ANKARA – Continuing with Barclays Premier League previews that will run through kickoff on August 13, FOX Soccer looks at one of the more enigmatic teams of the 2011-12 season: Owen Coyle's Bolton Wanderers.
Bolton started as one of the surprise packets of last year's season, dwelling amongst the league's European contenders well into winter. Owen Coyle's men could score goals and defend well, and they were always tough to play against, inspiring thoughts that there's been a breakthrough at the Reebok, a formula that would bring the successes of the Sam Allardyce era without the compromises.
Unfortunately for Wanderers' supporters, that dream died at the boots of Jonny Evans.
American Stuart Holden was lost to injury for the rest of the season after a tackle from Manchester United's Evans in March. That put the club on a downward spiral, seeing the club close out the season with five straight league losses and embarrassing 5-0 thrashing by Stoke in the FA Cup semifinals. Wanderers finished 14th, and they might have done worse had the season lasted another week or two.
The Trotters can take comfort that they were doing well for large stretches, but their lack of quality depth - revealed in the loss of Holden, who proved to be far more influential than one might have thought - and a thin strike corps were killers as the year went on.
Coming into 2011-12, Bolton haven't made addressed those changes, largely because they cannot. This is not a wealthy club, and as such, they have to sell quality players and hope to pick up some diamonds in the rough.
With a squad that has not been strengthened, the question is which Bolton team will take the pitch this season. Will it be the team that challenged for Europe in the Prem's opening months? Or is it the team that played like relegation fodder by the time the whistle blew on the 38th round? Maybe Holden really was that powerful.
Unless the return of their valued American can be coupled with some miraculous fortune, Bolton is poised to set a dubious record. If (read: when) they fail to win the title this year, they will set a mark as the longest-serving team in the top-flight never to have worn the crown. That's 73 seasons.
Unfortunately for the Trotters, the few changes that have happened have been negative. Two weeks before the season opener, Lee Chung-yong saw his leg broken in a pre-season friendly against Newport. The South Korean attacker will miss at least nine months, a massive loss. Simply put, he is one of the most effective players the team has, and the Wanderers now need to find a quick replacement.
Johan Elmander, who was so crucial to the club as a goalscorer and morale booster, was out of contract and released; he quickly signed up with Turkish side Galatasaray. They did import the somewhat erratic Nigel Reo-Coker from Aston Villa and pick up Darren Pratley from Swansea to add to what is already a pretty stuffed midfield, acquisitions that come nowhere near offsetting the losses of Lee, Elmander ...
Or losses that may still come. Bolton may have to absorb the loss of England international Gary Cahill. He has been consistently linked to Arsenal, and given that team's defensive woes, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Gunners cough up the bucks.
Even if Cahill stays, there won't be a lot of change on the pitch, though some treaks are desperately needed. Bolton could use another striker to pair with Kevin Davies, having ridden the aging Ivan Klasnic for all he was worth last year (and being forced to return Daniel Sturridge to Chelsea after his loan spell). Until they find another dangerman, it's unclear how this team scores enough goals to match last year's highs.
In back it's Finnish fave Jussi Jaaskelainen, a `keeper who can be dazzling and baffling in the space of 10 minutes. No spring chicken he, Jasskelainen will ultimately share duties with 23-year-old Adam Bogdan.
If Cahill stays, he lines up with Zat Knight, Gretar Steinsson, and Paul Robinson. Look for former Boro-man David Wheater to get minutes as he impressed when called into service.
Midfield gets some help with the addition of the creative Pratley, but it's Holden and the now-injured Lee that really pulled the strings here. Fabrice Muamba and Mark Davies will fight for time, where Reo-Coker looks more like a squad player.
Up top it's Davies, Klasnic and whichever warm body they can find. They have to hope they can get something out of Tope Obadeyi soon or snag someone on loan because the geriatric Robbie Blake is not the answer.
Mesh it altogether, and it's clear: Bolton are going to struggle. They are one of a slew of mid-table teams that on any given day can cause pain to a Big Six team but can't get the job done day to day against teams of their own ilk. Might be a long year at the Reebok but keep in mind there is always one surprise team from this tier, and, hey, why not Bolton?