High-flying Bolton show how muscle and technique can play together

Recent managerial replacements have seen some teams turn their footballing philosophies upside down, with West Brom’s apparent revival under the defensive-minded Roy Hodgson and a new-look direct attack being showcased at Craven Cottage thanks to Mark Hughes. It would seem combining two different approaches can reap rewards down the line.

One managerial change in particular, Bolton’s decision to appoint Owen Coyle last season after parting company with Gary Megson, has had more than a year to have an effect on the club’s style of play. What is now seen at Bolton is not necessarily a complete change from the previous regime, but improvements to the foundations, ensuring Bolton now have the capability to win football matches in many different ways.

Under Megson, and indeed Sam Allardyce before him, Bolton were known to be fairly one-dimensional, with physicality a more important feature in a player than technical skill, and a heavy emphasis on set-pieces and long balls to create chances. For several years in the mid-2000s the approach was very successful, with Allardyce managing a sixth-placed finish in 2004/05. But things went downhill when Megson was appointed, culminating in Owen Coyle’s arrival when the team’s morale was low and fans’ confidence plummeting.

Coyle’s arrival was a statement of intent that the Bolton board wanted the success of Allardyce’s reign, yet the fluid, exciting football Coyle brought to Burnley. The key: a mix of the previous style of football, defensive and robust, with an injection of skill and style. Now, with Bolton sitting happily in the European spots in the Premier League, well clear of the ferocious relegation fight below, the decision and Coyle’s approach appear justified.

More often than not, the Trotters are solid at the back, with a combination of faces largely from the Megson era – Gary Cahill at centre-back, Paul Robinson at left-back and Fabrice Muamba in the holding role – with the same, strong defensive strategy. This has led to an average of just 1.38 goals conceded per game and 27% home clean sheets. In the past, this strong defence has led to impotence going forward, however Coyle has introduced an exciting attacking facet to the Reebok, with players such as Martin Petrov and Daniel Sturridge arriving and exciting, whilst also reinvigorating existing squad members such as Johan Elmander.

Combined, the aspects of Coyle’s regime and his retention of key elements of the previous two have produced thrilling attacking displays. The festive period demolitions of Everton and Newcastle impressed all, as well as hard-fought scraps in the recent FA Cup wins over both Wigan and Fulham, and yesterday’s back to basics smash-and-grab against Aston Villa.

Other club’s boards are certainly taking a similar approach to Bolton’s, with West Brom believing Hodgson’s defensive, chess-style tactics can complement the attacking brilliance Roberto Di Matteo’s former charges are capable of by making a team that can open up a lead as well as hold on to one. The early signs are promising, but the long-term evidence exists with Coyle and Bolton.

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