Having dragged ourselves out of the bottom three by playing with a renewed confidence and belief Bolton entered February with a growing belief that the disasters of autumn could be put behind them and the goal of Premier League safety could be achieved.
After endless changes at last it appeared that Owen Coyle had decided on a team and formation that got the best out of the players available to him. In attack Mark Davies and David N’Gog were linking up well and at the back Fabrice Muamba and Nigel Reo-Coker were proving a more than able shield to the back four. The newly established 4-5-1 had seen the Wanderers win at Everton, comfortably beat Liverpool and match Arsenal in a manner that was in complete contrast to the thrashings handed out by the top teams in August and September.
Admittedly it did not fair so well at Norwich last week but the game was still at 0-0 when our manager’s naivety that had shown itself against Newcastle reappeared when he took off the vital Muamba and switched to 4-4-2 in a bid to snatch a victory. The end result just as in the Newcastle game was a 2-0 defeat. So there was no doubt that 4-4-2 had proved utterly unproductive again and a poor hour was surely not enough to abandon the previously productive 4-5-1.
Rewind back to the Reebok on Saturday where the Wanderers faced Wigan in the first of a series of “must-win” home games where recent home performances allowed for an element of confidence that we could emerge with three vital points. This confidence evaporated however even before the game kicked-off as for a reason known only to Owen Coyle the 4-5-1 of recent weeks, which had at last seen the team collect points on a regular basis, was jettisoned in favour of the 4-4-2 last seen in the disastrous autumn.
The result of this tactical alteration was depressingly predictable as Wigan passed their way through the Bolton team at will by virtue of simply having an extra man in midfield. The upshot of this being a quite disgraceful first-half performance that saw the team return to a defensive shambles whilst barely threatening to score despite having an extra man in attack. Surely the only person connected with the Wanderers who could watch the shambles unfold with any pleasure was Fabrice Muamba as his vitalness to the Wanderers became increasingly apparent.
It was no surprise when Wigan finally took the lead and the boos that greeted the half-time whistle were reminiscent of the dark days under a certain Mr. Megson as fans frustration at this key game being lost came to the fore. The second-half saw little improvement as Wigan continued to dominate despite a Wanderers equaliser that most definitely came out of the blue.
At the final whistle fans were left in no doubt that relegation is more than likely and with it will come the financial question marks that have surrounded the club for years. Unlike the autumn there is no longer time to rectify these mistakes and tinker with selections there is too much at stake now as we enter the business end of the season. This is what makes the tactical decisions of Owen all the more baffling as there was nothing in past performances to suggest that 4-4-2 would bring success in any game let alone a key game such as Saturday’s.
As fans trudged home after the game there was no doubt that the team had performed abysmally and there were absolutely no positives to take from this crushing defeat. It was therefore with a sense of bewilderment that I listened to our manager say we had been the better team in the second-half and could have gone on to win the game after equalising. This analysis beggared belief and suggested that 4-4-2 will be back and as a result more and more defeats will follow each bringing the Champiosnhip one step closer.
Quite simply the tactical errors of this game could have a profound and long-standing effect on the future of Bolton Wanderers and it can only be hoped that Owen realises this as if he doesn’t any chance of avoiding relegation can be consigned to pure fantasy.