For all the twists and turns this year has had to offer at the UniBol, very little of the drama has actually happened on the pitch.
That all changed in August with a tidal wave of signings under new owners, Football Ventures, and new boss Keith Hill, the most intriguing of which was Stoke City’s highly rated, Thibaud Verlinden.
Instantly endearing himself to supporters by scoring four minutes into his debut and ending a club record 11-game wait for a goal, the 20-year-old quickly became a talking point on the terraces.
Some celebrated the fact the former Standard Liege youth teamer Verlinden offered something Wanderers fans had longed for in the austere and disciplined days of Phil Parkinson, Neil Lennon or Dougie Freedman – genuine width, and the willingness to beat a man.
Classic wingers are somewhat of a rarity in British football, and in the last decade Bulgarian Martin Petrov is perhaps the only example one could muster. The Bulgarian, signed from Manchester City by Owen Coyle late in the Premier League era, was hugely capable and hugely rewarded, but failed to identify with the terraces for most of his time with the club.
Not since David Lee and Michael Johansen danced down the touchlines in the nineties have such players really thrived at Bolton, chiefly down to a shift in modern tactical trends and the rise of the wing-back.
Verlinden’s arrival, though, felt fresh. A new way of thinking under new management – and a statement that Bolton were not going to accept their relegation fate willingly.
After his debut in August, he went on to start seven straight games for Wanderers up to the home league defeat against Rochdale on October 13.
But it was at this point that the vista began to change. Verlinden started just two of the following nine games and it was pondered among some sections of the support that he was becoming a luxury that Hill could ill-afford to entertain.
Verlinden was excluded at Stoke’s behest against Plymouth in the FA Cup, which indicated that new Potters boss Michael O’Neill wishes to take a closer look at him in January before deciding whether to send him out on loan again.
Hill began to voice concerns about how “robust” his slender squad would be in the winter months and his reluctance to play Verlinden the full distance suggests he still needs to be convinced that the winger can command a regular starting place.
Verlinden’s two starts over the last two months have lasted just 55 and 60 minutes. He has frequently been used from the bench, playing a full 45 minutes at Accrington in the Leasing.com Trophy and AFC Wimbledon in League Two, plus a good 30 minutes at Peterborough on the weekend. Each time, his impact has helped tipped the game in Bolton’s favour and added more weight to the argument of those who wish him to start each week.
The numbers make interesting reading. Whereas Verlinden has produced more crosses (58) in total than anyone else in a Bolton shirt, both Ali Crawford and Adam Chicksen have a better ratio of accurate crosses per game. And only Daryl Murphy (32) has taken more shots at goal than his total of 22.
According to stats website Whoscored.com, Verlinden has also been dispossessed 15 times in League One football this season. Only Josh Emmanuel (16), who has played an extra five hours’ football this season, has done so on more occasions.
It should come as absolutely no surprise that Verlinden is way down the list in defensive statistics – tackles, interceptions, blocks etc, yet improving those numbers may be the only way he can convince Hill he is more than an impact substitute.
The 7-1 hammering at Accrington highlighted some of the player’s weaker areas that need to be improved but his impressive response over the last few games off the bench does at least hint at a readiness to address them.
“We want to help make him into the Premier League player we think he could be in the future,” said Hill after the AFC Wimbledon draw. And his words will no doubt be music to Stoke ears.
They say the greater the risk, the greater the reward, and in Verlinden’s case balancing that crowd pleasing close control and trickery against the weaker defensive elements of his game could be a gamble worth taking for Hill in Wanderers’ current league position.