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What Bolton must do to become promotion contenders in League One

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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Wanderers will have to spend less time playing catch-up next season if they are to challenge seriously for the automatic promotion places.

Ian Evatt’s side has produced some memorable comebacks, snatching results at the death as they did against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, but to gain the extra measure of consistency they will need to trouble the top six they must end a frustrating habit of giving their opponents a head start.

Wanderers have conceded the first goal on 28 occasions this season, a total only exceeded by struggling Crewe Alexandra. That accounts for 67 per cent of all games the Whites have played.

The average minute of an opposition opening goal against Bolton is 27, which is slightly lower than the league average of 31. This is due in the main to the 11 times they have conceded in the first 15 minutes – a total matched only by Cambridge United.

Evatt’s side has recovered an impressive 21 points after falling behind, and only MK Dons (24) can beat that. They have equalised on 17 occasions, home and away.

The trick – as Wigan have shown – is not to put yourself in that position in the first place.

The Latics have shipped the first goal just 11 times in 40 outings, and still managed to avoid defeat in all but four of those games.

The question on everyone’s lips is, why the slow start?

The answer may be something as simple as fatigue. Wanderers have a clearly defined style of play that relies on them keeping control of possession and the tempo of a game, continually recycling then wearing down their opponents.

Early in games, tiredness should not be such a factor. The Whites have experienced problems breaking down sides who employ a ‘deep block’ and hit them on the break, particularly at home. And finding a way to combat that approach next season will be another puzzle for Evatt to solve.

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Analysing the spread of goals scored by Wanderers and their opponents in League One this season, a clear trend develops. Bolton score a disproportionate number of their goals in the last 15 minutes, the average jumping nearly eight-fold from just 0.07 goals per game in the opening quarter to 0.55 in the last.

Does that mean the team creates better chances late in the game? Well, possibly.

Expected Goals (xG) measures the quality of a goalscoring opportunity and is based on several factors, including where on the pitch it occurs. An open goal from six yards, for example, would have a significantly higher xG than a free kick from halfway.

Wanderers typically create chances with a high xG. Their issue for much of this season has been converting them.

But the numbers indicate that it takes them a while to get the creative juices flowing. An xG of just 0.16 in the first 15 minutes doubles in the next quarter and then remains relatively consistent until the 75th minute when it increases again.

Between the 75th and 90th minute Bolton have averaged an xG of 0.39 – meaning they could be realistically expected to score 39 of 100 chances. But their actual goals tally of 0.55 (55 out of 100) shows they either sharpen up in the latter stages, or their opponents start to wear out.

Almost the reverse can be said of opposing sides this season.

While xG peaks at 0.28 between 15 and 30 minutes, it remains relatively constant throughout – i.e. the standard of opportunity Wanderers concede does not differ greatly regardless of what stage of the game we are at.

It is only in the first 15 minutes that Evatt’s side concede significantly more than they would be expected, and that could point towards individual errors being a key factor.

The old adage about ‘keeping it tight’ early on has proved tricky to carry out, with the numbers showing that Bolton are twice as likely to concede in the opening 30 minutes than in 30 that follow.

But they are also more susceptible on their travels. There have been some notable away games where Wanderers found themselves swamped early on, reflected in the relative xG of the opposition at Plymouth (1.51), Wycombe (1.11), Burton (1.72) and MK Dons (2.62) At home, Wanderers have experienced problems getting the first goal but have only been put under significant pressure by a handful of sides, including Wigan Athletic, Rotherham, Shrewsbury Town and Gillingham – who found themselves 2-0 up by that stage at the UniBol back in October.

Bolton are unlikely to change their expansive style, so it can be reasonably assumed they will continue to score more of their goals later on as opposing players start to tire, provided their levels of creativity do not wane.

Finding a way to improve their conversion rate in front of goal would be perfect – but it seems unlikely that Wanderers will be splashing out cash on another striker this summer after boosting their options in January with the likes of Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Dion Charles.

The key to improving results could lie in the defence, eliminating some of the ‘cheap’ goals which have been given away and ensuring that – especially away from home – the Whites are able to make their penchant for late goals count.

Data supplied by Wyscout and

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