Freedman makes a case for the defence

First published in Sport The Bolton News: Photograph of the Author by , chief football writer

DOUGIE Freedman’s return to his old club Crystal Palace on Saturday did not earn his Wanderers side the win he would have dreamed of, with their second Championship draw in as many matches leaving the Whites in 16th spot.

But when the astute Scot considers the bigger picture, he would have taken one big positive from the Selhurst Park stalemate, and that is a clean sheet away from home – Wanderers’ first in the league since the opening day of last season when they beat QPR 4-0.

They have kept two cup shutouts since then – a 2-0 FA Cup triumph at Millwall last February and a victory by the same scoreline over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light in their FA Cup third round replay last week.

That was Bolton’s first clean sheet since Freedman took charge, so to follow that up with a second successive shutout at Palace – something Wanderers have not acheived in almost two years – has to be seen as a big step in the right direction.

Narrow 1-0 wins at Wigan and Fulham in February 2011 came off the back of a 2-0 home triumph over Everton to make it three clean sheets in a row.

Coincidentally, Freedman’s 2013 side take on the Toffees in the FA cup next, on Saturday, to try to make it another shutout treble two years on.

Whether that happens or not, Freedman will hope the recent stubbornness at the back can provide a base to build on as he approaches three months at the helm.

It is an old adage that success is built on miserly back lines and Freedman will certainly subscribe to that, despite being more akin to profiting at the other end as a striker in his own playing days.

One look at the Championship table proves that clean sheets can be pivotal.

League leaders Cardiff have kept 11 shutouts so far this campaign and second-placed Leicester have the most with 14.

Hull and Freedman’s former club Palace have recorded nine clean sheets each – the Scot securing the first two of those, including a win at the Reebok.

Wanderers, in contrast, have just four league shutouts to their name, three of which have come since Freedman took up the reins in October.

The league table does, however, show that even the top teams are succeptable to conceding.

Wanderers have shipped 41 in their 28 matches with the best defence being Leicester, who have let in just 23.

Bottom-side Bristol City, naturally, have the worst record with 55 Clean sheets are the target, though, and Freedman’s record at the Reebok in his 17 games in charge is similar to his record at Palace and also Owen Coyle’s start to his Whites tenure.

In Coyle’s first 17 games, in early 2010, Wanderers kept six clean sheets; Freedman’s at Palace was exactly the same.

But in recent seasons, shutouts and Wanderers have not gone hand in hand.

Last season, the Whites kept just six clean sheets – just one more than this season so far – and only three of those were in their doomed Premier League campaign.

They opened it up with that shutout at QPR, just as they had a year earlier on home turf in a goalless draw with Fulham.

They went on to record 10 clean sheets in 2010/11, including those three successively in February 2011.

Of course, the key to getting back to the days of regular clean sheets depends on key personnel and Freedman will hope the eagerly-awaited return of centre-backs David Wheater and Matt Mills will help the cause.

Wheater played in all three of that shutout treble two years ago, coming off the bench in the first win against Everton soon after joining from Middlesbrough.

Sam Ricketts and Adam Bogdan also played in two out of the three matches.

If they can all be reunited, the solidity for Freedman’s defensive base could be just around the corner.

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