EFL League One 2019/20: Bolton vs MK Dons - tactical analysis

Bolton Wanderers have had a tough start to the League One season, languishing bottom following a 12 point deduction with an uncertain future. They would have been buoyed by the result in their last league outing, beating Bristol Rovers comfortably for their second win of the season. Conversely, a tough start to the season saw MK Dons part ways with Paul Tisdale earlier in the week and promote veteran defender Russell Martin as the new manager. In his first managerial job at a club who has lost eight of the last nine league matches, it’s not going to be an easy season.

With first-choice forward Kieran Agard serving a suspension and a less than convincing performance against Port Vale in the first round of the FA Cup, MK Dons’ tactics need to evolve if they are to find a way past Bolton. Bolton have shown this flexibility in their last league matches playing in different formations and exploiting their opponent’s weaknesses. This tactical analysis will focus on the evolution of the match and how Bolton managed to come out on top.

Lineups

EFL League One 2019/20: Bolton vs MK Dons - tactical analysis
Bolton Vs MK Dons (wyscout.com)

Bolton elected to play a 4-1-4-1, adding an extra midfielder to win the midfield battle and remain competitive on the flanks. Liam Bridcutt makes his return to the squad as the lone CDM. Daryl Murphy remains the lone striker with Chris O’Grady pushing out to the wing. Having changed the formation for the third time in three matches, Hill is an unpredictable manager who doesn’t shy away from big tactical decisions.

MK Dons opted for a 4-3-1-2 in an attempt to shore up their leaky defence and stop Bolton’s free-flowing style. Following Agard’s suspension and Nombe out injured, the forward line is being led by Jordan Bowery, who is supported by Joe Mason. Their formation isn’t rigid and at times is closer to a 4-2-3-1, with Gilbey dropping deeper as a DM and Mason dropping behind Bowery with Brittain and Reeves on the flanks. This flexibility allows them to contest the midfield against Bolton’s five midfielders and provide additional defensive responsibilities.

Bolton’s high press

Bolton employed a high press on MK Dons who at times predictably played out from the back. Bolton has much success with these tactics against Fleetwood and ensured that MK Dons didn’t get time on the ball.

EFL League One 2019/20: Bolton vs MK Dons - tactical analysis
Bolton commit midfield and forward line to pressure ball in MK Dons half and force the ball back to the goalkeeper. As the ball is taken down by Lewington, Bolton squeeze the defence. Deciding not to push the ball to the keeper, Lewington clears the ball and Bolton gain possession on the halfway line.
EFL League One 2019/20: Bolton vs MK Dons - tactical analysis
Bolton close down McGrandles and force the pass to the fullback who has dropped deep. His pass to Nicholls in goal is hit down field and goes out of play gifting possession back to Bolton.

Bolton close down McGrandles and force the pass to the fullback who has dropped deep. His pass to Nicholls in goal is hit downfield and goes out of play gifting possession back to Bolton. In the opening 30 minutes, analysis confirms that Bolton pressurised Nicholls and forced five errors. In a match where Bolton commanded 57.7% of the possession, MK Dons weren’t allowed a foothold in the game. Where Bolton were able to win back possession in the opponents’ half, they exploited success and surged forwards with four runners. The overarching principle of Hill’s tactics was to win the ball back in the opposition half. Although not a match-winning decision on this occasion, it shows intent as Bolton move forward. Bolton are a tactically advanced side who are performing better than their current league position would suggest.

EFL League One 2019/20: Bolton vs MK Dons - tactical analysis
A Bolton press into space rather to the man proves less successful with MK Dons breaking out into a dangerous counter.

Bolton performed well using this tactic but there were moments when MK Dons proved that they could counter it. In the example above, Bolton commit two players to the high press but a good run by Wiliams allows MK Dons to turn defence into attack. O’Grady pushes up to press the space, but not the man, which allows Williams to get in behind him and exploit the newly created space. Williams looked good in this position and threated Bolton in this area of the pitch. Although MK Dons weren’t set up to counter, their free-flowing tactics allow them to commit players forward beat Bolton in the midfield during the initial stages of the second half. Although a tactically astute team, the analysis suggests that Bolton fatigued earlier than MK Dons.

