Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers spoke openly about a wide range of subjects to a group of fan websites last week and one of the most interesting concepts that cropped up was the idea that, with a lack of final third options open to him, Rodgers may have to come up with a tactical alternative for the “interim” until he can strengthen again in the January transfer market.
Since Rodgers came into the club it has been made abundantly clear that the first team would be following the 4-3-3 tactical blueprint that he had used at previous club Swansea City and which the Reds have already seen in action in the seven competitive games the new boss has taken charge of.
The manager also admitted that some of the younger players might get a chance earlier than anticipated to cover for those positions which don’t yet have the depth that Liverpool require to compete on four fronts.
There are two important factors to consider when discussing Rodgers’ alternatives if he is to break with the 4-3-3 system for now; first is that, regardless of changing the base formation of the team he might start with, he will not wish to deviate from the match approach that he has been trying to instil in the players, nor look to play the game in a different style.
Ball retention, trying to up the tempo of the passing, pressing high up the pitch and patiently building attacking moves through the phases on the pitch will all still be the manner in which Liverpool try to win games.
Secondly, he will not wish to switch too many players’ roles around as they try and get to grips with the expectancies of them in the new system, lest he set back the team as a whole by perhaps a couple of months in attaining the ability to play in Rodgers’ own image and to his own style.
Finding a suitable interim tactic could, though, offer Liverpool a short- to mid-term benefit; if they find one which is successful, then:
a) they already will have players suited to playing in those particular new roles, and
b) it will give Rodgers and the Liverpool players an alternative in future matches, should the 4-3-3 not be working.
Which, then, might be suitable tactics for Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers to look at from now until January?
Before finding what they could switch to, it is important to understand the principles behind the system used at present. The basic layout then: two full-backs, two centre-backs, three central midfielders and three forwards. Watch a game on your television and you will likely see, pregame, the Reds line up in the following way when the team sheets are announced:
But the problem is that this graphic bares very little resemblance to the reality of the formation. Rarely if ever will you see the three midfielders in a straight line, or equal distances between the back four and the midfield, and the midfield and attack.
Ultimately, of course, a “formation” is just a way to pin down the base positions of any player and to see how the team will shape up without the ball.
But this gives us little insight as to the way Brendan Rodgers wants to see his side on the pitch—because his entire ethos is to see out as much of the 90 minutes with the ball as is possible.
Straight lines and a rigid defence might have been the Liverpool way—or more pertinently, was forced upon Liverpool—for the latter part of 2010, but beyond that it is not often you will see the home side take to the pitch at Anfield in this fashion.
Let’s take a look at the actual way Liverpool line up then, when in possession:
As you can see, there is little resemblance to the above image, with the exception of the centre forward.
Let’s start at the back.
Under Rodgers, the goalkeeper is expected to act as a sweeper, of course, maintaining his high line when Liverpool are in possession of the ball and helping his defenders out as the 11th player on the team, recycling possession.
The central defenders will split the width of the box for the most part, to open up the pitch from the back and take out two forwards to close them down instead of just one.
When those two do split, the gap which forms in the centre is filled by the controlling midfielder (Lucas or, in his absence, Joe Allen) who drops deep to pick up the ball and start Liverpool’s build-up phase of play.
With the centre-backs pushed wider than usual and plenty of cover in the middle, the full-backs are allowed to be as adventurous and offensive as possible and regularly push up 50 metres when the ball is with the back line.
This allows two things to happen; firstly, it pushes the full-backs of the opposition team back toward their own goal, not letting them aid their team press high up the field. Secondly, it provides an outlet higher and wider up the pitch if the immediate (and preferable) pass to the holding midfielder is not available.
The two central midfielders (ahead of the control player) have dual jobs; they need to be able to combine athleticism with technical ability in supporting the attack and defence, pressing off the ball and making themselves available to receive a pass at all times in possession. They need to be able to break beyond the forward line at the right time, make up an extra player in the box and certainly, as we will see as the season progresses, be patient in the build-up phases.
This is where Liverpool are having some early problems, with Steven Gerrard and Jonjo Shelvey at times over-exuberant and over-enthusiastic in trying to force the issue and create a scoring chance every time they get the ball. It will get better, and it will be a core of Liverpool’s successful play.
To the front three.
