The Owen Coyle Myth

17 05 2011

 “I hate perception. There is far too much of it in the game. I prefer to stick to reality.”
– Sam Allardyce

One of the perceptions in the game right now is that Owen Coyle plays football the right way. Apparently he’s introduced football at the Reebok – and football writers are falling over themselves to lavish praise on him:

“Coyle has won admirers for an attractive style of passing football at Bolton, where predecessors Sam Allardyce and Gary Megson were noted for their direct play.”
– Daily Mirror, Jan 7 2011

“The Trotters have confounded all expectations this term by playing a slick brand of pass-and-move football.”
– BBC, Dec 12 2010

“The team once regarded as schoolyard bullies are now using the Arsenal blueprint for how the game should be played”
– The Guardian, Nov 16 2010

On the basis of such ringing endorsements you’d be expecting something pretty special from Bolton Wanderers. The reality is somewhat different. Kevin Davies remains pivotal to their play and – as you would expect with such a player in the side – the inclination is to hit the ball long to him.

The diagram below shows that only the vilified Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers have played fewer short passes this season. So much for the Arsenal blueprint. While the two sides below them have quite the reputation for the route one stuff, Coyle’s side has been spared this stigma.

data supplied by


One of the reasons for this is perhaps the presence of Stuart Holden in the Bolton midfield. The American has come to personify ‘new Bolton’ with his technical proficiency and desire to play football. Coyle’s supporters would doubtless point to his injury-enforced absence as a key reason behind Bolton’s lowly position in the passing table.

But the situation is not quite so clear in regard to the much lauded Mark Davies. Former teammate Rohan Ricketts recently claimed Davies was England’s answer to Andres Iniesta and – while that assessment is clearly hyperbole – the former England U16 captain’s progressive midfield displays are certainly easy on the eye. It is curious, therefore, that Coyle has preferred to instead use Johan Elmander in a midfield role. With Holden unavailable one may have thought this was an opportunity to draft in Davies to help pull the strings from the centre of the pitch. It’s a minor point but not exactly a team selection that inspires the notion that Coyle is committed to ‘slick, passing football’.

Perhaps the key to changing the perception of Bolton was not so much to do with their passing style but more about curbing the physical excesses of their game. However, the reality is that Bolton have pretty much continued as they were. Sir Alex Ferguson noted last year that Coyle’s Bolton continue to rely on their physical approach and this is borne out by the statistics. No team in the Premier League has received more bookings for fouls than Coyle’s side. Of course, the presence of perennial offender Kevin Davies is unlikely to help in this regard but there are other sinners. Paul Robinson has picked up seven bookings this season and the likes of Gretar Steinsson, Fabrice Muamba and Zat Knight are clearly no shrinking violets either.

data supplied by


So if Owen Coyle has not significantly changed the style of play or altered the emphasis on a physical approach, what is the reason for the club’s turnaround in fortunes? As is often the case, much can be learned by seeking the views of the club’s supporters. A Bolton Wanderers forum recently invited readers to outline what Coyle had done to improve the team. Their answers were revealing. There was little talk of passing football. Instead there were multiple references to atmosphere, attitude and belief. These are vital intangibles for any team and of particular concern to a Bolton side that appeared in dire need of inspiration under Gary Megson.

Clearly things were not right under Megson and the team appeared to be going in only one direction. Coyle changed that and has restored Bolton to a healthy midtable position. It’s one they are familiar with. In the four seasons from 2003-04 to 2006-07 the club never finished lower than eighth and showcased the talents of Youri Djorkaeff, Nicolas Anelka, Jay-Jay Okocha and Fernando Hierro.

Despite their presence, and much to the annoyance of Allardyce, the club was unable to shake off their long-ball reputation.

It’s this reputation that Coyle has had to tackle. He’s succeeded. And, in fairness to him, he has acknowledged this whilst being fairly understated about the changes that have been made:

“There was a perception Bolton played in a certain way and with a certain style. We had to try to change that and in terms of our football philosophy we have made a little transition. I’m not saying we play like Arsenal or Barcelona but we have added other dimensions, although we are still not afraid to go to the strikers early and use the strengths we have always had because forward Kevin Davies is the best at what he does.”

There’s that word perception again. Sam Allardyce hates perception. It’s not hard to see why.




