1.Our starting line up was a 4-4-2 variant (4-2-2-2) with Heitinga and Neville holding with Donovan and Osman coming off the flanks to play advanced behind the strikeforce of Saha and Stracqualursi . Bolton lined up in a 4-5-1with Ngog as the lone forward.
2.With our squad, 2 strikers just doesn’t work. 4-5-1 is much maligned but it makes us a lot more compact . In modern football most teams in the top flight leagues across Europe don’t play with 2 strikers. Man United is an obvious exception, but they have Rooney who can dip into midfield when they are not in possession and then pivot to the striking role when they regain the ball (4-5-1 becoming 4-4-2) We do this to an extent with Cahill in the side and it makes us harder to play through.
3.If only the formation was our only problem! Player wise, we have the smallest squad in the top flight – our first choice 11 has quality and will be competitive against any side in the division, but when the squad creaks we are left with the fringe players who are not good enough.
4.We were not helped by basically having a first choice midfield which oozes energy (Drenthe, Fellaini, Rodwell, Coleman) all injured whilst two of our top performers Jagielka and Osman also limped off which disrupted what little rhythm we had in the first half. This led to our ball retention in the second half dropping alarmingly from 72% to 61% – the key factor in the match.
5.The key advantage of 4-5-1 over 4-4-2 is the advantage of a 5 man midfield to a 4 man midfield. Bolton outnumbered us in the middle of the park 3 v 2 which made it very easy for them to pass the ball around us, especially as we had little in terms of legs in the middle of the park to press and regain possession with old man Neville’s creaking legs put through its 5th game in 19 days.
6.Moyes is not a fool and whilst fans will point the finger at him for retaining the likes of Neville, Heitinga and Saha we simply have nobody else to call on. Gueye, Stracqualursi and Donovan had 1 prem start between them and it showed as we looked increasingly disjointed as the game developed.
7.Jagielka’s injury in particular made us vulnerable at the – his ability to get vital blocks and interceptions in our 18 yard box is massive . In the first half we conceded just 2 shots on our goal inside our 18 yard box, whereas in the second the figure rose to 10 – although point 5 is also a contributory factor to this.
8.As noted in point 4 our passing deteriorated as the game went on. Having a numerical disadvantage in the centre of the pitch makes it very hard for defenders to play the ball into midfield from the back , so the long ball into the channels becomes the default option. Some of the passing on show was truly dire. Of our outfield players Hibbert ( 55%), Straq (67%) and Neville ( 68%) were the worst in terms of pass completion – all comfortably below Stoke’s average pass completion of 70%
9.The strike force of Saha and Straqualursi was terrible. The original tactic seemed to be for them to both pull wide with Osman and Donovan coming off the flanks and using the space the forwards had vacated, but once Osman came off this plan wilted as Gueye is heavily left footed and will rather hug the touchline (and in doing so reduce Baines room to manoeuvre) . Even when the strike duo played closer together in the second period there was no chemistry at all – the chalkboard (below) shows Saha’s passing (numbers shown are squad numbers) ….Saha made 2 passes to Straq in the 90mins.
10.In Conclusion, we were basically inept. Playing 2 out and out strikers was the wrong move. Osman should have started through the middle with one of the mediocre wide men (Billy/McFadden etc) wide left. The man dis-advantage in the middle of the park gave Bolton the advantage and led to a lack of cohesion for ourselves. Credit to Bolton, they were comfortably the better side and should have won by a higher margin.