Having scored their first two goals of the season and toting a 2-1 advantage up and down the pitch, Bolton was riding high for about 55 minutes on Saturday. Then Sean Davis clipped Lucas Leiva in the heel, picked up a second yellow, and everything fell apart.
This was hardly a clear-cut cardable offense. Yes, David tapped Leiva on the heel, no, Leiva wasn’t “slowing down” just to pick up the foul as suggested by Bolton’s boss, but I’ve seen much worse from carded players that kept them on the pitch.
An underdog going down to 10 men against Liverpool would be bad enough, but for Bolton it was devastating. Fabrice Muamba was given the job of man-marking Steven Gerrard the entire game, and he was doing a fantastic job. Using the interactive chalkboard feature from The Guardian (problem solved!), I made a couple maps of the action. The first chart below shows Gerrard’s passing activity in the first 55 minutes. The second chart shows his activity after the send-off, when Bolton had to pull Muamba off of Gerrard.
With Gerrard as uninvolved as he was in the first 55 minutes, it’s no wonder Liverpool could only generate a goal from Glen Johnson’s long range blast. It’d be easy to say the increase in activity came from the inherent possession advantage of facing only 10 men. However, Liverpool already had the ball for 79% of the first half and Gerrard still only touched it about once every 3-4 minutes. Clearly, Muamba had him completely locked down. If Bolton had been able to continue to wall off Gerrard from the gameplan, it’s hard to imagine Liverpool would have been able to win, or even tie. How many times have we seen two second half goals from the Reds without loads of activity from their captain?
This game wasn’t just about losing a man, it was about the loss of a brilliant defensive tactic. Perhaps Bolton should have stuck with it even down a man, eh?