MK Dons force their way back into the game

MK Dons must have had a good look in the mirror at half time because they looked like a changed side in the initial stages of the second half. They’d adjusted to Bolton’s press and were positively keeping hold of the ball. The key player in all of this was Joe Mason who proved the value of a centre forward in all areas of the pitch.

EFL League One 2019/20: Bolton vs MK Dons - tactical analysis
e Mason dropping deep to maintain possession for MK Dons.

As shown, Joe Mason dropped out of the forward line to provide another option for MK Dons. Although it risks a lack of attacking options, it guarantees possession and allows a platform for MK Dons to push forward. In the example, as Mason passes the ball back in, options across the field allow a counter which starts to change the tide of the fixture. Joe Mason showed how employable he is across the field performing as an AM, CF and CM when required. MK Dons would have been frustrated that they couldn’t play this way for large portions of the match but it was the glimmer of hope that their fans will cling on to.

MK Dons only managed two shots on target in the match and were never likely to come out on top in this fixture. Bolton responded to this positivity by dropping deeper looking less and less likely to score.

EFL League One 2019/20: Bolton vs MK Dons - tactical analysis
MK Dons force Bolton to defend in numbers limiting Bolton on the counter

At times in the second half, Bolton were unable to play out and were running into danger without support. As shown, with nine players in the defence, there are limited options and not wanting to lose possession, there are limited attacking options. In this example, the transition phase between attack and defence is non-existent and Bolton lacked the attacking flair that they had from the first half. Bolton’s break came from a sending off which opened up the game. Williams was sent off for violent conduct in the second half which allowed room for Bolton to play once more.

Bolton find the breakthrough

After the red card, Bolton changed their tactics to exploit the left flank. Boateng dropped into RB to fill the hole relinquishing the attacking MK Dons attacking edge. This was a weakness was exploited by Bolton time and again, with attack after attack down the left-wing.

EFL League One 2019/20: Bolton vs MK Dons - tactical analysis
Bolton exploit the left flank with overlapping runners to break the deadlock

As you can see above, the substitute right-back has not dropped centrally and created a lot of space on the wing. As Verlinden assesses his options, Boateng drops off to commit to the runner which provides space to turn inside. Although not leading to a goal, it was a dangerous move which could have been converted. The success in this area of the pitch meant the left was utilised predominantly in the closing minutes. Combined with an attacking threat and less pressing from MK Dons, Bolton were the only side that were capable of scoring a last-minute winner.

EFL League One 2019/20: Bolton vs MK Dons - tactical analysis
A cross field ball finds Verlinden in space to run at the defender. He is supported on the wing which opens up space for another dangerous attack

These tactics in the closing stages of the game were the most dangerous and showed Bolton’s tactical flexibility. In the above example, Verlinden drags the ball back inside allowing for a shot at goal which needed a strong save. In the closing stages, MK Dons dropped all 11 men behind the ball to secure the point. Their positive play was all undone as they couldn’t get the ball out of their own half. A bolder tactical decision here could have resulted in a worthy point for Russell Martin’s team. These tactics led to the only goal in the game which came from yet another move on the left flank. Daryl Murphy was able to gamble on a low ball into the box and squeeze it under the keeper to secure all three points for Bolton.

Conclusion

For long periods of the match, Bolton were the dominant side who showed tactical prowess. Bolton are bottom of the league following their points deduction but they will be formidable opposition for most teams in this league. The high press and evolving tactics over the course of 90 minutes show both their physicality and their footballing intellect.

MK Dons proved that they can compete in this league but were outmanoeuvred for long stretches of this match. Russell Martin will struggle to rouse his team to many victories this season unless they can provide a more dangerous attacking streak. Switching back to the 4-5-1 which proved successful against Fleetwood could be a place for Russell to start.

This tactical analysis throws further weight to the argument that Bolton could stay in League One this season. More performances like this and a couple of good signings in January could see Bolton become a formidable mid-table side.


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