14 responses

17 05 2011

It is an interesting observation and one that i share with you. However, just as an aside i think your comments regarding the selection of Elmander over Davies are misinformed. Mark Davies has not been selected for the tail end of the season through recurring niggles of an injury – he is very injury prone (i think we even signed him with an injury). I would argue that the selection of Elmander in that position indicates Coyle is trying to create a more passing and direct running midfield. He could have easily tucked Matt Taylor in the middle and kept Petrov on the left wing. Elmander’s inclusion in that role could also have been more of an attempt to keep him in the side (unlikely to replace Kevin Davies or Sturridge upfront) so he may be tempted to resign as his contract is up at the end of the season.

In relation to the comments regarding the long ball, as a Bolton fan, it has not escaped me that we have maintained the use of long ball. The main reason for that is, as you have pointed out, we have Kevin Davies who is recognised as one of the best in the business at playing that way – although i fear it is rarely successful, and by playing Muamba in the other midfield role we lack a secondary creative output in midfield to play the wingers in. The movement is very static when played up from the back and the majority of the other prem teams are wise to push up tight in midfield to stifle us. The ball goes back to the CBs who punt it up front. I believe the reason this is not noticed so much by the media is that we dont play as obviously long ball as we did under Sam. We dont flood the box for long throws or have the goalkeeper taking freekicks from our half into the box. On another note, we play a more overall attacking style, we dont play with an out and out defensive midfielder or quarterback (Ivan Campo under Sam) so we do not screen our defence. We score a lot of goals but concede a lot too. As you would expect we score some good team goals as well as as fair share of route one or set piece headed goals. However, the media pick up on the well worked team goals and then brand the rough and tumble long balls as an extra asset rather than define our entire play that way.

17 05 2011

Hi Alex.

Thanks for taking a balanced approach as a fan of the club and you make some really interesting points. I’d definitely agree that you’ve always scored good team goals and more direct goals but parts of the media now choose to emphasise the passing ones to fit the story.

Regarding Elmander / M.Davies, I’m aware he’s been injured lately but I think I can point to at least a couple of games in April (most notably the FA Cup semi-final) where Davies was on the bench while Elmander started in midfield?


17 05 2011

Hey Adam,

No problem. Initially seeing the story headline i wanted to jump on my high horse and defend Coyle but in fairness i agree with your analysis. Whilst stats can often be manipulated to reflect the posters point they do speak volumes here and back up what i see as a fan.

Yeah you’re right to point out that Davies did make it onto the bench but throughout he was often racing to be fit in time and carrying that knock which has subsequently put him out for the remainder of the season. I think if he had had him 100% he would have picked him – although at the start of the season he was generally used as an impact player to add some extra spice in attack if we were behind. Elmander played in the middle appeared to be a stroke of genius as he embarassed West Ham 3-0 but that was West Ham and he has since looked really out of place there.

The media like stories to work in simple and neat packages – Coyle was getting results and we were scoring some good goals. The notion that he had completely revolutionised the style of the team and that heis the next Wenger has been engineered by them to fit their narrative throughout the season. In truth, whilst we have Kevin Davies it will be difficult for us to move away from that ever so tempting long ball into him. Of late this has been worsened by playing with Mumaba and Elmander in the middle – with little creative passing in the midfield we’re struggling to utilise the likes of Chung Yong Lee and Petrov. Sturridge’s fantastic individual performances and short passing link-ups have been refreshing enough to draw attention away from what has been fairly one dimensional and limited attacking during this spell of poor away form.

Assuming that we sell Gary Cahill this summer for the reported £15-20 million then Coyle may have the funds he needs to bring about real footballing changes. At this juncture he’s got us this far on a shoe-string and his team, aside form some inspired loan signings, is still Gary Megson’s. I think we’ll learn a lot more about Coyle’s belief in playing football the right way next season and if he truly does have the ability to keep to that ethos whilst getting the all important results then he wont be far away from potentially a move into the upper echelons.

17 05 2011
barney ronay

Hi. I like this blog – always a good read.
but… in this piece you’ve quoted a guardian headline writer and pretended it was me – in an article apparently debunking misguided “perception” over reality. Top journalistic work!

Best to note the difference between an article’s furniture and its actual text before you go quoting hacks. As it is you refer to “the Arsenal blueprint” twice – a phrase coined notby an unknown and probably very bored sub-ed.

Also my report on bolton was written in november, just after the game in which Johan Elmander scored that brilliant goal and Bolton were playing some lovely stuff. Imagine your stats are probably up to the end of the season. It’s not quite an accurrate comparison if so. Might seem minor, but you’re allegedly debunking myths/finally shining a light on our appalling ignorance etc. So best to get it right, eh?

