“I hate perception. There is far too much of it in the game. I prefer to stick to reality.”
- Sam Allardyce
One of the perceptions in the game right now is that Owen Coyle plays football the right way. Apparently he’s introduced football at the Reebok – and football writers are falling over themselves to lavish praise on him:
“Coyle has won admirers for an attractive style of passing football at Bolton, where predecessors Sam Allardyce and Gary Megson were noted for their direct play.”
– Daily Mirror, Jan 7 2011
“The Trotters have confounded all expectations this term by playing a slick brand of pass-and-move football.”
– BBC, Dec 12 2010
“The team once regarded as schoolyard bullies are now using the Arsenal blueprint for how the game should be played”
– The Guardian, Nov 16 2010
On the basis of such ringing endorsements you’d be expecting something pretty special from Bolton Wanderers. The reality is somewhat different. Kevin Davies remains pivotal to their play and – as you would expect with such a player in the side – the inclination is to hit the ball long to him.
The diagram below shows that only the vilified Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers have played fewer short passes this season. So much for the Arsenal blueprint. While the two sides below them have quite the reputation for the route one stuff, Coyle’s side has been spared this stigma.
One of the reasons for this is perhaps the presence of Stuart Holden in the Bolton midfield. The American has come to personify ‘new Bolton’ with his technical proficiency and desire to play football. Coyle’s supporters would doubtless point to his injury-enforced absence as a key reason behind Bolton’s lowly position in the passing table.
But the situation is not quite so clear in regard to the much lauded Mark Davies. Former teammate Rohan Ricketts recently claimed Davies was England’s answer to Andres Iniesta and - while that assessment is clearly hyperbole – the former England U16 captain’s progressive midfield displays are certainly easy on the eye. It is curious, therefore, that Coyle has preferred to instead use Johan Elmander in a midfield role. With Holden unavailable one may have thought this was an opportunity to draft in Davies to help pull the strings from the centre of the pitch. It’s a minor point but not exactly a team selection that inspires the notion that Coyle is committed to ‘slick, passing football’.
Perhaps the key to changing the perception of Bolton was not so much to do with their passing style but more about curbing the physical excesses of their game. However, the reality is that Bolton have pretty much continued as they were. Sir Alex Ferguson noted last year that Coyle’s Bolton continue to rely on their physical approach and this is borne out by the statistics. No team in the Premier League has received more bookings for fouls than Coyle’s side. Of course, the presence of perennial offender Kevin Davies is unlikely to help in this regard but there are other sinners. Paul Robinson has picked up seven bookings this season and the likes of Gretar Steinsson, Fabrice Muamba and Zat Knight are clearly no shrinking violets either.
So if Owen Coyle has not significantly changed the style of play or altered the emphasis on a physical approach, what is the reason for the club’s turnaround in fortunes? As is often the case, much can be learned by seeking the views of the club’s supporters. A Bolton Wanderers forum recently invited readers to outline what Coyle had done to improve the team. Their answers were revealing. There was little talk of passing football. Instead there were multiple references to atmosphere, attitude and belief. These are vital intangibles for any team and of particular concern to a Bolton side that appeared in dire need of inspiration under Gary Megson.
Clearly things were not right under Megson and the team appeared to be going in only one direction. Coyle changed that and has restored Bolton to a healthy midtable position. It’s one they are familiar with. In the four seasons from 2003-04 to 2006-07 the club never finished lower than eighth and showcased the talents of Youri Djorkaeff, Nicolas Anelka, Jay-Jay Okocha and Fernando Hierro.
Despite their presence, and much to the annoyance of Allardyce, the club was unable to shake off their long-ball reputation.
It’s this reputation that Coyle has had to tackle. He’s succeeded. And, in fairness to him, he has acknowledged this whilst being fairly understated about the changes that have been made:
“There was a perception Bolton played in a certain way and with a certain style. We had to try to change that and in terms of our football philosophy we have made a little transition. I’m not saying we play like Arsenal or Barcelona but we have added other dimensions, although we are still not afraid to go to the strikers early and use the strengths we have always had because forward Kevin Davies is the best at what he does.”
There’s that word perception again. Sam Allardyce hates perception. It’s not hard to see why.