Above the water
Bolton Wanderers’ trip to Norwich City leads to the usual meanderings on architecture, identity and tactics.
The flatlands that nervously approach the North Sea from the east of of this island aren’t so much English as Low Countries. Much of it having been dried out and inhabited using imported techniques, it’s less East Anglia than North Netherlandia.
Unprepossessingly functional from the outside — the Barclay Stand end resembles the Holiday Inn that abuts it, the mid-80s “main” stand feels like a council office and the South Stand’s cheerlessly monochrome cladding appears to forlornly await the implementation of a colour scheme — Carrow Road could be anywhere, but the artful angularity of the newbuild apartments squeezed between it and the Wensum suggest Rotterdam rather than Rotherham.
Divisive plebiscites notwithstanding, we’re all European now, if not global. Influences don’t invade, they invigorate, welcomed by a population restlessly demanding the best, be it in cuisine, architecture or sporting endeavour. We no longer peer jealously over the garden fence: we scour the planet.
In their latest attempt to escape a division increasingly populated with Euromanagers, Norwich City have gone for Daniel Farke, former boss of Borussia Dortmund reserves. If this is an attempt to capture the next Jurgen Klopp — or more realistically the most readily available facsimile of Klopp’s best man David Wagner, who led Huddersfield Town to unlikely promotion four days after Farke’s arrival — it hasn’t really worked, qualitatively or quantitatively. The Canaries, who finished eighth last season, are now in 14th.
Whereas Wagner’s team attempts to ape Klopp’s gangbusters gegenpress, Norwich are much more deliberate in possession — a tactic more Barcelona 2010 than BVB 2014. After injury-time equalisers this week against Ipswich and Wolves, Farke crowed that “We control games and look to exhaust opponents. That helps us to score late goals.” On Saturday against Bolton, they controlled the game but failed to exhaust an indefatigable Bolton and failed to score at all. Visiting boss Phil Parkinson — a homely Lancastrian whose teams tend toward the necessarily functional rather than the frivolously artistic — got his tactics just right, even with a mid-match re-jig.
Predicting the Wanderers’ starting XI has become much more difficult lately because their manager finally has options. In defence, Bolton can choose between a back three and a back four; up front, Parkinson can perm one, two or three attackers from four or so alternatives. On this occasion, there was also unusual uncertainty over the midfield: with card-hoarder Karl Henry suspended and Josh Vela injured, Darren Pratley was more ready to return after his six-week lay-off than new signing Jan Kirchhoff, who hasn’t kicked a ball in competition since December 2016.
Pratley returned in a three-man central unit entirely staffed with Londoners. The Barking-born captain and the rediscovered Jem Karacan (a Catford Turk) were given licence to harry and scurry while the midfield was anchored by loaned East Ender Reece Burke, reprising the role he briefly occupied in the final stages of the midweek victory over Sunderland.
Burke was one of four centre-backs on the team-sheet as Parkinson started with the wing-back system to which he has intermittently turned during his two years at Bolton. Antonee Robinson returned on the left, Fil Morais — lauded by a manager who clearly respects him — continued on the right, with the promotion-winning back three of Mark Beevers, David Wheater and Dorian Dervite protecting the increasingly impressive Ben Alnwick.
Up front, the selection wheel turned again and Adam Le Fondre came in to play at point in front of the vaguely-floating Sammy Ameobi. It didn’t really work as Alf struggled manfully to make headway against defenders who seemed twice his size yet just as fast. Given that he was never going to beat Grant Hanley in an aerial duel, he seemed understandably disappointed that his team-mates gave him so few alley-balls to chase.
Norwich certainly had chances in the first half. Preening midfielder James Maddison bent one onto the base of Alnwick’s post, stung the Geordie’s palms with a rising 20-yarder and was later denied by a desperate Dervite block, but the best opportunity fell to Moritz Leitner eight minutes before half-time. Sent clean through into the penalty area by a triangulated move which managed to simultaneously shift all of Bolton’s many centre-backs out of position, the German midfielder dragged his shot well wide.