17 05 2011

Hi Barney

Emphatically hoist with one’s own petard!

Appreciate that the “Arsenal blueprint” comment appeared in the sub-heading not the text and amended now to exclude reference to you. Slack work by me and sincere apologies.

Bored sub-ed or not, I do feel it’s valid to keep the amended quote in as it did appear in the Guardian and remains indicative of mainstream opinion.

Interesting point about the timing of the article / stats. I too was at the game in question that November and, while Elmander’s goal was impressive, the Guardian chalkboards show Bolton played 255 passes in that match to their opponents 311. If this is the finest example of Coyle’s passing game I’m not convinced it’s a persuasive argument.

Apologies again for the error and thanks for saying you like the blog, albeit with a (perfectly understandable) hefty caveat!


17 05 2011
barney ronay

thanks – nice on the hoof editing. appreciate it. that stuff they put in the headers and sub-headers – you really don;t want that on your record.

re: 255 passes to 311 – does suggest how pointless chalboards can be and how stats in football often tell you very little. you will have seen, as i did, that bolton played by far the more controlled and tactically refined football. coyle was absolutely buzzing afterwards about their midfield – hence the talk (from him – and reported, as it should be, by the guardian) about an arsenal style.

this may well have been a blip, or a season’s high. they were fifth then i think. suspect they may have gone back to being davies-hoofers when they had that bad run.

good stuff anyway. keep up the good work

17 05 2011

What a load of complete bollocks. We play loadz of pretty passes and shit, it’s great these days.

17 05 2011

Your argument has convinced me!

18 05 2011

Coyle for all his efforts hasn’t been able to shift two features of Post-Allardyce Bolton: the November collapse and the April limp. If memory serves even Megson picked up Manager of the Month for November 08-09 – and right after that it all went south for several weeks.

This is partially down to a thin squad but I think the proximity of both dips to holiday seasons is also telling.

18 05 2011

Good points well made and to some extent accurate.
It is difficult to write one piece that covers an entire 9 month period wth any authority, my thoughts are somewhere be the two “extremes”.
Bolton with Holden or M Davies fit and playing in the midfield can be a slick unit, they also retain the out let of Kevin Davies, without Holden and MDavies and Elmander in midfield the defence tend to go long more frequently.
Ironically I think the excellent Sturridge has also impact, as the team try to get the ball forward to him via Kevin Davies as soon as possible.
The team are better to watch but I think we all know this is a work in progress and next season will either confirm or dispell the “myth” if that is possible…

18 05 2011

I think this is more about getting results while also having the ‘style’. Owen Coyle is a realist, so developing a short passing game in a team including Kevin Davies as a skipper would be impossible. And some other players also… It’s Megson’s legacy and so on this might be the process of the transition. This year Coyle used this physical presence to create an ‘overwhelming’ style, well, I think the main asset of this team is that being ‘over-whelming’. Side’s not totally limited technically nor in a creative way, so it provides fun despite playing long balls. I’m not a regular Bolton watcher, but what I’ve seen in many games (against Arsenal, remember Vela’s goal?) and also against us (Aston Villa) that the side playing a high-line. Not all the time surely, but most of the time and that’s a vital side of their play. So, keep playing to Davies and keep doing that and even though you can’t get some certain opportunities, you overwhelm them, and get corners -in which the side is very successful- etc. Still, it’s unfair to blame Coyle for playing long ball as what he’d shown in the past and he’ll probably have fresh money in the summer, so to challenge. I’m looking forward to. More irritating is lazy, speculative journalism. Well, not all the journalists, certainly.

18 05 2011
chris waddle

i like this. never been a fan of coyle. bolton has improved but always felt he has been massively over-hyped because he is quite charismatic in the media. and not megson

18 05 2011

Great article, that uses well backed up arguments that challenge lazy media perceptions. However, if you intend to make a career of journalism, can I suggest you use longer words, make your paragraphs a wee bit more flowery and stick to writing articles about how wonderful Barca are, how great it’ll be when ‘Arry is England manager and the delights to be found at ‘The Academy of Football’

18 05 2011
Wolfgang Wolf

Good article indeed. I do remember watching Bolton-Spurs earlier in the season and Bolton looked very good, attacking with speed and mixing up play well. I also remember Davies having a blinder, feasting on long balls, so to speak.

Nice quote from Allardyce too, a man who perceives himself to be talented enough to manage the likes of Real Madrid, when in reality he is not.

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