It is too early to start proclaiming that Brand Evatt is fully functional, nor that players who served up such staccato form in the opening dozen games have suddenly transformed into a fluid, cohesive unit which will romp all the way down the road to promotion.
Over-promising has been Bolton’s undoing in the last three months. And so it would be foolish of anyone to suggest that three successive wins should make Bolton anything other than an improving side now looking more comfortable in its own skin.
The Salford result felt like an important statement at the time, so for Evatt’s side to get on the road and grind out another to back it up in the unfamiliar surroundings of Stevenage is unquestionably another positive step.
Many questions have been asked about whether the Bolton boss had the quality components to make his fantastical plan for Total Football pay-off, and those doubts have not disappeared entirely. But due credit must be given to the young manager for sticking to his principles and allowing these footballing bonds to start growing organically on the pitch.
The margins between success and failure remain fine, emphasised perfectly here in Stevenage where a riotous 44 minutes of football was nearly wrecked by 60 seconds of sloppiness.
Eoin Doyle and Ali Crawford had helped the swaggering Whites race into a two-goal lead, the margin of which only appeared likely to widen. Yet the psychology of the game changed completely with a goal of the stroke of half time by Tom Pett, leaving a much more evenly fought and tense second half to play out.
With three points secured, we can reflect on seeing the two different sides of Wanderers on the day.
For the majority of the first half, and for flecks of the second, the Leeds United-like expansive attacking football that Evatt has craved since day one. A uniform shape hovering in wait for a misplaced pass or a poor touch, followed by an intense press, swift counter and, invariably, a goalscoring opportunity.
Wanderers swamped their hosts early on, particularly down the right flank where Peter Kioso and Alex Baptiste could progress at will.
Doyle put his side ahead 14 minutes in with an acrobatic finish after home keeper Jamie Cumming had pushed away Antoni Sarcevic’s volley.
Baptiste very nearly made it two with a downward header from Crawford’s corner which again had the Stevenage stopper at full stretch.
Over the last couple of months Wanderers have regularly looked like a side willing to play possession football but without the ideas to turn it into goals. The Salford result signalled a sea change, and though they surrendered some of the ball, their ability to switch quickly from a defensive shape into an attacking one made them so much more effective.
Here again, enough encouragement was offered to Stevenage to allow them to make mistakes. Like the master fencer, Bolton just parried until they spotted a weakness to attack.
The two central midfielders, Antoni Sarcevic and Andy Tutte, have become integral to that approach, stealing the ball and setting their side forward quickly.
Pick your footballing buzz word – recoveries, transitions, overloads, presses – they are all part of a philosophy manipulating possession and space which is fascinating to watch. For it to work, however, the right decisions need to be made in the right areas of the pitch and another one plucked from the Premier League lexicon – footballing intelligence – comes into play.
Wanderers’ second goal was a perfect case in point. They had invited Stevenage in before nicking possession on the edge of the box and launching an attack forward. Baptiste found Doyle, who raced into space down the left and after momentarily cutting inside and looking up at his options, found Gethin Jones haring down the inside, one pass later and Crawford was able to brush a shot inside the far post and Stevenage didn’t know what had hit them.
Such was Bolton’s domination at the time you almost willed that the first half would be extended. And then, the sting in the tail.
A ball down the right for Arimide Oteh saw him out-wrestle Ryan Delaney, and with Wanderers’ defenders expecting a foul to be given, Ricardo Santos was not quite alert enough to the low cross, turned in with aplomb by Pett.
It was a counter punch that winded the Whites, and they never again had the same sort of swagger to their game.
Doyle did have a couple of chances to double his personal tally but between keeper, Cumming, and the outstanding home centre-half Scott Cuthbert, Stevenage were doing enough to keep Bolton at bay.
According to the road sign coming into Hertfordshire, this was the county of opportunity. And the home side were sensing they had a chance to claim a point.
Matt Gilks made a sprawling save to push Peet’s effort around the post and Santos, Sarcevic, Baptiste and Jones were all called upon to make vital clearances in their own penalty box.
In the end, and much like Evatt’s first win at Harrogate, his side had to work hard for their points. In stark contrast to the attractive, expansive football played earlier, this was a case of rolling up sleeves and seeing a game out with grinded teeth, something which Bolton look much more capable of doing these days.
Even a master tactician like Marcelo Bielsa took 12 months to turn Leeds into a winning machine, and part of that transition was discovering a way to keep it going when someone lobbed a wrench in the gears.
Wanderers will need to mix and match their approach if they are to realise any of those pre-season brags of an immediate return to League One which, eight points off automatic promotion and four points from the play-offs, is not in any way unachievable.
But in this New Town, a new approach. Evatt’s assessment of the performance was understated, relaxed even. Perhaps a sign of a young manager who is also evolving in the public spotlight along with his team.
“That one a minute before half-time kind of changes the direction the game was heading,” he said. “We had them beat really and we let them off the hook and all of a sudden, 2-0, we all know it’s a susceptible scoreline and the next goal can also lift the opposition.
“They got it through bad defending from us, but I thought the way we started the second half, Doyle had a good chance early on and the way we stood up to everything they threw at us, which wasn’t easy as this isn’t an easy place to come, was excellent and there were some glimpses of real quality on the counter attack.
“We probably should have put the game to bed.
“But I think we can all start to see it now. Some of the interplay, the pace and precision in the counterattacks is fantastic and we’re looking a difficult side to beat.
“You have to give yourselves that platform, first and foremost. You have to not lose the game before you can win it and we did that with the way we started the game.
“We got ourselves ahead and I’m disappointed with that minute’s concentration because it made things uncomfortable for all of us. But we’ll learn from it and go again.”
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