Liverpool Tactics: Is a Back Three a Serious Option for Rodgers Next Season?
The Reds have travelled this route previously of course, with Rodgers going for three at the back against a few opposing teams this season, while Kenny Dalglish and before him Rafa Benitez also utilised similar systems on occasion.
The latest dabble with a back three lasted no longer than 45 minutes as Rodgers changed things again for the second half. But is this something he is looking at as a serious option for next season?
Defence and Midfield
While previously the Reds have gone for a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2, Sunday's game against Fulham saw Rodgers opt for a 3-5-1-1 with Philippe Coutinho playing in a free, fluid role behind central striker Daniel Sturridge.
Stewart Downing and Glen Johnson operated as wingbacks, with Lucas Leiva the deepest midfield player and Jordan Henderson and, in particular, Jonjo Shelvey having more licence to roam forward at times.
The idea of trying to get possession in positions higher up the field worked to an extent, with the Reds having pace and position in areas high up the pitch. But when possession was with Fulham, it was too easy to see that the Reds had a number of players sitting deep in their own half, rather than moving forward as a unit in transition phases.
After the initial burst of pressure and chances the Reds created early on, Fulham exerted more of an influence on the game in wide areas with Sascha Riether doubling up particularly well in the final third down the right flank.
This in particular, along with the movement infield from left of Alex Kacaniklic, would have forced Rodgers to revert to the 4-2-1-3/4-3-3 that Liverpool have used most often in the past few months, providing an extra man to cover in the wide areas defensively.
Whilst utilising wingbacks is an effective way to maintain pressure high up the field the entire width of the pitch, it becomes a hindrance if the team using it does not have control of the ball. In the first half, that is the problem Liverpool players found themselves facing as the half wore on.
A Fully-fit XI?
Liverpool's current squad certainly possesses the players to fit well into a 3-5-2 system, if all were available.
Against Fulham the Reds were missing several key players—the defensive control and forward-thinking play of Daniel Agger (though Seb Coates made a game attempt at replicating his offensive abilities in the first half), the playmaking ability of Steven Gerrard in midfield and, of course, the all-around brilliance of Luis Suarez in attack.
If all were in the side, taking into account the impending retirement of Jamie Carragher, then Liverpool would have two key areas in which they'd need upgrades: central defence and the left side of the pitch.
Centre-back is already an area that the Reds will look to strengthen in, while recent rumours seem to indicate that Rodgers is also looking at signing a new left-sided defender (such as Lucas Digne, via Mirror Football).
The Reds almost certainly need to bring in a more controlling, holding midfielder, too, with Lucas Leiva not yet reaching his peak.
But a shift to a three-man defence would give more cover behind the midfield and let Lucas continue his long rehabilitation, which Rodgers seems convinced will happen and that the Brazilian will find imperious form to mark him out as one of the top holding midfielders in the league.
A back three, therefore, could not only give Liverpool more defensive solidity but could reduce the number of expensive targets that need to be found this summer.
Elsewhere in the team, Glen Johnson has always been far more fond of going forward and would be able to play from a much higher starting point on the right side.
The only question marks might be over the attacking triumvirate, comprising of the advanced midfielder and the front two, which could also be deployed in a 3-4-3 with two either side of a central striker.
Suarez, Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge would be the obvious starting three. But Jordan Henderson's steady improvement, the youthful promise of Raheem Sterling and Suso, Fabio Borini's return to fitness and continued rumours of summer additions to the attack all make this seem resistant to playing only three each match instead of the four which start in the Reds' usual tactical lineup.
Stewart Downing's position would also be under threat without wide forwards in the side.
The Back Three
Daniel Agger is presumably a certainty to stay in the team for the long haul having found his very best form over the second half of the season.
The future of Coates and Martin Skrtel is less clear, with both out of favour entirely since January. Coates retains good potential and is a strong competitor aerially, but his lack of game time makes it appear that Rodgers does not favour him for a regular place.
Skrtel, on the other hand, has simply not been good enough in the moments which matter, failing to be a commanding presence in the defence. Additionally, he has a relatively high transfer market value, which may make him a viable option for sale for the manager to raise funds.
Should both leave the club, Liverpool would need to bring in two new players to regularly utilise a back three—as well as give opportunities in the middle to both Andre Wisdom and Martin Kelly.
It is likely that Kelly will play a more central role next season regardless of the formation being utilised. But Wisdom, as the younger player, may have to either get a spell on loan or else continue in a wider area when possible.
Two central defensive signings, and possibly as many as three, will not be easy to identify correctly for management despite the plethora of names already being mentioned in the media.
With Agger as one part of the three, it is clear that at least one needs to have terrific organisational abilities, more aerial power is needed and both need to have some semblance of pace to allow Liverpool to revert to a higher defensive line. That went out the window somewhat when veteran Jamie Carragher needed to be brought back into the side.
Only with these qualities and attributes being added to the defence would it make regularly playing with a back three a viable possibility for Liverpool.
The three-man defence is often viewed as defensive-minded and is mistrusted and misconstrued in England, but the truth is far from that. It instead allows the pressure on the opposition to be made much further away from goal, whilst still retaining great team shape. Properly taught and with the right players in place, it can be a hugely effective model for the Reds to work their passing game through.
But the defence is all-important, and the right men must be in place at the back.
Probability for 2013-14
It is hard to say with any definitive certainty how Liverpool will line up next term because of the lack of information on summer transfer targets.
Certainly, anybody could pen a very strong-looking XI in a back three formation going by the names which have appeared in the gossip columns with Liverpool. But the truth is, these could be players the club is not even looking at.
It is entirely plausible that Rodgers has in mind to work toward restructuring the playing staff with a view toward utilising this system against specific opponents or tactics, or to use it more often in future campaigns.
After all, he is keen to utilise academy graduates as often as possible, and in playing 4-3-3, the youth teams of Liverpool will supply players with good tactical grounding for moving into a 3-5-2/3-4-3 system, such as attacking full-backs, mobile forwards and passing, pressing central midfielders.
For next season, though, it is more likely to think that playing a back three might continue to be an option and a resource for Rodgers to use sparingly rather than as a main starting system. But if the right players were available and brought in during the summer, this tactical approach could help Liverpool dominate their opponents much more regularly next season.
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