Why the early signs show that Bolton Wanderers may be promotion contenders this season – scout report
The most depressing sight in football is watching the demise of once great football clubs slowly slipping down the savage pyramidical tier system.
The English game has been rife with these cases, from Sunderland to Swindon Town, from Blackburn Rovers to Oldham Athletic. Once a side sinks to the depths of the water, reviving the wreckage has proven to be a near-impossible task.
One of the most severe instances of this is Bolton Wanderers, the old stomping ground for players like Jay-Jay Okocha and Fernando Hierro.
Nevertheless, the club are slowly but surely climbing back up the ladder under their exciting head coach Ian Evatt, formerly of Barrow, or ‘Barrowcelona’ as they were nicknamed.
Having returned to League One in 2021, Bolton managed to stabilise and regroup over the summer. This season, Evatt’s men have begun tremendously, unbeaten and sitting in fourth place, hoping to chase promotion to the EFL Championship. In fact, the club from Greater Manchester haven’t lost in any official competition since March.
Despite being in charge for little over two years, Evatt has overseen Bolton radically shifting from a conventional 4-2-3-1 to variants of a back-three system.
In his debut campaign with the Wanderers, the young coach preferred to deploy a 4-2-3-1 system, using a fluid double-pivot in front of two centre-backs as well as wingers that would tuck inside to make way for advancing fullbacks.
In their 2020/21 promotion campaign from the fourth tier to the third, Bolton used this shape in 43 percent of their games in all competitions.
As he so often does, Evatt ensured that his players were rather flexible structurally and so the Trotters were certainly no strangers to a back three or a 4-3-3.
However, upon return to League One, while the 4-2-3-1 still remained a prominent feature of Bolton’s tactics, Evatt gravitated more towards the 3-4-1-2, setting his side up in this formation in 32 percent of their games.
Now, so far this season, the 40-year-old boss has found home with the 3-5-2, dropping into a 5-3-2 out of possession, while the 3-4-1-2 has seen equal use.
Interestingly, the 4-1-3-2 has also been experimented with but was utilised just one time, although it could provide a useful backup option for when Plan A doesn’t quite work.
The 3-5-2 does give more defensive security, especially when the wingbacks retreat next to the three central defenders to form a back five.
While Bolton are a side that want to dominate the ball, their possession statistics have dropped from 56.5 percent last season to 49.7 percent in the first couple of games this time around, although the sample size for the latter is quite small. Nevertheless, this does mean that the Trotters have been on the back-foot a lot more than they would perhaps like to.
One of the reasons behind this drastic drop in ball retention is because of the wealth of sides in the division that are keen on having the ball, from Kieran McKenna’s league-leading Ipswich Town to Liam Manning’s possession-heavy MK Dons. So, now, Bolton must be a little bit more conservative in games, hence why the 3-5-2 has offered Evatt the perfect balance to do so.
Different build-up variants
One of the most wonderful sights in football for any tactical purist is build-up play. Watching how players float around inside and outside their own penalty area, looking to progress the ball higher up the pitch by beating an opponent’s press can be a joy to behold when executed correctly.
As Manchester United proved against Brentford, a lack of understanding, quality, practice, off-the-ball movement, and progressive passing angles can lead to utter disaster.
Thankfully, having worked under Evatt for two years now, and not two months, the players have a great understanding of their roles during the build-up phase. So far this season, when playing out from deep, Bolton have used two different structures.
Typically, this variant is used when the opposition is pressing with a two-man first line of pressure, as seen in the above image.
The back three will remain deep, creating a 3v2 against the opponent’s two front pressers, allowing the two wingbacks to bomb forward into higher positions on the flanks.
The three centre-backs keep a respectable distance from one another, spacing themselves nicely to cover the width of the pitch while stretching the defensive team’s frontline but also ensuring that they aren’t too far in case an error is made and they have to quickly close together. Meanwhile, the goalkeeper stays put behind them.
