For everyone outside of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal, success in the Premiership can be fickle. We saw it last year with Tottenham, who wound up an extremely disappointing 11th after two straight 5th-place finishes. We saw it last year with Reading, a club that was relegated a season after finishing comfortably in 8th place.
Bolton is a perfect example of this. In 2004-2005, Sam Allardyce led the suburban Manchester side to 6th and a UEFA Cup berth the next year. The Trotters ended the ’05’06 campaign in 8th, narrowly missing out on Europe, but fought their way back into the UEFA Cup last season through a 7th-place finish in 2006-2007. They reached the Round of 16 in Europe’s second-tier club competition, but only narrowly avoided relegtion from the Premiership as the sale of star striker Nicolas Anelka in January and the resignation of Allardyce at the end of the ’06-’07 season crippled the team. The three consistent, top-half finishes were great for Bolton fans, but would’ve been little consolation if their team had finished with just two points fewer than what they’d earned.
Bolton has the dubious distinction of being the club who has spent the most seasons in the Premiership/First Division without ever winning the title (69). That isn’t going to change this year either, and Gary Megson has spent more than $30 million, a relatively large amount of money for a small club like Bolton, on only three players, all of whom will likely be starters. With that said, Johan Elmander was the biggest splash in terms of name-recognition, and he’s only slightly above average at best.
Fabrice Muamba brings some youth and exuberance to an aging Bolton midfield, which, to be fair, was made younger this summer with the release of Stelios Giannakopolus and Ivan Campo, both of whom are well past their prime playing days. Muamba is a quality young defensive midfielder and will feature immediately, as will Elmander, who was signed from Toulouse for a reported $20 million in a swap deal that saw Daniel Braaten go the other way. Elmander has a decent goalscoring record for Sweden and is coming off a good season in France, but based on what he’s shown in the past, Bolton clearly overpaid for him. Riga Mustapha just signed from Levante, where he scored roughly a goal every five games, and his pace will be a welcome addition to Bolton’s wings.
As mentioned earlier, the subtractions of Giannakopolus and Campo are no big losses to Bolton on the field, although both provided experience and leadership. El-Hadji Diouf, arguably Bolton’s most dangerous player last year after Nicholas Anelka, was sold to Sunderland. He has a reputation for being a bit of a cancer in the dressing room at times, but there’s no denying his natural ability and Bolton will miss what he does out there.
Muamba further reinforces the midfield, by far the strongest area of Bolton’s squad. He’ll sit in a holding role and allow Kevin Nolan to push further up the field as he likes to do. Matty Taylor mans the left wing after spending several years as an attacking left back at Portsmouth, and Mustapha will slide into Diouf’s role on the right. Gavin McCann will occupy the space ahead of Muamba and behind Nolan, where his noted lack of foot-speed can be protected from exploitation, when Bolton plays a 4-5-1, which they’ll do fairly often. The versatile Ricardo Gardner will get his share of playing time, likely swapping in and out with Taylor depending on the form of both players, and also at left back, where he’s ahead of Jlloyd Samuel. Young Swiss international Blerim Džemaili should return from a severe knee injury and compete with Joey O’Brien for a backup role behind McCann.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Jussi Jääskeläinen
RB: Grétar Steinsson
CB: Andy O’Brien
CB: Gary Cahill
LB: Ricardo Gardner
AMF: Nolan (captain)
ST: Kevin Davies
Bolton desperately needs to improve their play away from the Reebok Stadium; they had the worst road record of any of the 17 teams not relegated last year with a 2-5-12 mark and -23 goal differential. They weren’t really competitive on their travels, and that may not change to start the new season as their first five road games are at difficult venues — St. James’ Park (Newcastle), Craven Cottage (Fulham), Old Trafford (Manchester United), Upton Park (West Ham), and White Hart Lane (Tottenham). You never know what you’re going to get on any given day from Newcastle, West Ham, and Fulham, but Bolton still will need to bring their best game to pick up valuable points.
December is their toughest month, with games against Chelsea, @ Aston Villa, Portsmouth, and @ Liverpool all in a 20-day span. It doesn’t get much easier in January as Bolton will visit Blackburn and Arsenal and play host to Manchester United and Tottenham before traveling to Everton in the first weekend of February. I could honestly see Bolton failing to win even one of those nine games, so it’s critical they take advantage of a relatively easy slate in March (@ Stoke, Fulham, @ West Brom) and finish the year strong in May when Sunderland and Hull come to town. Also in May, Bolton will go to Wigan and Manchester City, both manageable games.
Bottom Line: You’re going to see a Jekyll-and-Hyde Bolton team based on this schedule, which is excrutiatingly difficult for stretches and very forgiving in others. As long as they get the job done when they’re supposed to, I think Bolton will be OK, but they can’t afford to drop many points because West Brom will be nipping at their heels all year long. The key for Megson will be finding someone to score goals. Davies and Nolan combined for only 9 in the league last season, and that total needs to improve by 4 or 5.
Tomorrow brings 16th and 15th places to the forefront. Last year, that was the thick of the relegation fight. This year, I’m not so sure if that’ll be the case..