Yong and Kevin Davies are both starting to look a little tired, I would like to see them rested as well.

I am not really optimistic though, chances are Coyle will make few changes. Here is my prediction of his starting XI on Sunday;

Jussi Jaaskelainen GK: I would like to see Al-Habsi get a start, and he well might.

Gretar Steinsson RB, Jlloyd Samuel LB: Please no Paul Robinson, please!!!

Zat Knight CB, Andy O'Brien CB: Not a lot of other options here, and Knight has been brilliant since Coyle arrived.

Fabrice Muamba CM, Chris Basham CM: This is a soft prediction, as it may well be Tamir Cohen with Basham, but I think Coyle might try a Liverpool style 4-2-3-1, and I would like to see Basham in the holding role, as his passing would complement Muamba's ball-winning.

Matt Taylor, LM, Ricardo Gardner RM, Mark Davies CM: As I mentioned earlier, I would like to see a bit more adventure in attack, but I don't think Coyle will take too many chances.

Johann Elmander F: I think Kevin Davies needs a rest, physically and mentally. Also, it will be really interesting to see how Coyle's system works without the hulking centre-forward present to give the ball away.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Landon & Ashley

Oh, the irony. When Landon Donavon signed on for a three month loan deal at Everton they were myriad reactions. Some were pessimistic (He's too soft for the Premier League, he's a failure in Europe), some were optimistic (He'll dominate, the US will finally be taken seriously), and some were realistic (Please don't let him get injured, the US is doomed without him).

Well, not only was Landon part of an Everton team that upset Chelsea earlier this week, but his challenge has put Ashley Cole's participation in the 2010 World Cup in doubt. Of course England do have a ready-made replacement in...Wayne Bridge. Oh, this is going to be fun!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jack Wilshere

The youngster is on loan at Bolton for the rest of the season, and he made his debut against Manchester City on Tuesday night, starting on the left wing in place of Matty Taylor, whose poor form has had supporters begging that he be dropped for at least two months.

Wilshere is left-footed, so the left side would seem to be a natural fit for him, but I am not so sure that he wouldn't be more effective on the right. He didn't put in many crosses, and he looked most dangerous when he ran at defenders and then cut inside towards goal. It seems to me that if he were to do this from the right wing he would be in better position to shoot with his good left foot.

Position aside, he started the game off very well, getting the ball in space on the left and making several pacey runs at the defense. He also played some nice one two's with Johann Elmander. Pablo Zabaleta, an Argentine international that started at right-back for Manchester City, did not seem able to cope with Wilshere's pace and creativity early on.

Unfortunately, his impressive start didn't last. As is normal with such a young player (Wilshere just turned 18 last month), he drifted in and out of the game, combining glimpses of his talent with silly mistakes (he committed at least two fouls when his opponent was at least 60 yards from goal and not posing any real danger) and positional errors.

All in all, it was a good debut. He lasted about 75 minutes, and there can be no doubting his talent. He has a lot to learn obviously, but he seemed to pick things up very quickly, as his defensive positioning and sense of where his teammates would be did improve throughout the match.

It is also worth noting that for the remainder of this season Wanderers will be relying on an almost absurdly young midfield. 31 year old Ricardo Gardner and Matt Taylor (28) appear to have been pushed to the margins of the first team. That leaves Wilshere, who is just 18, Vladimir Weiss (20), Lee Chung-Yong Chris Basham, and Fabrice Muamba who are all 21, Mark Davies, who will be 22 next week, and Stuart Holden, an inexperienced 24 year old. Tamir Cohen is the veteran of the group at 25.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Manchester City vs. Bolton Wanderers

This was a pretty good match to watch. Both teams were trying to attack, with Manchester City having more success in the first half and Bolton coming into the game after the break.

I wold like to mention Paul Robinson, who started at left back for Bolton. Robinson has moved back into the starting XI due to the absences of Gary Cahill and Andy O'Brien, which has forced Sam Ricketts into the center of defense. Robinson is a competent left-back, but nothing more than that. His greatest liability is that he is slow. And this lack of pace is why he had to make a tackle from behind in his own penalty box. The referee had an easy decision, and Tevez luckily put the ball in the back of the net only after it ricocheted off Bolton's keeper.

I personally just can't understand why Robinson was on the pitch instead of JLoyd Samuel. Since Samuel arrived at Bolton two and a half years ago he has been in and out of the first team. He has performed quite well when he has played, yet each of the 3 managers he has had have tried desperately to find someone to replace him. Usually I like to give the managers the benefit of the doubt in this type of situation, after all, they are the experts. Maybe he doesn't practice well. Maybe he is a poor communicator on the pitch. Maybe he doesn't have good chemistry with the other members of the back line.

But at the moment all of this is bullshit. Bolton Wanderers are locked in a relegation battle. There is no honor in going down with dignity, and there is no reward for character or sportsmanship. The best player at each position needs to be on the pitch.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Gary Cahill For England!

In 2014 unfortunately. It looks as if the outstanding Bolton central defender, still only 24, will be out for "several months" according to Owen Coyle. It seems he has a blood clot in his arm. This is a serious condition, not football related, and we can only hope he makes full recovery.

This is a huge blow for the Wanderers, as Cahill is easily their best defender and possibly their best overall player. He has been called into the England squad by Fabio Cappello on the basis of his defensive prowess, but he has also scored 7 goals this season, which leads the club.

So yes, the relegation battle has just got more difficult for the Lancashire club, but we should still have enough to stay up.

