Story of a Match – Bolton (H)
On Wednesday I said that the Sunderland game paled in importance to Bolton today, and that an improved performance and win would make that game easy to forget. Well, Norwich delivered. And boy did they…
I think everyone expected changes going into this afternoons match. I was keen on bringing back Fox and Jackson in particular, and I was delighted to see both named in the starting XI. What I think most people didn’t expect was a midfield that contained all of Wes, Pilkington, Fox and Surman. It was our four most technically gifted midfielders in the same lineup. Usually you’ve got a runner/tackler in Crofts or Johnson to offer them support but both had poor games on Wednesday and were understandably on the bench. So you had Norwich shape up in a diamond with Fox deep, Surman left, Pilkington right and Wes at the tip. What we had in passing ability and finesse we perhaps lacked in legs, and against players like Reo-Coker and Muamba, and against a 5 man midfield, it may have worried some.
Yet it wasn’t to be. Above is a composite chalkboard of all 179 passes made my the Norwich midfield. You can see their range of influence, from deep in our own half to the opposition box, from flank to flank. By contrast, Bolton’s 5 man midfield (Reo-Coker, Muamba, Davies, Petrov and Eagles) managed just 146 passes all game. Norwich, with a man disadvantage in midfield, completed over 30 more passes – equivalent to an extra player. This was at the root of everything good we did. This midfield wouldn’t work against all teams, but against Bolton it was dominant. For the first half an hour they passed them to death, running rings around them and getting the ball forward and into dangerous areas. How we weren’t ahead before the injuries hit is beyond me. When Ayala and Zak went down it killed the momentum in the game and the crowd, and 0-0 at half time looked likely. But it was a first half where Ruddy had nothing to do, the defence was comfortable and the chances were coming. This is all down to the creativity and use of the ball by our midfield.
To see how ineffectual Bolton’s was in response, you just have to look at the influence of Fabrice Muamba, who was subbed midway through the 2nd half for Davies. He completed just 13 passes and not a single successful tackle. For a player who was in the team as a defensive sort of player, there to break up possession and stop attacks, he was completely ineffectual, passed by the more technically able players that we had.
Secondly, you can see a comparison between Mark Davies and Wes. Davies is Bolton’s main creative force. He’s got a lot of ability and is in good form, and is the player mainly used to support a lone striker. However, you can see he barely gets out of the midfield third. His passes were overwhelming sideways, which is fine when you aren’t chasing a game but less useful when behind, and didn’t complete any into dangerous areas. Not once did he feed in Petrov or Eagles. By contrast, Wes was dominant. He was given special treatment by Bolton and regularly had 2 or 3 players on him when he had the ball, but he was as influential as ever. He came deep to collect, he put it into good areas, he was able to feed it down both wings and into the box, and he regularly drew tackles or players out of position. They saw him as a threat but were rarely able to stop him. Once or twice they pressured him into a bad pass or losing the ball, but overall he had an excellent game.
It was a game won and lost in midfield, but that shouldn’t overlook the efforts of our strikeforce and defence on what were difficult days. Simeon Jackson put in his best performance in a Norwich shirt, absolutely outstanding from start to finish. He harried, got down the channels, held the ball up well and deserved a goal. He was a constant menace and deservedly got a standing ovation when he went off. Holt had another good game with inexplicably poor finishing. How he hit it over from 3 yards is baffling. Morison, when he came on, was again useful and could have had a goal himself. All 3 strikers showed what they could do despite none of them scoring.
Meanwhile, in defence it was an eventful day. Zak and Ayala both started well but were both off to hamstring injuries before 35 minutes had passed. The introduction of Martin to centre back was not a problem as he’d performed so well there earlier in the season. Moving Naughton there, and putting Bennett in at right back, was more of a worry.
Both, however, put in excellent performances. Naughton was cool, composed and classy at centre back, a mature head when one was needed, while Bennett managed to keep Petrov under wraps as well as get forward on occasion, being heavily involved in one of the goals. He completed all the tackles he went in for and put in a superb performance under the circumstances. It was a similar situation to that Newcastle found themselves in when they visited us; two full backs at centre back, both not blessed with height, facing a pair of big strikers (for Holt & Moro see Davies and N’Gog). Yet Martin and Naughton never let themselves get beaten and put in a great shift.
All in all it was a superb 90 minutes, injuries aside. We never looked like being beaten, and Bolton were among the worst teams to be seen at Carra this season. Great performances from Simeon, Wes, Fox and the defence stood out but as a team performance it was as good as we’ve put in all season. They were patient, they had plenty of chances but never got ragged, they bounced back from a poor performance with one of the highest quality. They showed exactly why Lambert has faith in them, and exactly why we’re going to be a Premier League team next season.
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