Here’s a list of words that can be used to describe Liverpool at various points this season: thrilling, depressing, frustrating, swashbuckling, infuriating.
In fact, the list is almost as colorful as the number of different formations employed by Kenny Dalglish and his management team.
Since Dalglish took over in January last year, we’ve seen a variety of tactical approaches to games: 4-4-2, 3-5-2, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, and so on.
While having different options can be beneficial over the course of a season, we have yet to see Dalglish fixate on a first-choice starting 11 and tactical plan.
It’s been a tumultuous year and two months for the Liverpool manager in terms of personnel, to say the least, with Andy Carroll, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Lucas Leiva all out of the side at various points during Dalglish’s tenure.
Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson have also underwhelmed since arriving at Anfield in the summer, and the rises and falls in their form have meant that they haven’t had a chance to fully cement a place in the first team yet.
Add in the frustratingly profligate performances up front and the unfortunate knee situation that prevents Craig Bellamy from playing week in, week out, and we have a Liverpool team that has yet to fully gel on the pitch.
After all, Suarez, Carroll and Gerrard only got their first ever start together earlier in 2012.
But provided that this summer’s transfer business is at least as fruitful as last season’s—the only signings last summer that have truly caught the eye have been Jose Enrique and Bellamy—Dalglish will have a bigger and better squad to work with in 2012-2013.
The back five—Pepe Reina, Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Jose Enrique—basically picks itself, and the considerable strength in reserve means that any additions to the defensive ranks would merely bolster its impressive defensive record.
It’s the midfield and forward lines that need a system suited for Liverpool’s multi-faceted approach, and 4-2-3-1 is exactly that.
Assuming no further additions to the squad, let’s explore how the current team would work best on paper in this formation.
When Lucas returns from injury, he should slot straight back into the defensive midfield position he has made his own. Alongside him would be Charlie Adam, who seems most comfortable in a deep playmaker role akin to that of Xabi Alonso. He might have had an inconsistent season so far, but he remains Liverpool’s most direct threat with long and diagonal passes, and his attacking tendencies would be a decent foil to Lucas’ all-action approach.
There is an alternative to Adam as Liverpool’s regista, of course—forgotten man Alberto Aquilani. Contrary to Dalglish’s assertions that Aquilani is most comfortable in Gerrard's second striker position, he is equally impressive as a deep-lying midfielder, as his cameos during his only season at Anfield showed. He represents a classy option in the middle and would arguably be a more important component in the first team than Adam—but the key is whether or not Aquilani still has the appetite to succeed in English football.
With Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson also capable of filling in, that’s the “2” solved.
Before we move to the “3” in support of the lone striker, let’s first look at the candidates up front, and there is only one serious candidate within the current squad: Andy Carroll.
It’s been an up-and-down season for Carroll—more downs than ups—but he remains the best option to lead the line. Dirk Kuyt has taken his conversion to the right wing a bit too close to heart to excel as a lone striker, and Luis Suarez’s creativity and relative profligacy makes him a traditional support striker rather than an out-and-out forward.
While Carroll has disappointed in many of his performances, he has the strength, power and aerial ability to be an effective (and even prolific) targetman for the Reds. His shooting and pace, despite underwhelming this season, is underrated. He has all the elements to be one of the best attacking forces in the League, and he should be given the opportunity to spearhead the attack—again, in the context of the current squad. Of course, he also possesses the ability to create chances for the attacking trio behind him, which has been a criminally underused tactic this season.
Now onto the “3.”
Dalglish finds an overwhelming number of options for the three positions behind the lone striker, but the combination that might just work best is Craig Bellamy, Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard.
All three possesses creativity, work rate, pace and finishing ability, and we have seen on various occasions this season that they are capable of combining intricate passing plays—the crux of the much-espoused pass-and-move style.
Bellamy and Gerrard can cross too. Their wing play on the flanks would create ample space for Suarez to exploit down the middle and for an onrushing Charlie Adam or Alberto Aquilani, and they would be able to put in the kind of crosses that Carroll feasts on.
Simply put, this 4-2-3-1 lineup would be a perfect fit for a possession-heavy playing style that Liverpool have exhibited this season—and would also present a considerable threat on the counterattack.
Which should come as no surprise—after all, this was the system that Rafael Benitez tailored to perfection during his reign, and his counterattacking Reds were one of the most fearsome attacking combination during their peak.
That’s not to say that simply adopting a 4-2-3-1 system would shoot them up the league table next season—far from it.
There’s plenty left for the coaching team to do—not least the abhorrent finishing. Kenny Dalglish should strengthen his squad this summer to provide better quality competition for first-team places at Anfield, and to find a productive solution to their at-times scintillating build-up play this season.
But in the long term—if Kenny Dalglish stays on for the long term—there should be a more-or-less established first 11 and a strong bench to provide a game-changing spark if needed.
And in the long term, Liverpool can do no wrong by going with a 4-2-3-1.