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A Compromise in the Set-Up: Why 4-3-3 is the way forward

Warning: A lot of analysis incoming

Bolton Wanderers v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Bolton finally got that annoying monkey off their back by earning a point against Millwall. The losing streak is now over and while Bolton still have only won 1 in the last 14 games, a draw is still better than nothing. One of the biggest talking points though from the match though was the change in lineup. It seems that no-one could initially decipher the formation with the inclusion of Marc Wilson. Would he be part of a back 3 with Wheavers? Would he sit in Parky’s favoured 4-2-3-1 as a defensive midfielder? Was he on his own as a defensive midfielder while Lowe and Williams would be in front of him? As it turns out, he was the central defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation. It was a departure from the standard Parky lineup, to a degree. Admittedly, I couldn’t go to the game to be sure myself but Marc Iles said it was so I’ll take his word for it.

Now I’ve made no secret of my desire to see us switch to a 4-3-3 formation. I only wish I had advocated for it louder on more platforms. I have believed for the past 2 months or so that it would be the most sensible switch that would benefit the most players and give them the opportunity to demonstrate their best attacking attributes while still contributing the team’s defensive cause. Just for arguments sake in this piece, this is how I would choose to lineup in this formation against Sheffield Wednesday:

Feel free to let me know if you would lineup differently but just for this article, we’ll go with this team. Now, let me explain why I believe that this set-up would be hugely beneficial for a large number of parties in charge. Strap yourselves in. This is going to be a long one.

Phil Parkinson vs The Fans

Before I begin, let me just state that this is not an opinion piece on whether you think he should stay, go or be on the fence about his position as manager. That’s irrelevant as far as this is concerned. What isn’t irrelevant though is how this formation can not only appeal to Parkinson’s undeniably cautious/defensive approach to games but it can also temper some of the demands from the fanbase for a more attacking mindset to a game. The formation keeps the favoured one lone striker in the middle that Parky usually prefers but pushes the wingers up further forward so that they have more connection to the lone man up top. The midfield still provides that midfield screen that protects the back 4 but gives the midfielders who do like to carry the ball forward e.g. Williams, Vela, Oztumer etc. more space to dribble with. It’s a formation that keeps options open for our current squad without being too extreme at one end, provided the team is given the confidence to play to their strengths. Allow me to explain further why it helps each position.

The Back 4

Bolton just do not have the personnel to play a back 3 with wing-backs. Sorry Lloyd Dyer but you’ve lost too much pace, in my opinion, to be an effective left-wing back. While Taylor and Grounds can probably still do it at League One level, this is different kettle of fish. Meanwhile on the right side of defence, I believe Little can do the job of a wing-back but Pawel just isn’t as effective when in that position. Again, this is just my opinion but overall, Pawel is a better right back than Little, especially in a back 4 where Little’s more gung-ho attacking approach can be suicidal at points. But again, that’s up for debate. Regardless of your selection preferences, we have more personnel who benefit more from a back 4. Both sides are better when they have the option to link with a winger further up the field to pass around and play it forward with rather than hedge all the responsibility themselves.

In the case of the centre-backs, every centre back partnership displayed so far has been more effective in a back 4. A back 3 overloads the backline and limits our options to play it out and subjects us more to either hoofing the ball up-field or lamely passing it along the defensive line. Hobbs, Wilson, Wheater and Beevers also don’t have the pace to properly deal with the threats a pacy winger will have for a back 3. The back 4 provides enough protection for Alnwick and leaves enough options open to hit the counter-attack if we get the opportunity.

The Midfield

Now comes probably the most debatable part of the whole 4-3-3 formation. Who would we lineup in the midfield? In the squad, we have Lowe, Williams, Vela, Oztumer, O’Neil, Murphy, Ireland and Wilson who can conceivably play in this 3. Lowe, Wilson and Murphy would compete for the defensive midfield part of the formation while the rest is up for grabs amongst the rest of the squad minus Wilson. This formation requires players with a lot of energy and can provide some solid defensive cover, so though it pains me, it would mean dropping Ozzie to the bench.

