A Change of System

The emphasis placed on a system in football can often be misguided. This is certainly the case the higher up the leagues you go. It can often be a futile and uneasy discussion because, although in its basic form it’ll tell you how many players are in each position, it doesn’t actually tell you about the potential fluidity of that system.

Basic adaptations like systems changing in and out of possession can be overlooked when analysing a team purely focusing on the system. For example, when Manchester City play a 4-3-3, their formation in the build-up is legitimately a 2-2-4-2 with Walker and Fernandinho playing in front of the centre-backs, Mendy or Zinchenko being the left side of the 4 with De Bruyne, another attacking midfielder and the other winger in that 4. Then Sterling tends to form part of the 2 with Aguero or Jesus.

This is not just a tactical tweak or general fluidity in possession; this is their formation at the start of a move or even in general possession. I’m not necessarily sure whether it is primarily an “English thing” but supporters and pundits (as well as players and most managers) prefer to categorise players and pigeon-hole players as a certain position. 

In contrast, despite the skepticism they receive, actual innovators such as Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola analyse the players’ strengths and weaknesses in order to mould the players to be able to play in several positions. This isn’t just based on the system. For example, Fabian Delph’s evolution to left-back was partly down to Guardiola’s coaching but also partly down to Guardiola’s fluid system whereby the left-back played as a midfielder when Manchester City had the ball. 

With all that said, it would suggest that Bolton’s potential persistence of the switch from a 3-4-1-2 to a 4-3-3 is irrelevant. As long as the style of play is in-built and the players can retain and maintain possession at will then the formation they set up in defensively shouldn’t matter too much – especially if the 6-second rule is implemented well to stop being counter-attacked on.

The 3-4-1-2 hasn’t had enough time to be analysed too greatly. Considering it has been used for 70 minutes of the new league season, it isn’t reasonable to suggest if it is going to work or not in the long-term. However, what we saw in the opening day defeat to Forest Green was a lot of pondering football and a bigger chunk of FGR possession than was anticipated. 

This can be related back to the afore mentioned “fluidity”. The players almost stuck rigidly to the system bar Greenidge and Santos who moved forward with the ball. However, due to Baptiste being a central defender, White and Comley had nowhere to drop into to receive the ball and build the play up – something they both want to do. Eventually, this means if the opposing team have 2 or 3 men also in the middle alongside Bolton’s 5 then it’s simply too congested when you haven’t developed the appropriate fast-passing skills and co-ordinated patterns of play, yet.

Ian Evatt’s Barrow switched from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-1-2 when the 4-3-3 didn’t get results after the first month and a half of the new season. It is reasonable to ponder whether that month and a half allowed them to learn the actual philosophy of Evatt before being able to then implement it into a more suited style. This could be a reason as to why Evatt has switched and could continue to switch to a 4-3-3 at Bolton.

The 4-3-3, on the face of it, does make more sense. It can also mirror the Guardiola approach – without the quality of build-up play. For example, it adjusts into a 3-2-3-1-1 with the left-sided and right-sided centre backs being split by Comley, White and Jones in-front of that, Gordon playing high on the left and continuing to get into the box, Sarcevic or Crawford in the middle with Hickman on the other side then Delfouneso finding the space, alongside Sarcevic but slightly ahead, in behind Doyle.

This would allow Bolton more space and less rigidity to build-up from the back. It is also potentially more suited to counter-attacking play with a flat 4-2-3-1 allowing fast breaks down the left-hand side with both Gordon and Delfouneso being supported by Sarcevic; this wasn’t as easy to do in the 3-4-1-2 although Sarcevic’s effort that was saved against FGR stemmed from this sort of play.

The obviously huge negative against this system is the summer recruitment. With a limited squad due to a transfer embargo, the luxuries of having 2 per position and then an extra one to cover each category has been lost. Bolton signed 4 centre-backs this summer to compliment the 3 (and a half) that were already there. This was due to the now often used “position-specific” recruitment. It meant we didn’t sign any wingers. Delfouneso can play there, Hickman can play there, Darcy can play there. This is where the positional fluidity and ability to innovate and not pigeon-hole players is going to be really crucial for Evatt if he is to persist with ripping up what he spent 8 weeks on building within 3 weeks of the new season.

I think the manager speaks well the majority of the time. His demeanour and general manner is self-confidence when things are going well but can often be arrogant when there is a failure to acknowledge issues. I hope that doesn’t happen. Criticism of Bolton fans for “not getting it” and wanting to change the culture of the club is fine. However, football fans are all the same. If the team is winning, the culture and the understanding of the style will change with it.

Overall, the 4-3-3 is probably better suited to the style that Evatt wants to play at this level. That is despite 3 of the 4 teams who made the 2019-20 League 2 playoffs playing with a back 3 and wing-backs. 

On one hand, it is disconcerting and worrying that the manager has seemingly abandoned, at least for now, the pre-season plan. On the other hand, he has identified issues with it and acknowledges it won’t work, at least yet.

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