Ian Evatt really doesn’t want to be sat at the front of the room describing how well his team had played, when the score-line suggests otherwise.
It is a rare occasion in 2021 that the Wanderers boss has been left to analyse any sort of defeat, with Saturday’s home reverse against Rotherham United only the team’s fifth since the end of January.
But it is an unusual occurrence indeed that Evatt should come out on the wrong side of the score-line and insists he was pleased with what he had just seen.
That the result had been played out in front of a packed-out house of more than 20,000 expectant supporters made the argument that little harder to win. Folk had seen a canny Rotherham side plunder two quick first-half goals and then see the game out with the experience of a wily boxer keeping a young pup at the end of his jab.
Evatt acknowledged there would be complaints, especially in the wayward first-half finishing that cost the Whites a chance to stay on level terms. But that is where his own disappointment began and ended.
“I’m gutted because the crowd were amazing,” he said. “Having those many numbers in this stadium again felt great, but I would have been a lot more disappointed if we hadn’t have performed the way we did.
“We didn’t get steamrollered. We didn’t get beaten up. We didn’t get turned over. We still dominated the game and if we carry on playing like that, we won’t be far away.”
Rotherham had come up against a side with a similar playing style to Bolton the previous Tuesday in Lincoln, raining in 26 shots on goal, eight on target, but ultimately drawing the game one apiece.
On Saturday, Evatt was delighted that his side had picked apart a pitch-wide press designed to stop his side playing out from the back.
Though visibly tired in the second half, the Millers had their advantage and were able to sit deeper, picking the odd moment to attack.
Tactically, Evatt was happy with what he saw.
“I was really pleased with the fact that they went for a man for man press, especially playing out from goal kicks, and we still managed to retain the ball, playing to that third line and Joel Dixon’s kicking was excellent, but also the way we rotated and moved them about,” he said.
“If we kicked it long and straight, their three big centre backs would come and eat us up and they’d be back on the attack, but today we’d worked on and found solutions to play out, which was good, and we created chances from that. We just didn’t take them.”
“Losing games, which all of sudden we’re not used to doing, by the way, does hurt. But anyone watching that game will be pleased with how we performed in general. We just didn’t take our opportunities at all, and they did.”
The second-half statistics illustrate how the game became a case of attack versus defence.
Rotherham’s possession dropped from 28.8 per cent to 21.2 per cent and they mustered just two shots on goal to Bolton’s seven. Tellingly, Michael Smith bounced a shot off that e same post as Eoin Doyle, so the score-line could have looked even worse from a Wanderers’ perspective, but the latter stages brought out a familiar sense of frustration as a visiting defence hunkered down to protect the penalty box.
“We had some close calls,” said Evatt of the second half show. “We had balls flashing across the face, but the first half was the time to get the goal and get back in the game. We gave them the opportunity to sit loads of men behind the ball and then it does become condensed and makes it difficult to break them down, but we gave them that opportunity by conceding two poor goals first half.
“It just shows you that when opposition managers who have had good experience in the Championship, good experience at this level, when they’re saying ‘you’re a really impressive team and the best we’ve seen and played this season’ we have to take heart from that.
“But that doesn’t count for any points unfortunately. We need to turn these performances into points because I think we’ve performed very well these last three games in particular - Burton, Ipswich and today - and only got four points out of it, which is slightly frustrating, but we knew this was going to be a difficult month.
“We’ve got a tough week next week with Sunderland and Charlton, so we’ll go there full of heart and full of confidence and do the best we can.”
Evatt had predicted before the game that Rotherham would pose the “biggest challenge” to his side since returning to League One.
Warne’s men had won promotion in their last two stints at this level and have established a formula for success, which has served them well.
According to Opta, only three other teams - Accrington, Wycombe and Burton Albion – progress the ball quicker up-field and the Millers also led the division in shots on goal and crosses into the penalty box.
Only Wycombe and Gillingham have fewer passes per attacking sequence than Rotherham (1.97) and in 6ft 4ins target man Michael Smith there is a sizeable reminder at the point of the Yorkshiremen’s attack as to what to expect.
Wanderers find themselves at the opposite end of the scale to many of the metrics mentioned above. They are second only to MK Dons in average attacking sequence time – i.e. the speed at which they build – and in the number of passes involved in each phase of play.
Those metrics seem perfectly in keeping with Brand Evatt, and the possession game he has cultivated in 18 months at the club.
But before critics step forward and say their piece about ‘passing for passing’s sake’ the most recent set of statistics from League One have also thrown up a few surprises which illustrate that Bolton are better at ‘mixing it up’ than they get credit for.
Wanderers, Lincoln, MK Dons and Rotherham all lead the way on ‘direct attacks’ which are categorised as “The number of open play sequences that starts just inside the team’s own half and has at least 50 per cent of movement towards the opposition’s goal and ends in a shot or a touch in the opposition box.”
Evatt’s side also feature surprisingly high on the table for ‘direct speed’ – measured in metres per second, they register an average of 1.73, sitting in 10th, with Rotherham fourth on an average of 2.02.
So, if the numbers say there is a higher degree of incision to go with that expansive build-up, then Evatt may well be correct, it is only the finishing touch that is stopping his side from registering a lot more goals. And bear in mind, only MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon have scored more so far.
Opta has Bolton fourth on xG from open play, behind MK Dons, Oxford and Sunderland, which means they are consistently creating quality chances. Evatt will be well aware that his side’s xG on set plays – i.e. free kicks and corners – is lower, but it still ranks ninth behind Rotherham and some of the more physical sides.
“Football is a game of opinion and people will play to their strengths. Rotherham play to their strengths. There’s different ways to win games,” Evatt reflected on Saturday evening.
“I’m not sitting here saying it’s right or wrong or the way we play is right and the way they play is wrong - I’m not saying that. I think Rotherham are a very good team, and a very effective team.
“We try and do things a different way and they’ve beaten us playing their way, so credit to them, and we’ll move on to Sunderland.”
The number suggest Evatt is right to brush off Saturday’s defeat and maintain faith in the direction his side has been heading this season.
It is a strong identity and if Rotherham’s example shows nothing else, it is that having faith in a blueprint over time can bring success at this level of football.
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