Looking at my own set-up, how this would work is that Lowe would be the main connection between the midfield and defence. He’d be the Steady-Eddie in the middle that does the unspectacular but necessary job of maintaining possession while the players further forward run to find space where they can attack. This frees up the remaining 2 midfielders either side to run into the channels, carry it forward through the centre or pick out a running front man easier with 3 guaranteed options in front of them instead of the usually double marked lone striker. Then when defending against the opposition, the 2 midfielders can hold the line strong enough for one of the wingers or both in more desperate moments to help out. It’s why I recommend someone with more of an engine and defensive presence like Vela and Williams as opposed to Oztumer but if you still feel like Ozzie can do the job, I wouldn’t complain. Either way, it frees the shackles a bit for our midfielders who do prefer to run the ball forward.

The Front 3

Now comes the part that theoretically, should make the biggest impact on Bolton’s current woes. Having more options up front to create chances. There is no denying that part of the reason we don’t create enough chances is that we leave ourselves too wide a gap between the midfield and the lone striker too often. As good as the strikers can be at holding the ball, they’re often forced to hold it too long and risk getting tackled or jostled off the ball from too much pressure while waiting for the rest of the team to make their way up the pitch. Having the wingers pushed further up should reduce that issue in giving the striker someone to play off or play the ball too upon having the ball inevitably booted up field. Now, choosing Doidge was more a matter of having the most natural goalscorer in our squad playing but he still has that physical presence in the air to be a threat from those kind of positions and make this position work. With extra men around to take the pressure off him, he should be able to have more opportunity to make runs around the defence to get in goalscoring positions.

Now the wingers. Sammy is a no brainer for the right wing. Probably the best dribbler in our team, he easily takes the right hand side and his height naturally lends itself to being a nuisance to defenders physically. Letting him play further up where his tricky dribbling can unlock a chance out of nowhere is a powerful weapon for us. Yanic meanwhile on the other side, though he can have the touch of an elephant, his pace is scary. If he utilises that effectively and gets behind the defence or gets it forward quick enough so that the defence is still rattled enough for Doidge to get away from his marker, he is an undeniable asset. His confidence may be too rattled right now from being alienated after a couple poor performances but this advanced positioning could be the key to having a confident and effective Yanic as it appeals to his natural attacking instincts.

Here’s the part of the Front 3 though that may work against Yanic however. The idea of having them further up is that only one winger will need to drop back to help screen the opposition with the Midfield 3 at any given time. This would leave the other winger to only fall back enough so that they are in a position to claim the ball and can produce a quick counter with the connecting option of Doidge to play off of since he isn’t isolated. Or they can swap defensive responsibilities if the opposition decide to switch in their point of attack. Yanic isn’t one for tracking back so you may wish to play Buckley instead who can do that job better. In the end, that’s down to your personal preference. Buckley can be unplayable on his day but Yanic is a scarier thought for an opposing defender if he can get back in form.


The idea of this set-up is to make the best use of both sides of what people want. Parkinson is understandably afraid of being absolutely battered by the opposition but it can lead to being too restrictive in our attacking set-up. Meanwhile, the fans are praying for more attacking football but sometimes forget that we don’t have the quality of some of the other sides around us to play fluid possession based football consistently throughout a game. This system is designed to make more use of our attacking assets and give us more options going forward in general, especially on the counter-attack, without sacrificing too much of the defensive fortitude that has saved our skins in the past.

Will this cure all our woes? Of course not. We still have issues and areas of weakness that can’t just be solved with a change of formation. Will it be necessary to use in every game? Again, of course not. This system has its flaws like any other and sometimes a different set-up is necessary every now and again to keep the opposition on their toes. Should it be used though as the default option from now on to utilise our options to their full potential? In my opinion, yes. Though it may take a little bit of time to fully adjust to it and gain confidence in this formation, if we stick by it, I firmly believe that it is the best set-up we can implement to reduce our misfortunes and ensure a more comfortable Championship season.

Do you disagree? Do you have any further points you can add to this? Let me know.