The key threat to Bolton Wanderers’ promotion hopes v Oxford United


  • Defensive decline causes concern for Bolton as they head into League One play-off final against Oxford.
  • Despite previously keeping clean sheets against Oxford, Bolton’s defense faces a new challenge.
  • Key concern for Wanderers is containing Oxford’s pace and exploiting vulnerabilities in the backline.

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Bolton Wanderers head into the League One play-off final against Oxford United on Saturday afternoon as firm favourites but, quite frankly, odds such as those go out of the window for a showpiece occasion such as this.

Just two months ago the Whites stuck five past Oxford in a 5-0 rout at the Toughsheet Community Stadium but the U’s have majorly improved, both in defence and in attack, since that loss and it will be a very different encounter at Wembley Stadium.

Wanderers have plenty of strengths for Des Buckingham and his Oxford side to concern themselves with but the Yellows will also be aware that they could cause Bolton serious problems this weekend and one key concern for Trotters fans will be the threat of Mark Harris getting in behind on that big Wembley pitch.

Testing Ricardo Santos and Gethin Jones

Last season, Bolton Wanderers conceded just 36 goals in League One as they finished fifth in the table with the second-best defensive record – conceding just one more than Ipswich Town, who gained automatic promotion from the Championship this season.

In contrast, this time around the Trotters conceded 51 goals in the third tier with Portsmouth, Derby County, Lincoln City, Blackpool, and Stevenage all conceding fewer than them.

They lost key loanees goalkeeper James Trafford and defender Conor Bradley but replaced them well with Nathan Baxter and Josh Dacres-Cogley so the key issue, one would suggest, has been injuries and a loss of form in the backline.

Key defender from last season George Johnston has been out of the entire season with an ACL injury picked up in a pre-season friendly last summer while Ricardo Santos, Will Forrester, Caleb Taylor, and Jack Iredale have all had spells on the sideline with Gethin Jones also missing a chunk of the season due to participating at the AFC Asian Cup with Australia.

Eoin Toal, who picked up a severe ankle injury in Bolton’s last trip to Wembley Stadium last season in their 4-0 defeat of Plymouth Argyle, has been a stalwart at the back for the Whites and one of their players of the season.

Santos and Jones have returned to the Wanderers XI alongside Toal in their back three but both players have suffered from uncharacteristic mistakes and sluggish performances that have seen Wanderers keep just six clean sheets in 24 League One games since New Year’s Day.

When Bolton won at Wembley last year, the threat in behind was a worry but being 2-0 up inside ten minutes allowed them to completely dictate the tempo and pace, as well as perhaps dropping off deeper than they would have done otherwise.

This time around, with the poor form of both players and without the previous safety net of Bradley’s pace or Trafford’s sweeping abilities, there will be concern that Oxford can exploit their poor form and the space in behind.

Therefore, the key concern in terms of a player for Wanderers to contend with would be Harris, the former Cardiff City forward and current Wales international.

He has notched 19 goals in 52 appearances for the U’s this season and will look to unleash himself in behind the Wanderers backline, supported by wide men Josh Murphy and Owen Dale.

Murphy found himself in acres of space on plenty of occasions against Peterborough United and up against Jones, he will fancy his chances.

Back in League Two, Ian Evatt described Santos was the best centre-half outside of the Championship and he has shown his quality throughout his time at the Toughsheet Community Stadium, putting in an excellent performance against eventual champions Portsmouth as recently as last month, but the Portuguese defender may have to reach his own personal peak again in order to calm any supporters’ nerves this Saturday afternoon.

Bolton’s goals conceded per season under Ian Evatt









*46-game regular league season stats

‘Gambler’s fallacy’

The facts are that Wanderers have gone backward defensively this season in terms of numbers and yet that hasn’t been born out in games against an attack-minded Oxford side. They shared a goalless draw at the Kassam Stadium in November and then thrashed them by five goals to nil back in March.

That made it three successive clean sheets for the Trotters against Oxford but that, combined with their overall defensive performances throughout the campaign, may actually be cause for concern for many fans.

The gambler’s fallacy, also known as the Monte Carlo fallacy, is the idea that a certain random event is less likely or more likely to happen based on the outcome of a previous event or series of events.

It is usually used to admonish an individual for believing in something as clearly random as chance but the fact is, in this instance, there is no chance involved.

Josh Murphy - Oxford United

With Oxford’s attacking personnel and Bolton’s own defensive issues this season, the likelihood of them keeping them shut out in four successive matches would seem quite small. The biggest threat that Oxford pose, or at least the one that Bolton fans will fear the most, is using their pace to get in behind a fragile and shaky backline.

Indeed, how the likes of Santos and Jones are able to deal with Harris could be a deciding factor.

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