Battle of the middle men

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

WITH Wanderers’ engine room suddenly looking more bountiful, will Dougie Freedman’s new options give him a midfield on which he can hang his preferred style of football?

The Whites boss has made no secret of his plans to alter the way the club played under his predecessor Owen Coyle and, it can be argued, for the few men that preceded him.

Possession has been the name of the game since the Scot’s arrival in October, and changes on the training pitch – where intensity has become a buzz word – have hinted that fitness has also been an issue he has been keen to address.

The alterations have not been without their drawbacks, and though the improvements in fitness have been evident, Wanderers have tactically at times looked like a side at odds with the style they were being asked to play.

Frustrating afternoons against the likes of Barnsley, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town at the Reebok epitomised the teething troubles Freedman has experienced, and the manager admits his side have had to learn on the hop, whilst trying to claw their way back up the Championship table.

Nowhere more has this been the case than in midfield, where the lack of options have seemingly been an issue since the devastating loss of Fabrice Muamba last March, and his partner in crime Stuart Holden just five months before.

Josh Vela had only just broken into Coyle’s first team when he was struck down with a knee injury, and the midfield jinx continued for Freedman when Mark Davies fell awkwardly at Huddersfield Town last month and damaged shoulder ligaments.

Keith Andrews’ progress since signing in the summer has been hampered by a persistent Achilles problem, while Chung-Yong Lee has only recently looked back to full fitness after more than a year out with a broken leg.

No wonder, then, that the recent return of Holden and Josh Vela seems like the perfect opportunity to recycle the old footballing cliché about them ‘feeling like new signings’.

Freedman now has two major players, both technically adept enough to blend straight in to his pass-heavy style of play.

Their comeback does not, however, mean the end of the road for those who have been the mainstay of the midfield since August.

Jay Spearing has held the fort impressively since the start of the season, and likewise Chris Eagles has played more games than any other outfield player at the club.

Darren Pratley has also emerged with some encouraging displays in recent weeks to further his own claim for a more regular starting spot, while Davies is only a fortnight away from rejoining full training.

Given Freedman’s penchant and approach to squad rotation – it seems possible that everyone can be kept happy at the same time.

Such is the manager’s methodical and analytical approach to training that he claimed recently to be able to forecast his team three weeks in advance.

Selection on a matchday is based equally on form, physical condition and the intensity at which a player is training.

That would certainly fly in the face of those who claim Eagles’ recent form has suffered for having been played in 26 league games so far but would explain why some players – Martin Petrov being a case in point – were used sparingly.

More options will give Freedman a chance to keep his midfield ticking over at an even higher rate or perhaps even experiment with a different formation than the 4-2-3-1 he has employed almost exclusively since arriving at the club.

Petrov’s departure to Espanyol means the squad is now bereft of out-and-out wingers and he is unlikely to be replaced like-for-like. Freedman is, however, on the lookout for someone who could occupy either wide role in his midfield five and would ideally have him in place before the January 31 deadline.

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