The only issue with this setup is that it means there is one less outfield player operating in advanced positions. The second variant for Bolton rectifies this.
Here, the goalkeeper has positioned himself much higher and is often outside the area. To accommodate this, two of the central defenders split wider, creating a make-shift back three with the keeper.
One of the centre-backs moves to the wide area and positions themselves higher while the wingback on the far side drops a little. This forms an auxiliary back four. Gethin Jones, who is usually deployed as a right centre-back, has performed this function admirably for the head coach as he is a natural right-back anyway.
This was evident from Bolton’s passing network against Morecambe at the weekend. Jones was the most advanced centre-back, while the links from the goalkeeper to the backline were one of the strongest on the entire side.
Bolton only really do this when the opponent presses with a one-man forward line because it’s much safer to have your goalkeeper in such a risky area of the pitch when there is just one player pressing. It also allows Evatt to have more outfield players in advanced positions.
The Trotters do this quite often in the league as the third-tier harbours a lot of sides who are not willing to press in a high block, especially the outfits that don’t have adequate squad depth and so cannot sustain pressing in the opponent’s third consistently over a 46-game campaign.
What’s also noticeable from the pass map above is how strong the connections are from the centre-backs to the wingbacks. This is because, when building from deep, Bolton play through the wide areas by creating combination play.
Often, players drop deep and converge around the ball to provide short passing options. From there, they combine to try and bypass the opposition’s pressure.
Essentially, they create wide overloads in the lower areas of the pitch to use their technical quality to play around the opponent’s pressure and advance to the higher areas of the pitch.
Again, their second build-up variant is incredibly useful for this as having a make-shift centre-back like Jones in his natural state allows for cleaner ball progression.
This visual displays Bolton’s progressive passing network from a recent outing against Salford City in the Carabao Cup in which they trounced their Manchester-based rivals 5-1. As we can see, the wingbacks and centre-backs are a constant outlet for Evatt’s men to progress the ball out from deep.
Bolton are a wonderful case study for why teams lower down the pyramid of English football can play beautiful football, not just the Manchester Citys and Liverpools of the world.
When Bolton progress into higher areas of the pitch, shifting their positional attacking structure into the opponent’s half, there are two primary ways in which the side look to break down a deep defensive block.
Firstly, Bolton Wanderers like to play down the flanks in a similar manner to how they beat the opposition’s press. However, now it takes place much further up the pitch and is far more flexible.
The 3-5-2 allows Evatt’s men to form wide overloads on the sides, using the wingbacks, wide centre-backs, nearest central midfielders and the ball-near centre-forward.
Within these wide overloads, Evatt is fine with his players interchanging positions and moving into different areas of the pitch provided that there is one option sitting deeper, one holding the width on the ball-side, one attacking the depth to stretch the opponent vertically and one in the halfspace.
This type of wide rotation-cum-overload has taken place in the previous image. Centre-forward Oladapo Afolayan is the widest player for Bolton, while left wingback Declan John has inverted into the halfspace.
Furthermore, left centre-back George Johnston is sitting as the deepest player in the overload, allowing him to be a safe option in case they need to circulate play backwards. On the other hand, John is attacking the depth in behind.
The end goal for Bolton is to use their numerical superiority from these overloads to find the free man and put crosses into the box.
Here, against Morecambe, Bolton had a 4v3 overload on the left-hand side and were able to put the ball into the penalty area. The opportunity was wasted after some woeful movement and an even worse delivery, but it was still an example of how good Evatt’s team are at creating chances from wide overloads.
One noticeable characteristic of their attacking play in the final third is that, when the ball is played out to the left, the manager instructs his right wingback Conor Bradley, on loan from Liverpool, to tuck inside and play on the shoulder of the defender to try and score at the back-post.
This situation led to a goal for the home side as Bradley arrived at the back stick to place the ball past the goalkeeper, taking all three points for his temporary team.
