Tactics Tuesday: Bolton’s 4-4-2 and Lopsided 4-3-3

Two of our last three Tactics Tuesday articles were about Arsenal and Barcelona, two teams that play mesmerizingly attractive soccer. Now we’re turning our attention to Bolton Wanderers – a side that has received praise for increasing the fluidity of their play. Bolton, though, is still a long way from being confused for either Barcelona or Arsenal.

A common Bolton Starting XI

A traditional 4-4-2

In an era in which many managers prefer one-striker formations, Bolton’s Owen Coyle routinely sends out his squad in a 4-4-2. Coyle’s formation is more reminiscent of the EPL’s straightforward formations of the early 1990′s than the 4-4-2 of Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles. The strikers bring down long balls and link with the wingers, the center midfielders defend first and attack second, and the wingers and fullbacks head down the flank as often as they fly up it.

Coyle has perhaps made better use of Bolton’s flair players than his immediate predecessors, but his 4-4-2 still uses box-to-box midfielders and conventional wingers.

Box-to-box midfielders

Coyle’s most common central midfield pairing has been Stuart Holden and Fabrice Muamba, but a recent injury to Muamba led to increased playing time for Mark Davies. As with many 4-4-2′s, both center midfielders roam from one penalty area to the other, but one of the two tends to advance a bit higher. In most matches, Holden has the free-ranging role, as picture below.


by Guardian Chalkboards

But if you’ve been following FFG’s coverage of Stuart Holden’s season, you know that Holden’s defensive contributions have been just as vital as his offensive fireworks. He often leads the team in tackles attempted and interceptions, and at one point during the campaign, he even topped the league’s tackling charts.

Natural wingers

Holden has also contributed two goals and one assist, though his primary focus is to be a distributor for Bolton’s wide players. Unlike Real Madrid’s José Mourinho, Coyle doesn’t use inverted wingers. All of Bolton’s top outside midfielders – Chung-Yong Lee (right-footed), Martin Petrov (left), and Matt Taylor (left) – line-up on their natural side. Since each winger’s dominant foot is always in a position to swing in a cross, Bolton can take advantage of bullish center forward Kevin Davies.

Bolton's lopsided 4-3-3

Lopsided 4-3-3

That’s not to say the wingers always hug the touchline. Lee in particular ventures inward with regularity. And Coyle does use one tactic to differentiate his formation from other 4-4-2′s. When Bolton needs to apply extra offensive pressure, Coyle substitutes a striker for a midfielder and changes the formation to a lopsided 4-3-3. Generally, Ivan Klasnic comes on for one of the wingers and Johan Elmander slips to the wing (recent Chelsea loanee Daniel Sturridge will probably be used in the Klasnic role from here out).

The following Chalkboards are taken from a match in which such a switch occurred.


by Guardian Chalkboards

On paper, Elmander operates in the same manner as Bolton’s other wide players. But his poacher’s instincts do sometimes work wonders when he’s stationed in midfield, as the following video  attests (skip to the 1:48 mark to see Elmander score after a run from midfield.).

USMNT Implications

A formation similar to Coyle’s lopsided 4-3-3 has already been featured by Bob Bradley, as USA’s manager occasionally utilizes Clint Dempsey in a manner similar to Elmander. And Bradley sometimes takes the formation a step further than Coyle. Against Slovenia in the World Cup, Bradley used what was in essence a 3-4-3.

The most intriguing lesson to take from Bolton’s tactics is how effective Stuart Holden has been in defense. In matches with the full national team, Holden has normally been used as a winger, though in the fall Bradley featured Holden as the attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1. But given Holden’s defensive achievements, an interesting experiment would be to deploy him as a holding midfielder. In situations where the USA needs another goal but Bradley doesn’t doesn’t want to compromise the side’s defensive solidarity, using Holden as a defensive midfielder would be a way to provide attacking finesse without creating a soft underbelly in midfield.

2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Gringo_Primal says:

    I would like to see Holden at center mid with Bradley or Jones. If nothing else, it’d be more competition for spots.

  2. bensten says:

    I’d love to see Holden in a USMNT formation that utilizes more than 2 central midfielders. If you are too predictable with your lopsided 4-3-3 when you need attacking power don’t you run the risk of being too vulnerable on that “empty” side?

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