Football League Round-Up: Phil Parkinson turning things around at Bolton

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 06 November 2017, 10:12

In the latest Football League round-up Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) takes a look at an improving Bolton, Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough, as well as Burton side lacking attacking intent, while he defends Preston boss Alex Neil.

Bolton unbeaten five games on the Trot

Moving up to 23rd place in a division is rarely cause for wild celebration, but it is hard not be struck by Bolton Wanderers’ apparent resurgence.

They finished September with a 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa that left them seven points adrift of safety, fearing not only the drop, but also finishing bottom. The Trotters lost to nil in all seven games in league and cup that month, with dreary forward punts to an isolated Gary Madine being the extent of their attacking ambition.

Remarkably, they have neither lost nor failed to score since the start of October. They collected nine points from those five games, having accrued just two in their first 11.

The arrival of Karl Henry at the end of September has made a massive difference. The 34-year-old had not played in 9 months, but has certainly not lost his leadership skills and ball-winning qualities, making two or three key interceptions every game.

Summer addition Sammy Ameobi has also made an impact since coming into the side, after scoring three goals in his last five and putting in a superbly energetic performance against Norwich on Saturday. The Trotters had just 32% possession, which is not uncommon for them, but crucially, they used the ball far more productively than we saw in the early weeks of the campaign.

They remain one of the prime candidates for relegation, but their recent form gives them a chance to Trot away from the mire.

Brewers lacking intent

Nigel Clough admitted that Burton Albion were fortunate to win 1-0 on Saturday at Millwall, for whom Jed Wallace was dubiously sent off. The manager saw his side take just two shots, of which only Marvin Sordell’s 70th minute winner was on target.

It might appear harsh to criticize Burton, a club with budgetary limitations, after a victory, but there is something concerning about the manner of their performances.

When they stayed up last season, they at times threatened through the pace and power of their wide men, Lucas Akins and Lloyd Dyer, or tidy passing through the midfield. The consistency in performance levels - and the manner of their victories - sustained belief that, even when they went on a bad run, they would be good enough to stay up.

This year, they may be without Jackson Irvine, but the likes of Brentford and Barnsley lose key men year on year without it changing their approach. The Brewers, by contrast, look like a side that fears the opposition.

Since a 2-1 win over Fulham in mid-September, they have lost four times, drawn twice and won once. On those three occasions they have avoided defeat, it has been a backs to the wall display, with little attacking intent.

They took a combined 11 shots across those three matches, which is less than what 21 Championship teams currently average per game. Shot data disciples suggest that 16/17 Rotherham, who finished further adrift of safety than any second-tier team in post-war history, created better openings than Burton currently are.

Sometimes, as we saw at Norwich, Bristol City and Millwall, this lack of attacking ambition helps them keep a clean sheet. In the interests of balance, the Midlanders have kept four shut-outs: more than eight teams. However, in putting so many eggs in the clean sheet basket, they are denying themselves opportunities to build attacks.

Clough will be pleased with his side’s win at the Den, but they must show more of the belief we saw from them last season.

Wednesday’s targets within Reach

It would be premature to say that Sheffield Wednesday are back in the promotion mix, but back-to-back wins have made their situation look a little brighter.

Few predicted their 2-1 win at in-form Aston Villa on Saturday - and even fewer would have foreseen Adam Reach’s spectacular opener 18 seconds in. Barry Bannan then went on to dominate the midfield against the club at which he first cut his teeth, with the Scot involved in the build-up play before Jordan Rhodes slotted in the second.

After a free-flowing first half, Wednesday had to dig in a little more in the second but they defended their box superbly, centre-backs Tom Lees and Glenn Loovens returning to their best. Jacob Butterfield is known for his long-range strikes at this level, but here he showed gritty qualities in the middle of the park in perhaps his best performance this season.

This was an afternoon in which the players came together to give their fans something to cheer and all 11 were given a rousing reception at the final whistle. Show something similar in the next Steel City Derby along with a good run of form - and maybe the sense of disgruntlement around Owlerton might be lifted.

In Alex Neil’s defence

No Preston fan would have been overly disappointed if told in pre-season that they would be 14th come November. However, there is a certain disappointment at the alarming drop-off in form from the Lancashire side, who looked like play-off contenders early in the campaign.

Alex Neil was criticized at Norwich for not being able to organize his players but he should not be criticized of that here: in their first nine games, they conceded just three goals. More recently, their back-line has lost some stability due to injuries.

Neil has tried hard to maintain a settled defence, only making more than one positional or personnel change in that area on one occasion prior to Saturday. This time, the long-list of absentees forced his hand.

Although it was a poor second half performance at Ipswich from the Lilywhites, who were also without in-form forward Sean Maguire, their goal had not been threatened in the first 45 minutes. They fell behind to a dubiously awarded free-kick and then caved in after the break, succumbing to a 3-0 loss.

That marked a fourth straight defeat for North End, but it is worth bearing in mind the opposition faced. They have played league leaders Wolves, two form sides in Aston Villa and Brentford while even Ipswich are just two points shy of the play-offs.

Preston do not have the finances to lure big names to Deepdale. Instead, they depend on players from the lower leagues or from Ireland pressing opponents with the energy and hunger to make them bigger than the sum of their parts. They did that for the first two months of the campaign.

This current team is far from one that Neil would pick by choice - as such, he deserves a degree of patience during this sticky patch for Preston.

Are Boro the real deal?

After Sunday’s Tees-Wear Derby victory over Sunderland, there is a sense of reserved judgement at Middlesbrough. The achievement of three straight wins, which has lifted them up to fifth having been in the bottom half just 10 days ago, cannot be scoffed at.

And yet, their performance in the 1-0 win against the Black Cats didn't suggest a team worthy of gracing the Premier League. After 18-year-old Marcus Tavernier bagged his first league goal early on, they didn’t move the ball particularly well through midfield, even if Stewart Downing enjoyed a good first half. Boro relied on a series of impressive saves from Darren Randolph, who denied Lee Cattermole and Billy Jones, then came under a siege of pressure in the closing stages.

Their defence tends to cope with pressure well. Ben Gibson, Daniel Ayala and George Friend, the latter two recently returning to the side, were all part of Aitor Karanka’s side that were notoriously tough to score against at this level. It is of little surprise that, with another manager in Garry Monk who likes two holding midfielders, they have given little away. The north-east club have conceded just 13 goals in 16 to claim the Championship’s joint-best defensive record, which should not be taken lightly.

However, after spending more money on transfer fees than any second tier club has ever, it is understandable that fans want something more than solidity. Aside from predatory finisher Britt Assombalonga, who has scored eight goals in his last 14, only two players have netted more than once in the league.

One of them is Martin Braithwaite, a big summer signing who set up Tavernier’s goal and might inject some creativity into the side’s play, although more of it is needed from deep. With three of the top 10 coming in the four games that follow the international break, we’ll see whether they can challenge for promotion.

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