The other way in which the Wanderers break down an opponent’s deep defensive block is by using third-man passes and runs with the centre-forwards.
This image displays the directions of all 29 of Bolton’s positional attacks from their 3-0 thrashing of Wycombe in the league just a few weeks ago.
While the majority were down the wide areas as expected, Bolton still wanted to try and play down the central corridors where applicable. These attacks down the middle accumulated the highest xG for the side.
The centre-forwards are instructed to drop deep and constantly look to create passing angles between the lines to aid the team’s ball progression. From there, Bolton will attempt to play to their feet, dragging out an opposition defender and then trying to exploit the space vacated by the defending side.
Again, constant forward movement is necessary and once the defender follows the forward deep, Bolton quickly up the tempo to take advantage of the opposition having one less player at the back.
The Trotters’ set-up in possession is a joy to behold and the understanding that the players have of their roles within each phase is a wonderful testament to Evatt, his coaches, and the players’ willingness to learn the tactical principles.
Pressing, counterpressing, and stopping long balls
Following on from their principles in possession, Bolton are a side that counterpress once the ball is out of their hands. Evatt wants his team to be in constant control, which includes cutting off counterattacks at the source.
One of the newest principles he has implemented into the side is having quite a narrow positional structure during settled attacks.
As we spoke about earlier, when the ball is on the left side, the right wingback, Bradley, tucks infield. For the most part, Bolton are not holding width on the opposite side of the pitch.
This has one major drawback which is that the opponent’s block isn’t stretched horizontally as much as it potentially could be.
However, the biggest positive of this narrow structure is that the players are closer together during defensive transitions so they can quickly counterpress together and regain possession.
For instance, against Morecambe who were actively looking to sit deep and counterattack, Bolton were able to curtail these transitional moments really well through their counterpressing.
As shown in the previous image, when the Wanderers lost possession, they hunted the ball down in a well-drilled pack, with Bradley himself able to make a recovery challenge due to his narrow starting position.
This season alone, Bolton are averaging 85 ball recoveries per game in all competitions, showing the team’s willingness to work hard to win it back when the ball is lost.
Overall, Bolton are a high-pressing side. Their Passes allowed Per Defensive Action rate is currently 7.65 which is the fourth-lowest in the entire division, and with PPDA, the lower, the more active a team are out of possession.
As the league becomes more technical and less physical, teams must be able to press as a unit during the high block phase.
When facing a possession-oriented team like Ipswich, Evatt employs a zonal press where the players force the opponent to one side of the pitch before switching to a man-oriented system and pressurising their nearest passing options aggressively. This was portrayed in the example above.
Nevertheless, there are still quite a lot of teams lower down the English football pyramid that prefer to play long from goal-kicks rather than taking the risk by building from deep. This means that Bolton need to have a good structure for when this happens, and they certainly do.
The Wanderers are extremely well-drilled from aerial balls. Once a pass is played up to the opposition’s centre-forward, the central centre-back steps out and challenges in the air while the remaining four defenders in their 5-3-2 shape drop off and close together in case the ball is flicked on.
This can be seen from the above example. Bolton’s middle centre-back leaves the backline to challenge Morecambe’s striker in the air. The other four defenders have all backed off to cover the space in behind, pushing closer together and forming a temporary back four.
Meanwhile, the midfield have regrouped and are facing the ball in front of the challenging defender, making sure they are switched on and ready to challenge to win the second ball in case it drops in front of them.
You need to be efficient at pressing high in League One when a side decides to play out from the back, but strong in the air for when it gets pumped long. Bolton possess both of these tools.
Bolton certainly aren’t the finished package, but the early signs can tell us that they may be a force to be reckoned with in England’s third division this season.
Evatt’s side are joyous to watch on a football pitch, boisterous and enchanting with possession of the ball, and hungry and ravenous without it. Keep an eye on their results in the coming months.