Have to be fair to Bolton, on the night they did make us struggle. But at the end they’ve become another side leaving The Valley wondering how they didn’t get something from the game and it isn’t coincidence. For all the pressure and succession of corners, aside from their goal and one clearance from just under the bar, they failed to create clear goalscoring opportunities and conceded twice. The credit for that has to go to our defence, which kept its shape under serious pressure. Another case of effort and commitment getting its reward and possession (including apparently a corners count of 14-1 in their favour) ending up counting for little.
We all knew before the game that this was going to be tough, with respective league positions meaning little as they seemed to be getting the new manager boost and we were going to be missing Vetokele, Solly, Gomez and Gudmundsson, as well as coming off the back of our first defeat and playing the second of three games in six days in blustery conditions. The defence was as expected, with Wilson dropping back, as was the midfield given availability, with Bulot returning on the right side. Up front Tucudean and Moussa paired up, with Ahearne-Grant on the bench, along with Ansah and just about all available bodies.
We’ve started games this season with an object lesson in how to keep the ball, but tonight Bolton gave us a taste of it, with Lee Chung-yong in particular giving an early indication of his ability to drift around the pitch and link up play. Once that was over the game settled down, with plenty of probing by both sides but nothing decisive. A couple of shots from distance from Bolton dealt with by Henderson, some neat enough stuff from us but with Tucudean generally getting outmuscled and failing in his attempts to persuade the ref that the challenges were more than robust. There was one superbly weighted pass from Buyens which put Wilson in the clear down the right but his cross came at an awkward height for Cousins at the far post and by the time Jackson was lining up the shot from the knock-down the bodies were in the way.
It was pretty even, with Bolton’s formation causing us problems outside our box but not in it, save for the rather ominous presence of Dervite from set pieces, and our forwards seemingly well contained. Until on the half-hour Tucudean was more alert than their defenders to steal a yard and latch onto a ball played into the box. The control was excellent and nobody could get close enough to him as he drilled the shot low under the keeper and into the net. You could almost see Dervite et al scratching their heads as having seemingly had him (and Moussa) well under control a lapse in their concentration had been well and truly punished.
Bolton came close to levelling matters shortly after but a dangerous cross wasn’t converted. But Tucudean, who picked up a yellow for the celebrations (which was later to almost prove costly as some dissent almost gave the ref the opportunity to produce a second), then seemed to raise his game as the confidence level was upped and it was game on. At the break it had been an even affair but we had the goal.
The second half began much as had the first, with Bolton dominating possession without fashioning any real openings, and as that spell faded we extended the lead. The ball was won back and played down the left and with a quick ball into the box suddenly we had numbers over. Tucudean touched it on and Jackson drilled it low and sure.
You felt then that if we could keep it tight for say 10 minutes Bolton would be forced into changing their shape to chase the game and that might create more space for us going forward. It wasn’t to be as we were pegged back only a few minutes later. A corner wasn’t cleared convincingly and their guy ran onto it and from the edge of the box sent in it has to be said a peach of a strike through bodies that gave Henderson no chance.
Goals as they say change games and we were left in that betwixt and between situation while Bolton had the momentum. Increasingly our play became ragged as there was no effective outlet to relieve the pressure, with Moussa and Bulot struggling to make an impact, leading to an inability to retain possession. The final 20 minutes or so were never going to be pretty from our perspective, it was a case of keeping the shape at the back and trying to hold what we had.
There were moments of minor panic, hardly surprising as the defence was by now under pretty constant pressure and the corners just kept coming. Henderson dealt with most of what he had to but did miss one he came for and then another sat up for Dervite (I think) to loop in the header to just under the bar, only for Wiggins to stretch and get enough on it to prevent it going in, with Henderson mopping up.
It was a fair sign of our needs that Bulot was replaced by Fox, who played in front of Wiggins with Cousins switching to the right. Later Ahearne-Grant came on for the ineffective Moussa. But through it all Ben Haim effectively marshalled those around him and kept his calm, while Bikey Amougou was, well, immense. He even gave a fair demonstration of how to deal with Lee Chung-yong by running the ball forward down the left and simply brushing aside the challenges. Five minutes of stoppage time, Harriott on for Tucudean, and just a case of getting across the finish line. That was just about done.
Some games you win with a sublime display of attacking intent and some you find yourselves having to fall back on endurance and resilience. There was no shortage of those qualities tonight.
Henderson – 8/10. One missed cross but otherwise a reassuring presence. No chance with the goal and plenty of occasions which called for decisive decisions when coming off his line.
Wilson – 8/10. Filled in very effectively, stretched once or twice by a tricky winger but kept the shape.
Wiggins – 9/10. Excellent tonight, saw off his first opponent and stopped the one under the bar from going in.
Ben Haim – 8/10. Didn’t see him put a foot wrong.
Bikey-Amougou – 9/10. Got to give him man of the match tonight, even when he decided that it wasn’t a game for playing it out from the back.
Cousins – 7/10. Excellent work rate. Not great in the final third and some poor choices in possession, but put in a real shift.
Jackson – 7/10. Popped up in the box to score what proved to be the winner and plenty of hard graft in front of the defence.
Buyens – 7/10. Couldn’t manage to control the game tonight but helped keep them at bay and that beautifully weighted pass to Wilson in the first half.
Bulot – 5/10. Struggled to make an impact going forward (he may have played a part in our second) and increasingly peripheral before being subbed.
Moussa – 5/10. Effectively shut out by their defence.
Tucudean – 7/10. Has to get an extra mark for the goal, otherwise well marshalled.
Subs – Fox (6/10, not a game to come on and have a dramatic impact); Ahearne-Grant (6/10, much the same); Harriott (not on long enough for a mark).