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A Tactical Analysis of Bolton Wanderers

Just what is it that (will) make(s) Wanderers tick?

Sunderland v Bolton Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Arguably, the biggest challenge Bolton Wanderers and management duo Keith Hill and David Flitcroft have experienced and faced this season is deciphering and reaching a conclusion as to what system, formation, line-up, and most prominently, tactics, work best and reap rewards not only for themselves, but the owners, the fans, and everyone affiliated with Bolton Wanderers.

Yet to fall into a reasonably lengthy, consistent run of form, in some scenarios, enforced, in others manually, Wanderers have been hindered by their own inability to find what ultimately, makes the side tick on a regular basis, but not for the want of trying.

Keith and Flic have tried everything under the sun, in their power, possession, knowledge and knowhow and experience taken from their managerial careers to help Bolton find their feet in a highly competitive league one, which we are now potentially, slowly, just about managing to do. Though there is no guarantee this will last given the constant, continuing and imminent factors which have had, are and/or about to impact the selection ahead of each fixture.

Be it squad depth issues, registration restrictions, embargo limitations, injuries, international call up’s, suspensions, you name it, Keith and David have gone through and are going through it all, some obviously more so in their power than others, those unavoidable problems would be unfair and impossible to critique, but those which seemingly can be helped/prevented/kept to a minimum, at present, I’m going to evaluate and see perhaps just where Wanderers have been going wrong and what it is that could see them survive the drop come May.

Not knowing our best eleven

It naturally takes time to adapt and adjust to new footballing surroundings for managers and its therefore easy to see why we’ve struggled with this for the best part of two months given Keith’s appointment was technically, mid-season. In such a unique scenario, it’s easy to ignore and pass off as an inevitable consequence of our past troubles, though we’re getting to a stage now where the honeymoon is over and the chance to experiment too, has passed. No, I don’t think that’s still happening, though it naturally appears that way given how much the side’s been forced into being chopped and changed up until the last fortnight or so.

It’s clear that the two short visits and losses to Accrington Stanley in quick succession rocked the boat and looks to be where the indecisiveness stems from. There’s positives to take from those games though in that the need for change was addressed immediately and has continued to be addressed until near enough resolved.

You can sympathise with the manager’s given the hand they’ve been dealt and although the deadline day signings may have appeared to be a free pass to survival in the mainstream media’s eyes, we’re still very much limited in our options and since the Stanley wake up call, they’ve used each and every one of the, giving each player a more than fair opportunity to prove their worth and those who have, to their credit, remain in the current match day squad.

Consistency is key, to find your best side and stick with it, as it appears we may well have stumbled upon in our recent pick up in form, is crucial in achieving this. I’d much rather just change what we have to rather than pretend to have the luxury of dragging players off half an hour into a game. I’m not saying that’s his game, nor has it necessarily continued, I’m just hopeful that won’t become a thing when we have a replenished squad.

Its frustrating given that we near enough have our best side at our disposal for the first time this year and just as we have, we’ve suffered an injury and a potential three game suspension for two players who help form the spine of the team, not to mention three largely utilised loan players set to return to their parent clubs within the next week.

To summarise that point, I do believe we’ve established that, where possible, keep it the same. The avoidable chopping and changing needs to be kept to a minimum though.


Ladies and gentlemen, Bolton Wanderers will be playing (where possible) four-four-fucking-two. Brexit football. Jokes aside, it’s by far our best formation. We’ve several options in most areas, and that’s even at our most thread bare-esque squad. Maybe not so much with the fresh pending loan, injury and suspension losses, up until Shrewsbury though, we were nearly set for the season.

To retain the sport’s original formation, I believe, is our best bet at this stage and where possible, keep the players we have on beyond January, not just to fill the quota, but so that they can be used to their full potential as they’ve just begun to do in the last few weeks. Extensions are a priority if we want to remain as consistent, shape and form wise, as much as physically possible, though where appropriate, or are required to replace an expired/non-returning loanee, we should look to recruit in numbers, and of course quality within our means and where the embargo permits.

4-4-2 allows for plenty of action down the flanks, mainly via the full backs Emmanuel and Chicksen/Earl which we appear to be utilising more by the week, two in the engine room, ideally Lowe and Bridcutt, which may soon become Luke Murphy and Sonny Graham, at least until Lowe returns, two wide men, Verlinden and Dodoo being the current two in favour which are easily interchangeable where the bench allows should Verlinden not return i.e Politic, O’Grady etc, and two up front, Murphy and either wonder kid Ronan Darcy playing off him or Dodoo/O’Grady as previously mentioned.

The 4-2-3-1 has been done to death with little reward whilst the 5-3-2/3-5-2 didn’t seem to work either, therefore, with the limited depth we have and as the current system which seems to be working at present, 4-4-2 is by far and away our best option moving forward and we should look to develop and build our team around that shape.


This is a biggie, such scenarios are of course subjective to each game, though when in each one, with the same-ish bench to choose from most weeks, you get a reasonable idea of who should be coming on and when. Now, I’m no manager, but when you’ve dominated 80/90% of a game then go to a back five with ten to go, sit back, invite pressure and survive a heart-attack provoking final period of the game, it seems pretty negative having been in the mindset for the majority of the game, that its there for the taking and is ours to win.

You can therefore imagine my shock both at Sunderland and against Shrewsbury when KH did exactly that. The closing period of the Shrewsbury game was a carbon copy of Sunderland, yes the lads are knackered but its time to start going all out in search of three points, not settling for one and risk losing it all for the sake of saving some legs for ten minutes so they can play three days later. Players are more than capable of doing that, its up to them to find it in them to go and seal a win in the dying stages of a game as we’ve seen not so long ago, proving we have the nouse to do exactly that, we just need the fitness and the right players left on/brought on when its most appropriate.

You have to feel for young Dennis Politic, excellent at the start of the season and more than capable of changing a game, yet the likes of Adam Chicksen and Sonny Graham are replacing tiring forwards, it makes little sense to me. Whilst I’m happy gradually picking up points, we can’t settle for a point every week, players like Politic are game changers and the ideal sub in those scenarios. He needs to be made the most of does our Dennis.

Blooding the youth

I’ve noticed Keith has huge faith in our young lads who represented us immensely at the beginning of the season and I think we should continue to utilise them, though just where necessary as I’d be tempted to keep the side packed largely with seniors. Contrary to this, I’m in no way opposed to welcoming back into the side the likes of Dennis Politic, Liam Edwards, Harry Brockbank and Connor Hall, they’re all lads who deserve a shot in good time and I believe they’d do a great job for us and I’m therefore trusting that KH & DF think the same and that they won’t just be benchwarmers all year.

January onwards

With a huge transfer window on the horizon and us still in no real fit state to be bringing in huge, statement-making players, its a window which needs to be used carefully, though wisely, recruit where necessary, but keep everyone we can that expires, get everyone renewed, retain the basis of the squad which is currently looking as strong as it has since the start of the season and work from there. I have faith in KH and DF that they’ll not be making any unnecessary additions/departures and are purely focused on the task in hand as we all are and are clearly doing their best to help us survive the drop.

This is purely, what I as a fan, have collated, examined and provided in opinion form as how I feel we should progress into the second half of the season, still largely with our hands tied, but is, in as realistic a manner as possible, what I think would help to keep us up in May.

You’re comments and suggestions are of course, and as always, welcomed in the comments section, let us know what you feel needs addressing, where our strong points are, where we’re struggling and realistically speaking, what could be done to give us the best chance of staying up.