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Dec 1, 2011

Coyle's race against time

As December 2010 began, it was with six Premier League pacesetters: Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham and Bolton. As December 2011 starts, five remain in contention at the division's summit. The other has traded top six for bottom three.

Welcome to Owen Coyle's world. After dropping 12 places in as many months, hopes of Europe have been replaced by the prospect of Peterborough, not to mention Barnsley, Millwall or whoever else the Championship may contain next season. It has been a year that has taken Bolton from an artificial high to a troubling low, a year in which the Scot's sky-high reputation has taken a battering.

The flaws in Coyle's management have become more apparent this season. Their initial struggles could be attributed to the fixture list - five of the first seven games were against title contenders - but not any more. Bolton's is an extraordinary losing record: ten defeats in 13 this campaign, 15 in 18 including the end of last. Since the FA Cup semi-final thrashing by Stoke, which Coyle continues to insist was not a cause of the decay, Wanderers have only taken something from four of their 19 league games.

Emphatic wins have been outnumbered by frequent defeats. They are a sign of Bolton's failings in close games: put under pressure in a tight situation, a porous defence will leak. Clean sheets are a rarity; whereas previous Wanderers sides were happy to win 1-0, this one doesn't know how to.

Both the statistics and the nature of their defending has been awful: with 31 goals sieved in 13 games, it is an average of over two per game. The unconvincing Zat Knight has been booked in for a further four games as Gary Cahill's partner because of David Wheater's dismissal against Everton, and subsequent suspension, and yet the middle of the back four has been comparatively reliable - if, that is, the comparison is with the full-backs.

With the notable exception of the 20-year-old Joe Riley, a rotating cast of right-backs has proved almost equally unreliable. On the other flank, a bizarre faith in Paul Robinson offers an invitation to exploit his lack of pace and highlight his habit of conceding needless free kicks. Virtually every one of Robinson's immediate opponents this season has excelled, a damning indictment of the 32-year-old.

That Coyle is not a defensive coach has been apparent since his days at Burnley: in two-and-a-third seasons of Premier League management, his sides have conceded 158 times. That his style of play, while endearing when winning, is too open is particularly apparent on the road. His teams have taken 25 points from 45 away Premier League games, with Bolton's fondness for 4-4-2 looking overly attacking. It renders the home form crucial and Wanderers' has collapsed in the past seven months.

One explanation for their slide is that the impressive Stuart Holden has been sidelined. And yet the American's influence makes him anomaly: he is the only man recruited on a permanent basis by Coyle to become a key component of the team (the borrowed Daniel Sturridge was another last season). Six of the Scot's acquisitions were involved against Everton but while Chris Eagles is sporadically brilliant and Ivan Klasnic, initially brought to the club by Gary Megson and then re-signed by Coyle, has a fine goal return but contributes little else, it leaves the manager reliant on his predecessor's players. For instance, the much-maligned Megson bought Cahill and Chung-Yong Lee.

And now, at either end of the spine of the side, Kevin Davies and Jussi Jaaskelainen are showing signs of decline; indeed, there are reasons to believe Coyle sold the wrong goalkeeper when offloading Ali Al-Habsi to Wigan in the summer. What it does mean, though, is that his recruitment has assumed a greater importance, especially with the loss of the out-of-contract Johan Elmander. Yet with eight summer additions, Bolton look a lesser side than last year.

It may be revisionist thinking since he quit Turf Moor for the Reebok Stadium, but a theory of Burnley fans is that Steve Cotterill, rather than Coyle, built their promotion-winning side. Arguably only Eagles and Martin Paterson, who has subsequently flattered to deceive, of the key personnel were Coyle's choices.

His tactical decisions, meanwhile, can seem all too predictable. Familiarity with his methods may have enabled rivals to combat them. It was especially notable how Paul Lambert out-thought Coyle when Norwich won at the Reebok Stadium in September and, now that the manager's habit of introducing scoring substitutes has deserted him, his starting team has taken on more significance. In a microcosm of their campaign, Bolton have often begun games terribly.

It leaves them with work to do to maintain their Premier League status and Coyle with the task of salvaging his standing in the game. His reputation was made quickly but it will take a dramatic improvement if it is not to be seriously damaged just as swiftly.

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