The tactical switch that backfired on Bristol Rovers in their freak loss to Lincoln City

The formation was used for the first time and brought mixed success, but the ultimate take-away was conceding six goals.

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Joey Barton’s admission of going with something ‘barmy’ with the visit of Lincoln City looked to be accurate, as his Bristol Rovers side lined up left many wondering what system he would play.

At first, a 4-3-3 was guessed which would have been a fairly traditional formation, but that turned out to be wrong. It wasn’t until the players lined up and Barton clarified in his post-match conference that it was in fact a 3-4-3.

It seemed to be a very makeshift central three, made up of fullbacks Luca Hoole and Lewis Gordon in-between the 38-year-old and now player-coach Glenn Whelan.

It was the worst possible start for his side as their five-man defence was beaten with just six minutes on the clock. An unfortunate deflection off Hoole’s foot landed the ball at Ben House’s feet and the striker made no mistake in firing home.

Things went from bad to worse on 13, with Whelan judged to have pulled House back inside the penalty area and referee Tom Nield pointed to the spot. Jack Diamond sent James Belshaw the wrong way and the Gas found themselves two down with less than 15 minutes on the clock.

Whelan raised some eyebrows when he was preferred in the centre of defence to Alfie Kilgour, who was sent off in the latter stages at Ipswich last Tuesday. This decision was reversed yet Kilgour only made the bench and didn’t make an appearance which prompted questions in the post-match press conference.

Rovers struggled defensively on the right with Diamond causing Hoole lots of problems, however when it was their turn to attack they had huge success on the left when Trevor Clarke and Collins went up against Timothy Eyoma.

Joey Barton clearly wasn’t happy with his side’s first half performance, as his side looked to change to a 5-3-2 after half an hour with Collins partnering Ryan Loft in attack, this impacted the game significantly with the Gas having their best period of the game and Collins being in the centre of it all.

Despite a host of Rovers chances towards the end of the first half it looked to be game over in injury time when a Hoole clearance bounced off the back of Luke McCormick, playing in Diamond and the Sunderland loanee had his second and Lincoln’s third.

Barton’s back three seemed to struggle as a unit throughout the first half with no out and out centre back between them and despite the experience of Whelan along the back line, there was a catalogue of errors and misplaced passes.

This could have been expected however, due to Rovers’ injury crisis at the back with James Connolly, Lewis Gibson out injured and Bobby Thomas suspended. This left Joey Barton with one available centre back in his squad, who was left on the bench.

Barton was willing to stand by his decision not to include Kilgour during the match, with his reasoning being that he wanted to attack. The academy graduate could have added at least one recognised defender but this was a new system being tried.

A thing to note is that Rovers had seven corners throughout the game, with the majority being played short and out to McCormick who tried to swing the ball in. This routine was flawed throughout with McCormick being unable to find anyone on his own team and led to Lincoln’s fourth when the cross failed to beat the first man.

Barton wasn’t finished with the tactical changes, and the sixth Lincoln goal prompted a change to what looked like a 3-3-4 to finish the game.

What went well

Rovers dominated possession, with the 3-4-3 allowing the wide midfielders of Trevor Clarke and Harry Anderson to enjoy huge amounts of success down the left and the right wings with Luke McCormick and Aaron Collins tucking in and taking the Lincoln full backs with them.

The Gas also had an even amount of chances with Lincoln, despite the 6-3 scoreline Rovers had an xG of 2.07, compared to the away sides 2.25 and on another day the score could’ve easily been 7-7  - according to manager Joey Barton and this proves that with their full squad, the 3-4-3 could be a viable option to Barton’s side.

What didn’t go well

The makeshift back three of Whelan, Hoole and Gordon conceded too many chances and lacked cohesiveness. A centre half such as Alfie Kilgour, the injured Lewis Gibson or James Connolly could have made the result completely different.

Injuries and suspensions

Rovers looked to attack wherever possible and with Anderson and Clarke pushing up, as well as the attacking centre midfield partnership of Sam Finley and Antony Evans the Lincoln front three often found themselves three on three on the counter attack. It’s an attack minded formation but it will require some players to improve on their defensive duties.