How Bolton Wanderers’ Rangers target Dapo Afolayan went from strength to strength

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IF you believe some reports, Dapo Afolayan could be playing Champions League football next season – but what has happened to Bolton Wanderers’ Star Man to propel him to such exalted billing?

When he first landed at the UniBol, Ian Evatt’s Wanderers sat a lowly 19th in the League Two table with some doom-mongers insisting the manager should be more concerned about dropping into the National League than perpetuating any ambition of automatic promotion.

And although other January arrivals like MJ Williams, Declan John and Kieran Lee got the motor running for that seemingly impossible drag race to the line at Crawley, Afolayan was the man who provided the nitro boost.

Twelve months ago, Wanderers confirmed they had agreed a three-year deal to take him on a permanent basis from West Ham United.

“It’s my job to get assets on the football pitch and Dapo certainly is an asset,” said Evatt, not realizing just how true his words would become the following summer.

After winning the club’s player of the year prize, topping the goal charts with 14 in all competitions and improving in just about every attacking metric you could wish to measure, it is little wonder that his name is already doing the rounds on the transfer rumor mills .

Rangers – beaten Europa League finalists – are the latest club linked, the Scottish giants allegedly looking at Afolayan as a potential replacement for Ryan Kent. Closer to home a bunch of Championship sides including Fulham and Cardiff have also kept tabs.

And although the player himself is nonplussed by the speculation, insisting he can fulfill his football ambition with Wanderers, he must also appreciate the attention derives from the considerable improvement he has made with the club.

That Afolayan has also developed his game whilst learning a relatively new position in the second half of this season makes his achievement all the more impressive.

Evatt’s switch from 4-3-3 in the first few months of the season to 3-4-1-2 meant bringing the former Hammers man into a number 10 role he had previously played at non-league Solihull Moors.

Evatt had teed up the move as early as October, telling The Bolton News: “The way that Dapo plays out wide is that he’s always drifting inside into pockets of space into half spaces and then looking to thread passes or dribble and drive and shoot, so as a number 10, he can really affect the game from that position. ”

Playing more centrally definitely reduced the amount that Afolayan could run directly at defenders, and consequently his trademark cut-in from the left, which had been the pre-amble to so many of his goals early on.

But while the tactical tweak appeared briefly to have clipped his wings, not enough credit was given to his football intelligence. By the end of February and early March he was pulling strings again, allowing the likes of Marlon Fossey and Declan John to provide width.

There can be little argument that this has been the most successful season of Afolayan’s fledgling career to date but where has the improvement come from, and what areas of his game can still progress?

We looked at the data available on statistics website Wyscout to check out how his loan spell in League Two compared with this season’s numbers after promotion.

The Bolton News:

DRIBBLING

Afolayan has dribbled the ball less this season than he did last, potentially as a result of him moving into the center of the pitch.

During his loan spell in League Two he averaged a division-high 12.43 dribbles per 90 minutes with a success rate of 54.99 per cent.

This year that figure has dropped to 8.64 per 90, which is still the seventh highest in League One, and a success rate of 53.11 per cent.

It is worth noting, however, that Afolayan has attempted to take on more opposing players than anyone else in the division this season (354 ball carries).

Afolayan averages 3.44 progressive runs per 90 minute, which puts him just ahead of Kieran Sadlier (3.07) in the Bolton squad and ninth overall in League One among players who have started 20 matches or more.

He also scores highly on offensive duels, which include dribbling, but also take into consideration any use of the body to progress possession – eg lay-offs, flick-ons, etc. Afolayan is fourth among League One players, averaging 18 offensive duels per 90 minutes.

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The Bolton News:

SHOTS ON GOAL

Scott Twine of MK Dons leads the list of shot-takers in League One this season on 153, followed by Morecambe’s Cole Stockton (141) – a player so often linked with a move to the UniBol. Afolayan is third in the list, taking 131 shots on goal at an average of 3.2 per game, the highest in the Bolton squad and second only to MK Dons’ Theo Corbeanu in the division.

Comparing that to his work in League Two, Afolayan has improved his strike rate from 2.64 shots per game last season.

His accuracy has also improved, with 27.27 per cent on target between January and May 2021 and 35.11 over the course of the whole 2021/22 season.

Afolayan does most of his work outside the penalty box and has fired more than 60 per cent of his shots at goal from 18 yards or more. Again, Twine (102) has done slightly more than the Wanderers man (83), albeit he has played three more games.

The Bolton News:

SCORING

This season, 9.16 per cent of Afolayan’s shots have result in a goal, which is an obvious increase on last season (2.2 per cent).

After breaking his scoring duck against Crawley in the game that ultimately decided Bolton’s automatic promotion fate, he has hardly looked back, scoring 14 times in all competitions.

It has been the highest scoring season of his career, eclipsing the 11 he managed at Solihull Moors during the 2017/18 campaign, and he has also joined team-mate Amadou Bakayoko, Eoin Doyle and Michael Ricketts as the only Bolton Wanderers players to score more than a dozen goals in a single season over the last two decades.

Afolayan has seen more possession inside the penalty box this season – his average number of touches increasing from 2.52 per game to 3.05. Eight of his 12 league goals came from either inside the 12 or six-yard box.

The Bolton News:

PASSING

Key passes are those which directly lead to a goalscoring opportunity – and Afolayan has produced plenty of them this season.

Afolayan is fifth among League One players with 31 key passes at an average of 0.76 per 90 minutes, which is an improvement on last year (0.6).

Stats website Wyscout also measure ‘smart passes’ as “a creative and penetrative pass that attempts to break the opposition’s defensive lines to gain a significant advantage in attack.”

Once again, Afolayan scores well, his average of 0.85 the best in the Wanderers squad and his total of 35 the 11th highest in the division.

Interestingly, Afolayan’s total number of passes has decreased this season compared to last, from 31.82 per 90 mins in League Two to 27.93 in League One, suggesting he has become slightly more decisive and aggressive on the ball.

The Bolton News:

FOULS / DISCIPLINE

Afolayan suffered fewer fouls after moving off the left and into the middle of the park but still finished the season as the second most-fouled player in League One, behind MK Dons’ Scott Twine.

Fouled on average 2.68 times per 90 minutes in League One, the number of offences actually increased from an average of 2.02 in the division below.

Afolayan has shown he can dish it out as well as take it, however, and with 71 fouls this season he sits ninth in the League One list, averaging 1.73 fouls per 90 minutes.

He also picked up 10 yellow cards throughout the course of the season – the second highest in the squad, behind MJ Williams.

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