COMMENT: Bolton Wanderers strike duo need a Rovers return after success against Watford
DOUGIE Freedman did not want to make his dual strike force the topic of conversation last weekend – but as the club prepare to ask supporters for their backing again next season, is there an added onus on the team to entertain?
Season tickets will be back on the agenda before long at the Reebok, which would make victory over local rivals Blackburn Rovers all the better timed in tomorrow’s derby clash. The win over Watford was certainly a step in the right direction, and a tantalising glimpse of what this side could have offered in the last six months had it played to its capability.
But the fact a return to form coincided with Freedman playing two strikers up front together was not lost on a single supporter, despite his attempts to play it down after the final whistle.
Already faced with a defensive reshuffle thanks to Matt Mills’ knee injury, and now with a man down in midfield after Darren Pratley’s shoulder problem looks like sidelining him for the next fortnight, can the Wanderers boss really afford to tinker with a winning plan any further?
The overwhelming majority of Whites fans would suggest not.
Contrary to popular belief, Freedman had actually employed two out-and-out strikers on eight occasions before the 2-0 win over Watford – but it has been his reluctance to do so more often at the Reebok that has really been the cause for frustration by those who pay through the turnstiles.
Five of those occasions had been on home turf. And only once – against a strong QPR side at the start of the season – had Wanderers failed to pick up a point.
Freedman was right to point out his back four have improved in recent weeks, which makes the absence of Mills all the more disappointing against Rovers.
He had formed a decent partnership with David Wheater, while the full-back positions, for so long a bone of contention, are also looking more reliable than they have at any stage since Marc Tierney’s untimely injury in late September.
However Freedman looks to shuffle his pack tomorrow, the spectre of Jordan Rhodes still looms large. The Scot – though without a goal in eight games – has scored three in his last three games against Wanderers despite barely getting a kick of the ball. Rovers have struck a fine balance of late, employing a target man in Cardiff City loanee Rudy Gestede alongside the ubiquitous poacher Rhodes, mirroring the pairing of Lukas Jutkiewicz and Joe Mason – another Bluebird – that worked so well for the Whites against Watford.
But will Freedman stick to the formula that worked so well seven days ago knowing the importance that back-to-back wins could have at a stage of the year when the club are preparing to ask fans to put their hands into their pockets once again?
Value for money is the name of the game – and, as ever, Wanderers are trying to think outside the box in trying to make the matchday experience the best they possibly can.
But for every bright idea hatched in the offices around the Reebok, their success or failure depends almost entirely on results on the pitch.
And that is where Wanderers have failed this season.
The balance between attack and defence has been something that near enough every Wanderers manager of recent times has struggled to deal with.
Gary Megson was criticised for playing too direct – something that was also aimed at his predecessor Sam Allardyce at times, while Sammy Lee and Owen Coyle failed to address tactical issues, particularly defensive ones, and paid the ultimate price.
Freedman falls between the two stools. His critics have suggested that a defensive approach does not suit the attacking personnel at his disposal.
The manager has dug in his heels over many issues since coming to the club 16 months ago, regardless of how his popularity has been affected.
It has, quite clearly, been a difficult time to manage the football club.
“The two strikers did well and they will hit the headlines,” shrugged the Wanderers boss after the Watford win. “But I really want to talk about the back four who got a clean sheet.”
Wouldn’t it be great if both topics were up for discussion after the Blackburn game?