Promotion was always paramount for the Bolton boss when he arrived at the UniBol last summer and though the journey was more complicated than he initially expected, his promise to bring success and an attractive brand of football to the club was definitely carried through.
But a top three spot did not come without compromise. The much vaunted ‘Brand Evatt’ was forced to undergo a review a third of the way through last season after recruitment issues left the squad looking imbalanced and lacking in quality in key areas.
Out went the 3-4-1-2 system for which the manager had become known during his time at Barrow, replaced by a slightly more robust 4-2-3-1. The switch had a near-instant effect and according to Whoscored.com, was almost twice as effective.
Of the 26 games Bolton were shown to start with a back four, they garnered 53 points, scored 34 goals and conceded 19.
Of the 20 games the Whites started with a back three they won just seven, taking 26 points, scoring 25 and conceding 30.
With that in mind, some supporters may hope playing with a back three is consigned to the rubbish bin of history – yet faced with an opportunity to build on last season’s foundations, Evatt may well seize this opportunity to perfect the system with fewer limitations this season.
Wanderers have already retained the vast majority of the squad which accelerated post-January, including key loan signings Dapo Afolayan and Declan John who have now been converted to permanent members of the squad. Those players are now well-versed with the basic premise of possession-based football Evatt brought in, albeit the manager himself believes there is still plenty of fine-tuning to be done.
Ball-playing midfielder Josh Sheehan has added an interesting note of competition in the middle of the park. The Llanelli native played in four different positions for Newport last term, according to Transfermrkt.com, around half of which (22 appearances) were billed as an attacking midfielder.
Newport tended to play 3-5-2 or variants thereof with Sheehan operating dead centre of Josh Labbadie and Scott Bennett or Scott Twine. It was Wanderers’ versatile new recruit who dropped deeper or played more progressively, as the game dictated.
This could give Evatt the same degree of flexibility next season paired, for example, with the more defensive-minded MJ Williams and captain, Antoni Sarcevic.
The arrival of George Johnston and Will Aimson really open avenues for the Bolton boss, including the opportunity to reviving the 3-4-1-2 which failed to take hold last year.
The central defensive partnership of Alex Baptiste and Ricardo Santos ended up being one of the strongest in the division but both players admitted to some discomfort playing in an unfamiliar back three at the start of the year.
Santos’s performances improved considerably after being switched to the central position but the lack of a natural left wing-back plus a concern over the mobility of left-sided centre-half options Ryan Delaney and George Taft left Bolton looking lopsided.
Gethin Jones and Harry Brockbank – both natural right-siders – were asked to fill-in after it became clear that neither Liam Gordon nor Jamie Mascoll were up to the task. They did so manfully, but it was not until the arrival of John in mid-January that Wanderers had any semblance of balance.
This summer, Wanderers have John in place from the start. They have recruited a natural left-sided centre-back in Johnston, who by the look of his performances for Wigan Athletic last season can handle the pace of the division. Aimson’s experience at this level should also be a big plus, and his stats from last season at Plymouth suggest a player who is capable of playing the ball out from the back.
Playing at a higher level of football will require Evatt and Bolton to have more than one plan of action. And the manager may also feel his side will get a chance to play more expansively against teams who are looking to do the same on a better general standard of playing surface.
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