These have no arrows to indicate a primary role because, largely, their movement is dependent on the style of player chosen in each position. Luis Suarez playing centrally drops deep, links up in the midfield and works the channels just as often as he stays high and looks to break beyond the last defender.
Fabio Borini playing central looks to hold his position, be a focal point when needed and spin off between full-back and centre-back of his opponents.
From the first few games, the standard front three appears to be Raheem Sterling left side (cutting in onto his right foot often, though capable of going outside too), Suarez in the middle (as above) and Fabio Borini on the right (holding width, but needing to exploit the spaces centrally that Suarez leaves more often).
Liverpool have to improve here in terms of quality, consistency and depth, but for now they have limited resources and this is why Brendan Rodgers is considering an alternative tactical option.
To decide which might be best for Liverpool to use in the interim period, we need to establish which alternative tactics are going to lessen the strain on the front players—while still getting the most out of their abilities—and also play to the strengths of the rest of the squad.
Another important consideration is that while the base formation may change, Brendan Rodgers will not want to abandon the basic principles of his 4-3-3 as described above.
Let’s take a look then at the first system which might fit both Rodgers’ principles and the currently available players to the manager.
We’re going first with a diamond midfield—for the reason that, after consideration, I believe this to be the most viable option at present.
Whether you want to call it a 4-1-2-1-2 or merely a 4-4-2 diamond, it doesn’t really matter.
The essential importance of this system as being suitable hinge on two things: most players continue with the same roles as in Liverpool’s current 4-3-3, and those that do have a slight change are arguably the ones which need the most help, as Rodgers has termed it.
A deep-lying midfielder, Joe Allen for the foreseeable future, continues as the starting point for the team’s attacks and he still has the two wide full-backs and the two central midfielders in front of him to look to find.
However, the Liverpool midfield would have an additional pillar of support through the point of the diamond; instead of one forward central and two wider, you now see two central strikers and one more withdrawn player.
Why would this aid Liverpool? Well, three reasons. Firstly, Steven Gerrard has been mentioned in some quarters as an example of a player not entirely yet in tune with how Rodgers requires his midfield to function, both in possession (patience) and out of it (pressure).
Altering Gerrard’s role in particular will allow him to be closer to the front players more often, where we all know he is amongst the most effective players in the league, whilst it will also leave him plenty of cover behind and let a third midfielder—be that Jordan Henderson or Shelvey, with Nuri Sahin the presumed second central player—be involved in establishing the build-up play of the midfield.
In this instance, it would be hoped that those three would continue circulating the ball until one of the furthest forward three, including Gerrard, would have found the space and movement necessary to have a chance on goal.
Secondly, instead of Luis Suarez being the only forward based centrally for large stretches of the game, this option gives Liverpool two players in the middle.
Much has been spoken about the possibility of switching Suarez (right) and Borini (central), but Rodgers has indicated he believes Suarez’s movement to be more suited to picking up the ball in and around the penalty area rather than driving in from the right.
Playing both forwards centrally for a time period will give them the additional support they both need, will increase the likelihood of sharing the load in terms of finishing chances and in addition, can see both players work the channels alternately—the wide areas of attack cannot be forgotten altogether. Borini and Suarez are both competent and experienced in working from wide areas, and this could be a real way of forging their on-pitch relationship.
The third and final positive here is a double-edged sword; the full-backs will be required to push on much more often, even more than they are now. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, with even more consistency than they are now. They would be required to maintain width the entire length of the pitch, which would leave Liverpool vulnerable to any balls played down the channels of their own defence, and thus the counterattack.
However, from this can come both a positive and a learning exercise; the midfield must learn to press quicker, and as one.
If, when Liverpool lose possession, the midfield know that they are particularly open to fast passes played behind or over them, they will be more inclined to do one of two things: drop off deep very quickly, or push on aggressively to pressure the ball in the way Rodgers wants them to.
The former method will lead to a disaster. It could take several mistakes of this kind for the Reds to sort themselves out, as they would be leaving all kinds of space in the midfield for opponents to play through. The latter, though, would present itself as an opportunity; with an extra man in the centre Liverpool should overrun and be able to press very strongly their opponents, and in so doing get the feel for how the manager requires their jobs to be done once they revert to the usual 4-3-3.
