Preview: Bolton v Blades
Two wins in a row for the Blades and things are starting to look a lot rosier after a testing opening to the season. We’re also starting to get to the stage where we can draw meaningful conclusions from the data of the season so far. Four games might not be totally representative of a team’s fortunes, but it certainly is something to work with. So let’s take a look at how Bolton, one of the bookies favourites for relegation, are getting on so far…
As you can see, the bookmakers (and us) have been spot on with their predictions, and Bolton currently sit down towards the… uh… wait…
Well… that’s unexpected. One of only eight unbeaten teams, having played Bristol City and West Brom? Joint top of the league?
The opposition: Bolton Wanderers
So, are Bolton going to make a sneaky run at promotion?
...Probably not. Before this comes back to bite me, everything that follows does not guarantee that the Blades will win this game. However, you can certainly make a strong case that Bolton’s current league position is a fair bit higher than they’re likely to finish.
In terms of style, I was asked on Twitter if the stats support Bolton’s reputation as “hoofers”. The short answer is… yes, absolutely. That word conjures up an image of a team that whack the ball long, get it forward as quickly as possible, are good in the air, and aggressive out of possession. Which, funnily enough, is exactly what Bolton are.
Possession football is not their style. They rank 23rd in the league in possession (39.2%), 23rd in short passes per game (189), and 22nd in pass completion %. They are strong aerially, ranking 3rd with 35.8 aerial wins per game. As for that aggression I mentioned: they rank 3rd for tackles per game, and 4th for fouls. Unless United can exert control of the ball, this may not be the most aesthetically-pleasing game to watch.
I need to drop a quick caveat here: I have no beef with this style of football if that’s how you’ve built your team. Cardiff played very similar to this last season with a squad packed with height, strength and speed (and, admittedly, some skill) and deserved their promotion. I’m not trying to paint a picture of Bolton as some kind of stain on football. You do what works for you.
So has this style been working for Bolton? Well, sure, they’re joint top! That’s pretty emphatic… right?
Actually… Bolton may be in a somewhat false position. They rank 23rd for number of shots taken per game (that’s bad). They rank 24th for the number of shots conceded per game (that’s also bad). They are 6th in the number of shots taken per goal (that’s good, but also suggests they may be scoring goals at an unsustainably high rate).
Essentially, after four games, they don’t shoot much, they concede lots of shots, and they’ve scored at a probably-unsustainable rate. That’s definitely bad. The bookies tend to agree: Bolton have slipped a bit in the relegation odds from second-favourite to fifth-favourite, but 3/1 odds for relegation still shows that the expectation is that this start will prove to be an aberration.
I could be wrong (and so could the bookies); it wouldn’t be the first time or last. But I wouldn’t be looking at the early table and thinking “yikes, Bolton are going to make the playoffs” just yet.
All that said: this will be a tough game for United. I’ve just shown you that Bolton live up to their long-standing reputation: they’re physical, they get the ball forward quickly, they get stuck in. They already have two goals from set-pieces. The Blades struggled to cope with this kind of football at Middlesbrough, although they did a solid job of weathering any such aerial bombardment from Millwall and Cardiff at home last season, even if the eventual results were disappointing.
Let’s look at some players to watch for this weekend.
Key Danger Men
Josh Magennis – signed from Charlton in the summer, Magennis has made a strong start to the season. He actually played as a keeper at youth level. He’s not absurdly tall – 6’2” – but he is strong in the air and functions as a focal point for Bolton’s attacks. So far this season he averages 14.5 aerial wins per game… which is almost double the amount of any other Bolton player.
He also has one of the worst pass completions among outfield players in the league, at just 42.3% through four games. Essentially, he spends most of the game flicking the ball on. Here’s his attacking contribution in the win over Birmingham City midweek – green chevrons are aerial wins, orange aerial losses, red arrows incomplete passes, blue arrows completed passes.
Sheer volume makes this effective, if not efficient: he ended up creating two chances in this game (the light blue arrows), and three in the one before.
David Wheater – it’s also worth mentioning that Bolton have the third-best defence so far in terms of goals conceded, even if the underlying numbers suggest that that might be a slight fluke. A big part of that is David Wheater, who leads the team in interceptions and blocks per game, and sits second in clearances.
I bring up Wheater given how Aden Flint made hay against us from corners a few weeks ago, and I’m still to see evidence that we can shut down players like this at set-pieces. Wheater has two assists already; unsurprisingly, both have come from knock-downs at corners.
Expected Line-up: Bolton Wanderers
Bolton tend to play a 4-2-3-1 that can become 4-5-1 if necessary, with Magennis the lone striker and Erhun Oztumer (yes, the chap from Walsall who always seems to play a blinder against us) behind him. It’s a fairly rigid system, although Yanic Wildschut – another dangerous player – and Craig Noone also get forward in support of Magennis and look to get onto his flick-ons.
Looking at their previous two games – both 1-0 wins, over Birmingham and Reading – the defence tend to stay back and rarely stray into the opposition half: again, a product of their style of getting the ball forward so quickly that the full backs usually don’t have time to join.
Off the bench, ex-Blade Clayton Donaldson has barely featured so far, but striker Will Buckley came on to get the winner against Birmingham and has two goals.
Expected Line-up: The Blades
This game is probably the acid test for John Egan’s aerial ability, and his battle with Magennis will be one of the keys to the game. Against Norwich Egan was extremely dominant, particularly high up the pitch, although Magennis represents a far bigger threat in the air than Jordan Rhodes. In our box, and particularly from corners, question marks still remain over Egan’s ability to win those duels.
On a similar note, it will also be interesting to see whether Norwood’s set-piece delivery – which was supremely effective against Norwich – will still be dangerous against a team as strong in the air as Bolton.
With Bolton playing one up top, and four at the back, this is a game where we might get some joy with our ability to overload areas of the pitch. Stevens and Fleck (and O’Connell) on one side, Freeman and Norwood (and Basham) on the other.
It all likely comes down to whether we can exert control of the ball. If so, I like the chances of Norwood, Fleck and Duffy playing between the lines and hopefully creating. Bolton do tend to drop at least one of their other central midfielders into a deep position to try and clog up this space, but I hope that the ability and movement of these three will be able to get round that.
Time to call it. As always, 1 point for the correct results, 3 for the correct scoreline – and hats off to Jay for nailing a 2-1 Blades win last week that sees him take a 5-2 lead in our standings so far. I think he should probably get a bonus point for predicting that Egan would score from a Norwood corner, but hey, rules are rules.
Ben’s prediction: "The more I wrote of this preview, the more I talked myself into a Blades win (was originally thinking draw). So I’ll stick with that: a tighter game than we saw against Norwich, but hopefully slightly better finishing on our part. 2-1 Blades and Clarke’s first goal of the season (it’s coming)."
Jay’s prediction: "Really tough one to call. All the data suggests Bolton have won games they shouldn't and at any point that could turn back to what their performance should actually be producing rather than the outstanding results they have achieved. Ben's pointed out their strengths are probably our weaknesses so they do pose some threat. As United seem unable to keep a clean sheet at the moment i'm going for a 1-1 with Leon Clarke to get his 1st of the season."
Thanks for reading, and UTB! Feel free to leave your own predictions in the comments below.