It is practically impossible to know where you stand with Ian Evatt and his players right now.
This was a team which dug in with such impressive resolve at Cheltenham, won fives games on the spin in November, yet has since been humbled by Port Vale and Walsall and been made to look ordinary by a Tranmere side who – with no disrespect intended – did not even need to play well on the day to claim three points.
In just one week, Wanderers lurched from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again, and it is fair to say that patience is wearing thin with this frightening inconsistency.
The January transfer window increasingly looks like Bolton’s only hope of sustaining enough traction to force themselves into the promotion picture.
Summer recruitment now looks patchier than current form and while the club’s owners have placed their full weight behind Evatt, tossing aside the Tobias Phoenix plan like discarded wrapping paper on Christmas morning, there is huge pressure on the manager to come up with the right signings in a notoriously difficult time to do business.
This, after all, was a game in which Bolton had trailed since the 28th minute, when Peter Clarke headed Tranmere in front. But for the introduction of Ali Crawford just after the hour, and swapping wingbacks, there was little done to change the outcome of events.
Tranmere scored a second through Kieron Morris, then a third from James Vaughan’s penalty. And still nothing from the bench.
That potentially says a lot about Evatt’s view on his current options. Other than Crawford – whose recent displays have hardly been outstanding – youngster Ronan Darcy was the only attacking player he could have introduced.
Many watching on from home would argue that some alteration – any alteration – would have been better than seeing a game like this peter out into an embarrassing defeat against a historical rival led by a former Bolton boss in Keith Hill.
The first goal has been all-important for the Whites this season.
Evatt’s side have yet to win a game in which they have conceded first and have taken just three points from a possible 30 on the 10 occasions that has happened.
When they get ahead, however, it is a different story. Bolton have only failed to win on one occasion where they took the lead, and that was a week earlier at Walsall.
That boom or bust approach has been seen before at this club and does not reflect well on the character and mentality within the squad, nor Evatt’s own ability to deviate from his plan and find a different way to win.
Had you tuned in for the first 15 minutes of the first half, or perhaps the first 10 minutes after half time, you would have been impressed by Bolton’s swagger in possession and wondered how they could possibly fail to take anything from the game.
Chances came and went for Eoin Doyle, Nathan Delfouneso and even Harry Brockbank, playing as a left-sided wing-back. Both sides hit the woodwork but Wanderers’ inability to capitalise on their patches of superiority allowed the visitors to gain their own foothold and once Clarke had opened the scoring, their grip on the result was never seriously tested.
The game unfurled in a familiar manner for Bolton when playing at the UniBol. Moving the ball side to side, picking their moments, while the opposition sit deep and try to hit on the break.
Wanderers’ problem was that at no stage on the day did they look likely to take their chances. Doyle was unusually wasteful, Delfouneso and Isgrove virtually redundant. Added to that the attacking imbalance which is a by-product of playing Brockbank on the left, and you can see why Evatt needed more options on his bench.
Defensively, marking for Clarke’s goal was slack. Worse still was the retreat for Morris’s second, a low strike from 20 yards which left Matt Gilks standing and the Bolton boss fuming at the lack of players willing to engage the goal-scorer in a challenge.
It was here the lack of a true defensive midfielder really stood out. Nobody spotted the danger as Morris ran unchecked from just inside the Bolton half – and one wonders if the goal would have been scored had there been a different combination in central midfield?
George Thomason again looked bright on the ball and seems able to spot and play passes nobody else can. Without the injured Andy Tutte in the side, though, Bolton look vulnerable. There is no getting around the fact that neither he and Sarcevic are much happier running towards their own goal.
Both Brandon Comley and Tom White sat on the bench along with a specialist left wing-back in Jamie Mascoll. What does it say about their future when they cannot get into this team?
Evatt had felt gaps would open up late in the game but by the time Tranmere were 2-0 up it hardly mattered. Bolton half-heartedly went in search of a consolation, but Hill was able to put his team into cruise control once Vaughan had blasted his 12th goal of the season from the spot, a penalty given for a laughable handball against Alex Baptiste.
January threatens to be a busy month at Wanderers. And on the face of their opening 18 games, it needs to be.
It appears Evatt needs to cut his losses on certain players and create some space for new signings who might yet have an impact. To rid Wanderers of their split personality, some very difficult decisions may have to be made.
Evatt said as much in his post-match interview – another summary of slack defending which you can tell cuts deep.
In the same room some 10 minutes later sat Hill, or at least a toned-down version of the man who had passionately talked about his ‘impossible dream’ in the same chair 14 months earlier.
Deliberately and humbly, he played down the margin and manner of victory even though there must have been some temptation to do the exact opposite.
A week after the very structure which levered him out of the job was dismantled by Bolton, it seemed rather ironic he sat as the winning manager, wearing a Tranmere coat, and reflecting on a well-earned three points.
For his successor, Evatt, that impossible dream of promotion may hinge on the unimpeded transfer window Hill never got.
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