Wanderers’ Achilles heel has flared up again, and League One is watching.
Forced to abandon their natural game at Cheltenham and play direct, there was a visible incongruity among the Bolton players that will not have gone unnoticed among the battlers and bruisers coming up in the fixture list in the next few weeks.
Ian Evatt tried to add some heft to his side on Tuesday night, sacrificing the pace and ingenuity of Conor Bradley to add some aerial strength in Will Aimson, picking the more physical Kyle Dempsey above Kieran Lee and adding the experience and strength of Jon Dadi Bodvarsson up front for Elias Kachunga, who had effectively ran himself to a standstill at the weekend.
At least that was the theory. Personnel changes were made to accommodate the unique threats of the opposition but it quickly became clear on a small pitch, constricted by the impressively high-tempo Robins, that there would be no room to play measured football, a different, less aesthetically pleasing approach was needed.
Wanderers were allowed possession to a point, taking 68 per cent overall. But most fell to wide centre-halves George Johnston and Will Aimson, whose options were limited to knocking balls into channels for Bodvarsson and Charles to chase with limited success.
The midfield only came into play in the latter stages of the first half. George Thomason, MJ Williams and Dempsey’s role had effectively been reduced to challenging for second balls and it was only in the brief spell that the trio found some pockets of space with which to operate on the ball that Bolton looked anything like effective.
A question may be asked of creativity. Of the three, Thomason is the only player with a genuine creative streak, albeit one hidden on the night, and by the time Aaron Morley came off the bench, the game had become chaotic, a Cheltenham goal nearly inevitable.
It is natural to look towards the players who were not there; Lee remains the most complete option, Dapo Afolayan’s unpredictability at a number 10 may have helped. Josh Sheehan was available, making a league squad for the first time since November, and his play-making talents felt a little wasted as the minutes ticked down.
Bradley’s exclusion was the major talking point among supporters and given the impact he has made since coming in from Liverpool it is no great shock. Evatt reasoned that the teenager needed a rest and that the tight confines of Whaddon Road would not have brought out the best in him at any rate.
Again, in theory, the decision was understandable, although it should be noted that Cheltenham wing-back Ryan Jackson was revelling in space behind a flat-looking Jack Iredale.
Unable to cut a swathe through midfield, Wanderers’ only outlet was to get the ball forward quickly and hope to link-up play later. The approach paid off only a couple of times and Wanderers were unable to gather the pieces quickly enough to muster a proper shot at goal. Ricardo Santos’s header from an Iredale corner was the closest they got – which underlines just how ineffective the attacking policy was on the night.
While criticism of the Cheltenham defeat is warranted, it has to be put into context. Bolton are sixth, have just made their best 10-game start for 22 years and still have the best defensive record in League One.
There are options to change the balance of midfield, the combinations in attack, all of which were not there at this stage last season.
There are question marks over whether this team has enough goals in it to sustain a promotion push; they would have existed whatever the result on Tuesday. The successful run had been based more on hard work, discipline and defensive strength spread across the team than it was dazzling football – though it did shine through at times.
Evatt is unlikely to over-react, make sweeping changes. He will know full well, though, his side has exhibited a vulnerability once again that managers – including the watching Barnsley boss Mike Duff – will note down for future use.