Owen Coyle left the Reebok Stadium deeply disappointed this evening, as his Bolton side saw a comfortable 2 goal lead snatched away from them. After such a promising first half display from the Wanderers, it seemed that the travelling Portsmouth fans would see their slide slump to yet another defeat, but they left in a buoyant mood as there courageous Portsmouth side grabbed a hard fought, if ultimately futile, point. Whilst Bolton were by far the better side here Portsmouth battled hard for each other in the second period, and for their courageous attitude alone probably deserved a share of the points.
The whites started in spectacular fashion, moving well going forward and looking comfortable in possession in all areas of the pitch. Jack Wilshere flourished in an attack minded Bolton side which brimmed with confidence, and it was his pin point cross which lead to the opener as the instinctive Ivan Klasnic headed home. Soon after Bolton scored again, this time Vladimir Weiss the instigator, working hard to keep the ball in on the halfway line before following up a scintillating 50yard run and perfectly timed pass to the Captain. In an intense first half hour Weiss kept his composure, sliding a diagonal ball across goal as Davies beat the offside trap to turn the ball home. Despite arriving late for a heart warming pre-game cuddle Weiss made the most of a rare starting spot, with his superb close ball control and burst of pace proving too much for Pompy’s shaky defence throughout the first half.
Unfortunately the performance which seemed almost too good to be true turned out to be just that, and despite a bright start to the second half Bolton were twice caught on the counter attack to bring Portsmouth level within 20minutes of the restart. The intensity was sucked out of the Bolton side well before Portsmouth’s equaliser, and although the Whites hit the post late on they rarely threatened to regain the lead. Whilst the second Portsmouth goal came through a series of individual errors, Gary Cahill at fault in particular, it was the first goal that should worry Coyle the most.
Muamba and Wilshere had shared the midfield responsibilities so well in the first half, but here they overcommitted to the attack, and when Wilshere was caught in possession on the edge of the Portsmouth box Bolton were instantly cut open. It is all too easy to put this type of mistake down to inexperience, yet this is precisely the type of risk that comes when playing without a genuine holding midfielder in the Barclays Premier League. The English top flight is characterised by the tempo in which its teams attack and Coyle must take this into account as he prepares for the 2010/11 season.
Whilst I am not a big advocate of playing the numbers game in modern football, Coyle lined up his side in what was a classic 4-4-2 formation. Weiss and Taylor played wide, Muamba and Wilshere shared the load in a high energy box to box midfield, with Klasnic and Davies the two forwards. With the full backs overlapping the result was an exciting and expansive brand of football, but too often it left Bolton wide open through the middle and a better side would have made much more of the space it allowed. Whilst Portsmouth were notably better after Avram Grant’s half time team talk the warning signs were already plain to see in the first period, and despite dominating the early proceedings Bolton were lucky to go into the break with a clean sheet. All afternoon Portsmouth were given too much space between midfield and defence, and nearly made it count just moments after Bolton’s second when John Utaka let loose from the edge of the area, denied only by the post.
I really don’t want to pour too much cold water on Coyle’s tactics; after all they are largely responsible for some of the best attacking football we have seen in many years at the Reebok. But whilst the Bolton fans enthusiastically got behind their side in a free flowing first half, the final whistle was once again drowned out with those all too familiar boos. Unfortunately without world class talent in all areas this type of football comes at a cost, and ultimately the fans will judge their side on results, not style. In the early stages the home side were hard to criticise, but in the inevitable lulls in intensity Bolton looked vulnerable. Unlike some previous performances today’s disappointing result cannot be blamed on the cobwebs left over from the Megson regime. Whilst it is not quite ‘back to the drawing board’, Coyle may have to sacrifice some of his footballing principles if he is serious about challenging the ‘big boys’ next season.
The final word today goes to Avram Grant, who was the last man on the field as he emerged from the dugout to applaud his small legion of travelling Portsmouth fans. With little to work with Grant has given Portsmouth fans something to smile about in these most depressing times, and he organised Portsmouth extremely well in the second period, suffocating Bolton’s attacking threats. What Grant lacks in charisma he more than makes up for in sincerity, exchanging a word and a hand shake with several Bolton fans before congratulating his brave players in the dressing room. The Portsmouth fans proudly cheered him off the pitch to the song that will define his legacy:
“Que sera sera. Whatever will be, will be. We're going to Wembley. Que sera, sera”
Rarely have the words been more fitting.
Richard Jackson (The Bolton Raider).