There is an undeniable composure within the Wanderers squad as they enter into the final 10 days of preparation before the League One opener against MK Dons.
Ian Evatt’s side have thus far negotiated a solid pre-season, avoiding defeat, and have negotiated their five games whilst coping with inevitable Covid isolations and minor injury issues with a level of comforting composure.
With one dress rehearsal against Blackburn Rovers to come, the record reads four wins, one draw, 10 goals scored and two conceded.
After two 1-0 wins against Preston North End and Barrow, and with last season’s tense final few months in mind, there has been an increased scrutiny of whether Wanderers possess enough firepower to succeed in League One.
Though slender victories were worn as a badge of pride by Arsenal fans during George Graham’s successful Highbury spell in the late eighties and nineties, it seems unlikely that “One-nil to the Wanderers” will catch on any time soon at the UniBol.
Wanderers were able to control games during their post-January promotion run in League Two and – as Evatt will readily point out when given the opportunity – created enough good goalscoring chances to make life a whole lot more comfortable. It was not until the final day, and that convincing victory at Crawley, that the score-line reflected the manager’s confidence.
Eoin Doyle was signed from Swindon to shoulder the scoring burden, responding with a solid 19 goals, backed-up with eight apiece for Nathan Delfouneso and Antoni Sarcevic. Eighteen different players got themselves on the scoresheet but, Doyle aside, nobody could be described as prolific.
Is it fair, then, to look at Bolton’s squad and ask if there are enough goals to substantiate the confidence that this could be another successful season?
Once again, Doyle’s record stands head and shoulders above the rest. He has played 100 games at this level for three different clubs and scored 46 goals, representing a very reasonable strike rate.
It must be pointed out too that the Irishman’s tally was racked up for fairly unfashionable clubs: A promotion-chasing Chesterfield, a relegation-threatened Oldham Athletic who sunk like a stone after he sustained a shoulder injury in 2018, and a hugely under-performing and Bradford City side that slumped into League Two 12 months later.
At 33, Doyle has a few more miles on the clock. While not exactly in veteran status, there is an argument that he will need more support than he got in League Two, even with a past record of a goal every 180.7 minutes.
No player has spent more seasons in League One than Amadou Bakayoko, the burly striker signed on a free transfer from Coventry City to help ease Doyle’s workload.
The 25-year-old has shown up well in pre-season and offers Wanderers the option of playing more direct, utilising his aerial threat and pace in the channels. His goal record for the Sky Blues and Walsall at this level is an uninspiring 20 in 147 appearances, although it is put in better context by the amount of time he spent on the field, with a goal every 383.8 minutes.
That puts him marginally ahead of Nathan Delfouneso, who has had six seasons at this level and scored his 24 goals at a rate of one every 421.4 minutes.
Six of the squad boast more than 100 appearances in League One, with skipper Antoni Sarcevic (155) leading the list. He has scored 11 times for Fleetwood, Shrewsbury and Plymouth Argyle, giving him an average of a goal every 1,079 minutes.
Evatt’s hope, will be that the attacking brand of football he has introduced in the last 12 months will be enough to bump up the averages.
There is a lot of expectation on the wider attacking positions to add more goals, an in particular Dapo Afolayan, who grabbed his first of pre-season in Saturday’s win at Holker Street.
The former West Ham man proved an inspired loan signing in League Two, his skills and ability to beat a man earning an instant rapport with the Bolton fans. But after several near misses it was not until the final weekend at Crawley that he managed to get himself on the scoresheet.
A review of the goal shows the type of position that Evatt hopes his wide players can occupy more often this season. Full-back Gethin Jones picks up the ball on the edge of the penalty box, turns, and rolls it towards the far post where Afolayan’s run has gone unchecked, leaving him a tap in.
An injury to Xavier Amaechi may have scuppered Evatt’s plan for the opposite wing, where the former Arsenal man had been brought in on loan to rival Lloyd Isgrove.
Though match fitness was an issue when he arrived from Hamburg, Amaechi had started to get into a rhythm when he limped of at Leyland during the Preston game with a metatarsal injury, the severity of which is yet to be completely clarified by the club.
Should he face an extended spell out of action, Evatt has already hinted that he may accelerate his transfer plans to bring in another player quicker than he had originally anticipated.
Wanderers were almost certainly looking at the loan market to fill in the remaining gaps in the squad, which meant waiting for Premier League and Championship clubs to sort out their own lot. Evatt had expected to be doing his last couple of bits of business in the final couple of weeks of the transfer window but Amaechi’s absence could force him and technical performance director Chris Markham to push for an option which is available sooner.
At this stage of the game it seems highly unlikely that Bolton will bring in someone with a track record of goals at League One level, but instead gamble on potential or a player who can complement those already in the attacking line-up.
Bakayoko’s arrival has undoubtedly added a different facet to the team up front, yet the lack of a direct replacement for the wily, predatory Doyle, could present some issues in the future.
After getting so much of their transfer work done early in the window, it appears that Wanderers’ next move could be the crucial one.
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