Some combination of Zat Knight, Andy O'Brien, Danny Shittu, Sam Ricketts, and Chris Basham will cover the center of defense for the next few months, and hopefully Cahill will be back in August to help celebrate Bolton's 10th consecutive season in the Premier League.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Super Sunday every week

I've got my hot cuppa, I've got my beans on toast, and I am ready to watch Chelsea play Arsenal in what the English media is billing as a title decider. The fact that after today each club will have 14 more league matches to play doesn't fit into the narrative, so is being dutifully ignored.

I believe this is a symptom of a larger change in the Premier League, which many have yet to notice or appreciate. This change is that the talent gap has closed, not between the top and the bottom, where it is still a gulf, but between the top and the middle. Gone are the days when Arsenal can complete a season without losing a match, or Chelsea can lose only 1 match on their way to 92 points.

The big teams are dropping points this season, and I believe their are 2 reasons for this.

First, as I mentioned above, clubs such as Manchester City, Aston Villa, Tottenham, and even Everton have improved. Maybe not to the point where they are going to challenge for the title, not this year anyway, but to the point where they can take points off the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea far more frequently than they could 3 or 4 years ago.

Far more interesting is the second reason for this trend. This centers around the bottom of the table club's reaction to the strengthening of many formerly mid-table teams. In past years, a relegation threatened club expected little to no points from 8 matches against the so-called Big Four. The manager would put 10 men behind the ball in the away match and hope not to get embarrassed. And the home match wasn't very different, with the best case scenario often being a single point. This left another 30 matches from which to achieve the 40 or so points needed to stay up.

With the improvement of the other clubs I mentioned, managers of clubs such as Hull, Wigan, Bolton, Sunderland, etc., had a decision to make. They had to decide if they were able to sacrifice even more games, put even more importance on the matches against fellow strugglers. Some, such as McCarthy, Megson, Hart, chose this route. But many others went in the other direction. They decided to abandon the tactic of sacrificing matches, to actually try and win every game their club played. And it has completely changed the look of the league.

A lot more goals are being scored, a lot more end-to-end football is being played, and a lot more points are being dropped by the members of the big four. In fact, I would wager that Manchester United has seen more clubs play two strikers against them so far this season than in the previous 2 seasons combined. Now this tactic doesn't always work, we have seen some struggling clubs try to attack the big sides and get embarrassed 4-1, 5-0, 6-2, even 9-1 on 1 occasion.

Personally, I like this change. This newfound ambition can only be good for a league that had become all too predictable the last few years.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

2 Points Lost... a bad refereeing decision. Bolton were in control for the whole match and should have gone ahead on a couple different occasions. Squandered chances by several players, most notably Lee Chung-Yong and Johann Elmander were probably most to blame for the failure to get 3 points, coupled with a few excellent saves by Mark Schwarzer, but Bolton's most notable opportunity ended with Kevin Davies putting the ball in the back of the net.

The referee disallowed the goal for a push on Fulham's defender. But I can't find any push, by Davies or any other Bolton player in the Fulham 18 yard box. Neither could the match commentators, or the writers providing minute by minute coverage for The Guardian, Skysports, or the BBC, three entities not known for giving Bolton Wanderers the benefit of the doubt.

This result is a bit of a blow for Bolton, whose next two league matches are away to Manchester City and Wigan, with an FA Cup home tie against Spurs in between. Owen Coyle will know his side need to take 4 points from these next two matches, as Wigan is their game in hand against a fellow struggler.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bolton Wanderers v Fulham

This is not one of the marquee match-ups in the Barclay's Premier League this weekend, but it is intriguing just the same. For me, the games between mid-table teams are the most exciting in many cases, and here are a few reasons why;

a.) Confidence. Both sides will go into this match feeling like they can take 3 points. Both managers will have pointed to this game an opportunity to move up the table. This means we will see both sides playing with several attacking players and trying to get the ball into the box.

b.) Supporters. These sides don't draw 50,000 fans every week. Their away support is usually quite pathetic. You don't see a lot of Wanderers shirts outside of Lancashire, and you don't even see a lot of Fulham replica shirts in London. However, the small fan bases these clubs do possess, are fiercely loyal and devoted. And they possess one other quality which is rare among sports fans; realism. Both of these clubs were promoted in 2001. Both have struggled with the threat of relegation, while also qualifying for the Europa League. The great thing about the fans of these clubs is that they know what the ceiling is for them. They can finish anywhere between 7th and 17th and the fans will be glad they stayed up and excited about pushing up the table in the next season.

c.) Goals. Neither side is especially good defensively, and both have shown a flare for scoring goals.

This all comes down to one thing. We are going to see an exciting game of football at the Reebok. It might not be a high level of football, and it is unlikely that a lot of neutrals will tune in, but fans of Fulham and Bolton will be entertained.

Unfortunately, Owen Coyle and Roy Hodgson will be missing some key players. For Bolton, striker Ivan Klasnic is out with an injury. The big Croatian will probably be unavailable for a couple more weeks. This most likely means Johann Elmander will get a chance to show new manager Coyle what he is capable of. For Fulham, a large aspect of their attack is int he trainer's room. Andy Johnson just had knee surgery and is done for the season, while Clint Dempsey has ligament damage in his knee and probably won't be back until April.

I still think there will be a couple goals in the match, and while I myself will not venture a prediction, as a longtime Wanderers fan, I hope the home team takes 3 points.