Easy as 4-3-3

Barrowcelona – a mildly amusing term to try and describe the style and quality of play at Ian Evatt’s Barrow. Something that hasn’t been replicated at Bolton whatsoever. It should mean fluidity, verve and attacking intent; we’ve witnessed an over-complication of an, admittedly, fairly complex system: slow, confused and lacking any thrust.

Aside from 105 minutes across two games at the start of the season, Wanderers have consistently played a 5-3-2 which has occasionally switched to a 3-4-1-2 when they’ve played well but it has been very, very rare they have played well.

Even if you were not confident in the summer, 15th in the middle of January makes it very evident it hasn’t worked. It hasn’t even been encouraging or unbalanced where the attack works but the defence lets it down or vice versa; it simply hasn’t worked.

It has been completely disjointed and yet, paradoxically, overly structured. The lack of any innovation or intuition, bar Doyle, has led to a monotonous and formulaic passing style in which no risks are taken and, therefore, few chances are created.

The only regular combination has been the right centre-back into the right-wing back over the half-way line with the centre-back and central midfielders then overlapping to create a space and several passing options in behind the opposition’s left back; bar that, for want of more sophisticated vocabulary, it has been a ‘mush’ – a bit of a splodge. No cohesion. Striking similarities to Arsenal’s recent form prior to Christmas.

There could be several reasons for it but one that remains a theme is the potential ‘over-coaching’. Without knowing much from inside training, we did see clips from the start of the season in which professional footballers who had fairly good professional careers were being constantly told and reminded of their ‘pass detail’ – something of importance but something that should surely be expected for players of the ilk of Antoni Sarcevic, for example.

Pure speculation, partly based on an inference, would suggest that these tiny and basic details are overly discussed but on a wider scale. So the complex system that requires patience is being so drilled in, the players’ instinct is minimised and this leads to an indecision and an over-thinking which is indicative of a slow, ponderous build-up; particularly in the first-half. Our late surges, in which we have nicked equalisers, tend to be desperate and more inventive; perhaps this is because jeopardy and risk creeps in and a basic expression is shown.

A 4-3-3, generally, should be more attacking and aggressive. On a very basic level, there simply should be more people contributing to attacks. However, I think the key improvement will be defensively; in terms of both balance and possession.

The suggestion that having less defenders makes us worse defensively is wrong. Playing a back five with a middle three against one or two forwards confuses the defence; unless the overall gameplan defensively rigid and based on counter-attack. It is essentially like playing against two false-nines, especially if you’re attempting to be pro-active with the ball, as gaps open up and one-on-one duels become rare. The defence would also switch to a five without the ball, anyway. The 4-3-3 should reduce the risk of being caught in transition.

In terms of possession, it should drastically improve the ability to build-up from the back. The defensive midfielder is able to split the two central defenders and, therefore, allows extra passing lanes through the middle as well as wide – it also prevents the midfield becoming overly congested like it has done so far this season. I think Brandon Comley’s skillset is more suited to this as he is almost constantly facing forward and passing vertically instead of having to shift the ball wide to wing-backs. Tutte, the man with the shirt, perhaps is better at what Comley isn’t as good at but time will only tell on that.

Regardless of the formation of the players, the style should be consistent. The ability to be fluid is almost a founding principle of a progressive way of playing; modern-day coaching as Evatt would say. Whilst there are several mitigating factors for Wanderers and their manager’s underperformance and inability to implement the philosophy so far this season, it isn’t harsh to really begin to question the long-term plan; especially when the original plan has now been essentially scrapped – given Evatt’s post-match comments last week.

Until the style of play is implemented then the importance of the formation is reduced. A change in system might improve the team and the results but it will not be decisive until the apparently complex philosophy is in place.

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