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So what's next for Bolton Wanderers' loan signings?

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
It will soon be decision time for Keith Hill and Wanderers’ owners as they look to shape a team for the second half of the League One season.

Whether that will be a scrap for survival, or a more pragmatic long-term build towards success in League Two may well depend on how results go in the next few weeks, or whether the EFL are successful in appealing a five-point suspended penalty to ensure further damage is inflicted immediately.

Wanderers have already overturned the 12-point deficit sustained for going into administration and overcome several hurdles in doing so. They continue to be bound by a transfer embargo which restricts them to 23 registered professional contracts and prevents them from paying fees for either loan or permanent transfers.

The restricting parameters of the embargo mean that Hill and David Flitcroft will have some juggling to do in January. Versatility suddenly becomes a desirable quality in a player and those professionals who have struggled thus far to fit in with the various tactics and formations employed in the manager’s first few months may be more expendable than they would have been under normal circumstances.

Of particular interest is the loan market. Another term of the embargo is that any loan deal is restricted to six months in length, meaning that Thibaud Verlinden, Liam Bridcutt, Jake Wright and Josh Earl will cease to be Bolton players early next month if their deal is not renewed.

EFL rules state that a team can only play five loan players at any one point – leaving one obvious spot open – but many fans are now speculating as to whether Hill will sacrifice one of the loan players to allow himself to strengthen a different position.

From goalkeeper to centre forward, Wanderers have few positions in the team that are well stocked but with so little wiggle room in a squad which is seemingly already up to the 23-man limit, some players will surely have to leave in order to facilitate fresh signings.

Here we take a look at the four loanees, how they have fared in the first half of the season, and whether they are likely to be back again at Bolton beyond January.

THIBAUD VERLINDEN – Potentially the only one of the quartet whose future could be taken out of Wanderers’ hands. The Belgian looks most likely to head back to Stoke City, if only to allow manager Michael O’Neill a closer look at a player many Potters fans were sorry to see leave in August.

Verlinden has proved a popular signing with the Bolton fans, starved of such wing trickery since the early nineties but like so many players of his ilk, there are tactical concessions which must be made to include him from the start on a regular basis.

Over the last few weeks the 20-year-old has been used as an impact sub – a decision which has not necessarily met with agreement on the terraces. Verlinden has done his bit, however, and after entering games against Accrington, AFC Wimbledon and Peterborough from the bench he has proved an effective weapon.

The big question is can he do it over 90 minutes? And can Keith Hill afford to take that gamble when results take paramount importance in the club’s survival battle?

Only one of Wanderers’ three league wins this season have come with Verlinden playing from the start but beyond striker Daryl Murphy, the winger’s attacking returns are more impressive than anyone else in the squad.

Verdict: May be down to how he impresses Stoke but it would be great to see a genuine matchwinner back in Bolton colours into the New Year. Hill wants to improve his overall game and make Verlinden into a more complete player – and if he is successful, Verlinden would be a huge asset in the second half of the campaign.

LIAM BRIDCUTT – Turned heads when he opted to drop into League One from Championship Nottingham Forest, where he had rather inexplicably dropped off the first team radar.

The midfielder made a good early impression, even though results took some time to stabilise as a hotch-potch of a squad attempted to gel in double-quick time.

Things had started to improve as Wanderers welcomed Blackpool to the UniBol in October but Bridcutt managed to fracture his sternum and dislocate his shoulder in a heavy challenge with Armand Gnanduillet. His absence was incredibly just five games, the 30-year-old returning to feature in the 1-0 win against MK Dons, before another shoulder injury struck on the training ground shortly after the 7-1 hammering at Accrington.

Once again Bridcutt has wasted little time in the treatment room and he returned to feature against Peterborough United at the weekend as a centre-half. That versatility has been, and will be, a useful tool as Hill continues to juggle a slender squad.

On the tactical front, Bridcutt seems to be a key player for Hill, keeping the tempo ticking over in midfield, receiving the ball more often than any other and conveying the manager’s message on the pitch.

Statistically, he plays more passes per game (55.1) than anyone else in the Bolton squad, although his success rate is down compared to the likes of Jason Lowe, Ali Crawford or Ronan Darcy.

It is defensively where Bridcutt seems to shine, making nearly twice the number of successful tackles per game than his nearest rival, Adam Chicksen.

Verdict: Though Forest look unlikely to call Bridcutt back, Wanderers may worry that other clubs may well have seen his glimpses of class in League One and look to pounce. If a deal can be sorted in January then keeping him fit will be important.

JAKE WRIGHT – When Hill brought in a bit of Sheffield steel to strengthen his defence in August, hopes were high, especially when paired alongside the similarly experienced Jack Hobbs.

Just three games into his Bolton stay, however, Wright limped out of a 1-1 draw against Sunderland (Bolton were leading 1-0 at the time) and by the time he returned, Hobbs had succumbed to a long-standing back problem, which left the 33-year-old acting as a mentor to the inexperienced Yoan Zouma.

Four consecutive league starts after that yielded a reasonable seven points but Wright found himself out of the team in the Trophy and benched again for last weekend’s game at Posh.

Whether that is a sign of more wear and tear, who knows, but Wanderers need to establish a dependable centre to their defence if they are to make their way out of trouble.

Wright has been consistent, making more defensive blocks than any other first team regular, but could certainly use a regular partner in the back three or four.

Verdict: Wright has been a Steady Eddie thus far, when available, but Hill will know the players he takes forward from January will have to be robust enough to see the season out.

Sheffield United are unlikely to force him back to Bramall Lane and a lack of defensive options means an extended stay at Bolton looks likely.

JOSH EARL – The first loanee through the door and also the first casualty of many in the season proper for Wanderers as his opening-day debut lasted just 14 minutes against Wycombe.

Preston think highly of Earl, who was signed primarily as a left-back but looks destined to play at centre-half in the future, thanks to his powerful frame and aerial ability.

After surgery on his ankle ligaments the 21-year-old returned to the team at Bristol Rovers after a 13-game absence but picked up a smaller injury, ruling him another for another few games.

He has since featured four times, most recently as part of a new-look back three alongside Zouma and Bridcutt, and finally now looks to be finding his feet in Bolton colours.

Earl has made more interceptions per game (2.8 ) than anyone else in the squad and also wins a high percentage in the air, most notably in his recent outing against Peterborough.

Verdict: The fact he is able to cover a few defensive positions makes him quite valuable at the moment, and with Preston keeping close tabs on his progress it is a fairly safe bet that he will be allowed to continue at Bolton, should they wish to extend the deal.


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