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Defensive Frailties: A Tactical Analysis

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During this past weekend's match against Norwich City, Bolton manager Owen Coyle made a bold decision. Midway through a second half that was stuck at 0-0 and looked likely to stay that way, Coyle took off a fast centre midfielder for a slow centre forward. Coyle's predecessor, Gary Megson, would have done the opposite in a 0-0, taken off a forward (often, the only forward) for a defender. Sam Allardyce, the manager against whom all Bolton managers are judged, largely avoided this problem. His trick? Signing players who could do both, defend and attack.

That is irrelevant though, the squad we have is the squad we have. What Coyle has to do is solve his problems tactically. He would prefer to play a 4-4-2, but our central defenders, although not as terrible as some supporters believe, have a fatal flaw. They struggle with positioning. This is true of the recently-departed Gary Cahill as well. When the opponent tries to bludgeon us to death with big, strong forwards (Andy Carroll comes to mind), this doesn't come into play. We can handle it. When our opponent tries to use movement and quickness against us, we are in trouble. Keep reading and I will explain how to fix this.

Zatyiah Knight jogs. This is an inalienable truth. If an attacker gets behind him, he jogs back after him. This infuriates supporters, they see it as laziness and indifference to the club, a club which supporters are emotionally invested in. Truth is, he wouldn't catch them anyway. Zat Knight is just not that fast. And it doesn't matter how fast you are.

If the attacker gets behind you with the ball, it's over. Whether you jog or sprint, you have three options. A.) A covering defender is there. B.) Pull him back and hope it's not a penalty or a red card (David Wheater usually chooses this option). C.) Watch him go one-on-one with the keeper and hope it is a save or a miss. None of these is a good option, and what Bolton have to do is avoid these situations. Central defenders can't do that by themselves.

Bolton's defense has improved over the past two months, and it has shown in the results. A big part of this was dropping Paul Robinson at left back. His incompetence left the entire defense vulnerable and out of position. Sam Ricketts is not a true left back. It is probably his weakest position. As soon as a recognized left back is available (Marcos Alonso should be fit very soon) Ricketts will give up the shirt.

So, let's say dropping Robinson was responsible for 40% of our defensive improvement. Our upgrade at right back (Gretar Steinsson found some form, Joe Riley had some great performances, and now Tyrone Mears is back) was probably 20% of the improvement. The other 40%? The midfield formation.

I stated earlier that Owen Coyle prefers the 4-4-2. That is an understatement. He loves the 4-4-2. He worships the 4-4-2. I wouldn't be surprised if he has 4-4-2 tattooed in a conspicuous location on his body (Those shorts don't hide much). It took almost a full calendar year of poor defending for him to finally acknowledge the glaring weakness and change our formation.

You could make the argument that the three best players for Bolton this season have all been central midfielders. A little over a month ago, Coyle made the decision to play them all together. We started setting up with a bank of three in front of the back four. This was not a static formation though. Depending on the opponent, as well as the situation, one, even two of these players will go forward in attack. They will also press way up the pitch when the other team is in possession. For a large part of the second half against Liverpool, Fabrice Muamba was our most advanced midfielder, and this had nothing to do with attack. He was harrying the Liverpool defenders, forcing them to pass back to their keeper, who would lump it forward, or lump it forward themselves.

Mark Davies and Nigel Reo-Coker have basically switched back and forth for MOTM honors since we began using this formation. The back four has been protected, and Wanderers have been able to play through the middle of the park much more effectively in attack. The only downside has been how hard those three central midfielders have had to work. Between the holiday schedule and the FA Cup, they have been breaking their necks for 90 minutes, twice a week. All three had somewhat indifferent performances against Norwich. None of them were poor, but they just didn't control the match at the level to which we have become accustomed. With no midweek match, they should have some recovery time now.

There has been some panic amongst supporters, and already calls for formation changes and players being dropped. We have a great record in the new year. Norwich away was only our second loss in ten matches. I say keep the same formation, essentially a 4-3-2-1, and (for the most part, the full backs might change) the same players. Keep the same defensive mindset, press the opponent up the pitch, improve the finishing, and the good results will continue.