Drawbacks? One or two. Raheem Sterling has been a standout performer for the Reds early on and there is no natural position for him in this system, though he would probably work well as one of the two centre forwards—albeit in a more withdrawn and slightly wider role.
The idea of a tactical system is not to have symmetry, after all. Similarly, Stewart Downing and to an extent Joe Cole (though he’d fancy that Gerrard position) would have to be shoe-horned into their temporary roles, but the key dozen or so men in the squad are tailor-made to this system and it would aid several of the main facets of the game plan Liverpool are trying to establish.
Three at the Back
Moving on, a second option for Liverpool is to play a system that they have managed before with some success; namely employing three central defenders. Taking into account the numbers that Rodgers has available in this area of the pitch, perhaps this also plays to the strengths of the squad somewhat more.
Looking further up the field, with the now-wing-backs pushed on further on the ball, Stewart Downing suddenly looks like one who is made ready-to-order in playing this system.
Strong running into space, plenty of width and with little responsibility in coming infield—but with an additional defender in place behind him. Some, not necessarily this author, might say that Glen Johnson would benefit from the same on the opposite flank.
The three central defenders offer plenty of strength and ability to move the ball forward. Coates and Agger either side of Skrtel would be the presumed trio, with Kelly and Carragher also able to come into the team there.
In midfield, the original three-man shape is retained and there would be additional responsibility on the central players to supports and get beyond at times, the strikers. The two furthest forwards would operate in a similar way to in the previous formation.
There are perhaps two more drawbacks, both avoidable, with playing this way. First and most obviously is that the two forwards could become very isolated when Liverpool were not in possession. If the midfield pair fail to get forward, it will leave a lot of space between the two lines of the team, as well as leaving the burden of creativity on the front two alone.
Secondly, it relies on the defenders being able to move into midfield with the ball to make up the extra man. Daniel Agger does this expertly, but if he misses out through injury, is Coates capable enough? Is Kelly capable of staying similarly fit?
This could prove to be a more worthwhile option against sides Liverpool know they will dominate, allowing the midfielders to stay in the final third with the ball as often as possible and have the wing-backs pushed high as well.
Finally, following the thoughts of a writing colleague, we move on to a more complex system which works very well for teams with the right types of players. Ostensibly somewhere between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3, but in the end it is futile to try and pigeon-hole this system into numbers because at its most fluid it more closely resembles something along the lines of 1-2-1-2-3-1. Which is nonsense, obviously.
Returning to look at the original 4-3-3, the defence operates in a similar way in this next set up. The full-backs are expected to push on again with no real wide players further forward.
One difference in midfield is immediately apparent; instead of one deeper central player there are two, one who drops deep to pick up the ball and one who sits in the centre for most of the game, only breaking forward occasionally.
Herein lies the strength of the system, for there is always an outlet to keep hold of the ball, endlessly recycling possession until an opportunity on goal presents itself.
The “three” shown by the triangle are not particularly linked at all; one plays off the forward, one plays as an attacking midfielder and one plays from the left flank, cutting in. It relies on heavy amounts of off-the-ball movement and creativity from these three to fashion scoring chances.
The central striker is the focal point for the attack in any normal system. Spain use one sometimes, such as former Red Fernando Torres, or else play with an additional attacking midfielder and no forward at all.
Either way, it must be admitted that this system might be beyond Liverpool at this stage. In terms of personnel it is doable, but in terms of on-the-pitch play it is really a more advanced version of that which the Reds are trying to get to grips with at present and would maybe cause more problems than it solves.
Liverpool face Sunderland this weekend at the Stadium of Light and they have plenty of decisions to make. Brendan Rodgers needs to decide whether to change any of his starting personnel—does Jordan Henderson, Jonjo Shelvey or Stewart Downing come back into the team?—and, perhaps more importantly, decide whether to switch the 4-3-3 system he has been using.
After talking about an interim system to get Liverpool safely toward January, without compromising his style or the manner in which he wants to play the game, it could be that Rodgers looks to make the change sooner rather than later.
Due to internationals, many first-team players will only have had three days or so back at the club; it would be a tough ask to get them to quickly shift their thoughts to a new tactic in that time before the Sunderland match. The League Cup fixture against West Brom and the league game versus Norwich City next week, however, could be ideal games to implement a new system in.