At the break, Parkinson performed the sort of authoritative and effective reshuffle that tauntingly haunts Theresa May’s fractured dreams. Switching to a back four, he moved Dervite to right-back and Morais to the left wing; Bolton were now playing a lopsided 4–5–1, with Ameobi alternating as occasion demanded between digging back to protect Dervite and flowing forward to augment Le Fondre’s attacking endeavours. Not unexpectedly, this left Alf more isolated than ever — and it was to a notable lack of away-end displeasure that the fan favourite was withdrawn midway through the half for Aaron Wilbraham, 40 next year but the closest thing Bolton have to an orthodox target man since the deadline-day sale of Gary Madine.
Meanwhile on the left, an interesting party developed among the diasporas: Morais, arguably on the wrong side of both the pitch and his 30th birthday to push and run into Norvicensian acres, instead frequently combined cleverly with Karacan to utilise the youthful zoom of Robinson on the overlap. These left-flank raids didn’t amount to much, even if Robinson – born in Milton Keynes, but the son of a New Yorker – got close enough to see the whites of the widening eyes in the River End he was attacking, but they certainly helped to relieve the pressure and keep the home side concerned with matters defensive.
Up the other end, Norwich were well into their third reel of increasingly unimpressive huffing and puffing. Eventually they resorted to bringing on Wes Hoolahan, born back during the war (for the Falklands), but all he managed to win was a free-kick well defended. Everything was well-defended, even after Burke limped off to be replaced by Derik Osede for the last 15 minutes (seven of them added at the referee’s discretion), and even after the withdrawal of the Bolton defence’s iconic leader: at the same time Wilbraham replaced Le Fondre, debutant Jon Flanagan came on for David Wheater, with Dervite switching centrally. After somewhat riding their luck in the first half, the defensive unit looked much more confident in a back four: it’s telling that the Sky Sports 54-second cut of highlights consists entirely of chances Norwich had before half-time.
Incensed by Bolton’s game management, Farke managed to torpedo his own side’s momentum by angrily hoofing the ball back into play and thus himself into the stands. Perhaps endeavouring to shade his shame, he claimed this was “probably our best home performance of the season”. Much ado about nothing-nothing.
Whereas Bolton’s previous road bagels, at Birmingham and Preston, were tainted with irritation at a lack of attacking spark, this one was joyfully celebrated for its dogged defensiveness. All such away performances are hostage to fortune: had Norwich squeezed in their third late goal of the week, this trip would have been fruitless. Instead, it’s an indicator that Bolton — who had lost six of their seven previous away games — can claw out results away from home. The next two trips, to Reading and Sheffield Wednesday, should foster genuine hopes of the lesser-spotted away win.
That would require a goal from somewhere. It can’t be ignored that Bolton have scored once in the last six trips, and rarely came close here. Parkinson is quite rightly building from the back and cheeringly, his side is yet to show the usual post-window wobble, but for the second time in the three journeys since Deadline Day his side managed zero attempts on target. He’s certainly not trying the same thing every time and perhaps the answer lies on the sidelines: unused again here as at QPR last Saturday, Zach Clough has played just 21 minutes in those three away games, chasing shadows at Cardiff in a game already gone.
But Bolton fans were in no mood to question the shortfall up front, instead praising the heroes at the back. Parkinson’s sides rarely shy away from hard work, and through what their manager called “a proper shift from the lads, the sort of effort you are looking for from your players when you are on your travels” they have sweated their way to a hard-earned point.
It might have seemed like the most English of doughty battling rearguards, like the 0–0 in Italy to reach France 98 or the rather less frivolous events of Dunkirk 1940. But playing in Bolton’s kit alongside a variety of homelanders was a Turk born in Catford, a Geordie Nigerian, a Portuguese raised in Finchley, the Spanish son of a Nigerian father, a Frenchman who moved to London at 17 and the usual pleasing sprinkling of Jamaican and Irish heritage germane to most gatherings of modern Britons.
With most rivals again failing to make headway, Bolton remain four points above the dotted line, a week closer to the end of the season. While the home fans slinked out in muted mood, the away end rejoiced. The “typically English” determination showed by their collection of Anglos, imports and all points in between had picked up another point, helping to shore up the unlikely beach-head Parkinson has established despite embargo being followed by the sale of his star striker. With 34 points from 34 games, they may only need four more wins from their final dozen games to stay above the dots of doom. It isn’t only Dutch-aided East Anglians who can keep their heads above the cold unforgiving water.