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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » Bolton tactical do-over in January might just do trick for Evatt

Bolton tactical do-over in January might just do trick for Evatt

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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Formation fashions have come and gone regularly during Ian Evatt’s time in charge at Wanderers – and the latest style makeover looks like it might just catch on.

There can be little doubt that the club’s worrying slide in form from October onwards in League One called for some remedial work on the training ground.

Complications arose in the form of injuries to key players, at which point Evatt held up his hands and forecast it would be a difficult run to January and the transfer window.

Whether he envisioned quite how tough things would get is debatable, and the much-publicised outbreak of Covid in the training camp, which left the Lostock base closed completely at one point, made tactical tweaking virtually impossible.

But with the New Year came new blood, and not only a chance to rest some tired bodies, but also to alter the shape of the team to one not dissimilar to the one Evatt tried to implement at the start of last season in League Two.

Billed at the time as 3-4-1-2, the formation had been the cornerstone of his National League title success at Barrow, and was tailored to the type of attacking, possession football he tends to favour.

As it turned out, the squad assembled in the summer of 2020 proved woefully inadequate and by the time 2021 came around, Wanderers were closer to going out of the league than they were to promotion.

In a situation scarily reminiscent of the one happening right now, new signings brought about a change in tactical direction and a significant upturn in fortunes which would, of course, result in securing third spot with a 4-1 final day win at Crawley Town.

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Even the most optimistic Bolton fan would not expect the same again – but hopes are high that the addition of Dion Charles, Marlon Fossey, Aaron Morley, James Trafford and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson will mean a much stronger showing in the second half of the campaign.

Bolton have won their last two games playing something similar to the 3-4-1-2 Evatt had tried once before.

The manager himself had credited a “back three or five” for their defensive work at Shrewsbury and though width in the system was supplied by two full-backs in Fossey and Declan John, both players touched the ball more in the opposition half than they did their own (Fossey 56.6 per cent, John 56.5).

The two wider centre-halves, Gethin Jones and George Johnston, also showed willingness to push on and create an extra man in midfield. Jones had roughly a third of his touches in the Shrewsbury half on Saturday (32.7 per cent) with Johnston just behind him (29.4), albeit he was involved in some of the better attacking moves of the first half.

So, while that all paints a progressive picture, perhaps the fact Bolton have looked more solid in the last couple of games is down to two other defensive types – Ricardo Santos and MJ Williams – being more conservative.

Santos did not touch the ball at all in the final third of the pitch at Shrewsbury, defending his area well against a particularly persistent home attack.

Williams did not affect the game as much as he normally does with the ball but his average position and heatmaps from the afternoon show he was disciplined, patrolling the area in front of the penalty box diligently.

Kieran Lee was also hampered in the first half with a hip problem which forced him off at half time and could now jeopardise his involvement in this weekend’s home game against Sunderland.

Aaron Morley filled in the gaps effectively and played more successful passes in the opposition half than anyone else on the pitch. Although only 21 years of age, the former Rochdale man already looks comfortable in the playmaking role that had been filled by Josh Sheehan before his unfortunate injury back in October.

Lee’s injury on Saturday prompted Evatt to bring Dapo Afolayan off the bench and switch back to a front three which allowed him to roam on to either wing, ultimately creating the winning goal for Dion Charles with what Steve Cotterill laughingly called “a scuffed cross” after the game.

The ability to swap systems is now a luxury that Evatt has not had this season. And with Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Lloyd Isgrove and Xav Amaechi all likely to be pushing for first team spots in the coming weeks, how he balances the two approaches will make for interesting viewing.

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Wanderers have unquestionably been more defensively organised in their past two games, due in no small part to the return from injury of Gethin Jones. They have also sacrificed a measure of possession – something which was rather unthinkable earlier in the season.

Some fans have viewed that shift as a concession from Evatt that his previous attack-at-all-cost philosophy had not been producing the goods.

It certainly does look as if risks in possession have been minimised while the team settles into its new shape. It has been noticeable that new keeper James Trafford’s distribution became more direct after a few early wobbles in the win against Ipswich. As confidence grows and this new-look side becomes more familiar, however, you can expect Wanderers to return to the more expansive gameplan.

Playing Amadou Bakayoko up front alongside Dion Charles does allow for a more varied approach, mixing Evatt’s preferred methods with something a little more functional.

While ex-Coventry striker Bakayoko still looks short of his best form, he returned seven successful aerial duels at Shrewsbury, bettering anyone else on the pitch.

Charles, whose pace and work-rate look pivotal to the attacking press, caught the eye even before his stunning late volley won all three points. Mixing his strengths with those of Bodvarsson, Afolayan and Co should also give Evatt the flexibility lacking over those barren winter months.

Furthermore, the potential addition of a strong number 10 like Kyle Dempsey should also help the Wanderers boss achieve better balance in the centre of the park, not to mention another strong voice to keep standards high.

They say football moves in cycles, and that has been the case at Bolton. For the second successive January the club leaves with a different set of personnel and tactical ideas, and supporters will hope Evatt and his team can enjoy the same sort of successful outcome after their makeover.

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