Liverpool have played out their last few games after a switch in formation, utilising three central defenders to play a variation of 3-5-2—quite a change from their usual system of playing four in defence and three midfielders.
It's certainly had an impact on team shape, with results and performances perhaps rather mixed.
A narrow defeat to Manchester United in the League Cup was followed up by wins over Crystal Palace and Sunderland in the Premier League, before their most recent game ended in a 2-2 draw—a game where manager Brendan Rodgers removed one of his centre-backs later in the game after opponents Newcastle United went down to 10 men.
With Liverpool now sitting in third place as the quarter-mark of the season draws near, and several key players having returned or returning from unavailability, is the time right for Rodgers to return to a back four? Or should the Reds persevere with their 3-4-1-2 formation and work out the kinks, perfecting that system to make it their primary option going forward?
Three at the Back
Formations and tactics for a team are often decided by where their greatest strengths lie, and in terms of options and depth, that is definitely the centre of defence for Liverpool at this point.
At least six senior centre-backs are on the club's books at present, more if right-back Martin Kelly and youngster Tiago Ilori are considered as options.
Playing three at once therefore lets a large chunk of the squad's top players feature on the field immediately, rather than perhaps two starting, one out of position at full-back and another on the bench.
It also gives the team greater physical strength in-game when a centre-back comes in at the expense of, say, a wide forward, while tactically it should give Liverpool more options to retain and recycle the ball in deep areas, though that hasn't always gone to plan recently.
Elsewhere, it lets the naturally attacking full-backs retain a higher position up the pitch and offers another aerial threat at both ends.
Plenty of positive reasons, then, to think continuing in this vein should be the way forward.
Two up front?
Part of the decision on whether to move to a back four or keep the three, rests on the ideas of Brendan Rodgers regarding his attack.
Recently, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have been paired together as a two-man central attack, giving plenty of movement and individual on-the-ball ability, but with no true wide forward constantly attacking the channels.
That is in contrast to the 4-3-3 of much of last season, and the 4-2-3-1 of late last term and early this.
If Rodgers wants to leave the duo centrally, a return to a back four essentially limits the formation to being 4-4-2, either with a diamond midfield or else in a more traditional midfield quartet—though that then limits the involvement of the likes of Philippe Coutinho to cutting in from the flanks.
Keeping two up top and three at the back gives Rodgers more flexibility in deciding how to use his three midfielders (assuming two wing-backs) and therefore how to alter the team shape according to opposition.
Two central and one in front, as has been the case recently, can become one holding and two further forward—or an extra attacker can be asked to play from one flank, with just two central midfielders in the middle third.
Pressing High and Allen, Lucas, Henderson
One of Rodgers' basic tenets of the game seems to have disappeared this season: pressing high up the pitch, as one unit, forcing the opposition backwards or to hit long. The intensity of Liverpool's play, on and off the ball, seems a notch or two below last season.
The trade-off, of course, appears to be far better results this term so far.
But will that continue if the Reds are sitting deep so regularly?
Playing four in defence and three in midfield, spreading the forwards across the width of the pitch, allowed the Reds to press extremely aggressively last season. That hasn't happened with just two forwards up front and three defenders, even with the prodigious work-rate of Luis Suarez back in the team.
The other side of things is the midfield: Steven Gerrard is a staple, but the other three haven't hit their best form yet. Lucas Leiva missed the last game through suspension and has seen his role slightly altered in moving from two centre-backs behind him to a flat three, Joe Allen has been injured and Jordan Henderson has played in three positions already.
A settled midfield partnership, and reliable players to come in for either regular starter when required, affects the protection of the back line—and that in turn affects how likely they are to drop deep when possession is lost, and again in turn, how the Reds are unable to press high without leaving spaces behind.
Three centre-backs offers more protection in the last line of defence, but so far it has come at the cost of holding a higher line.
To Four or to Three?
So which is it?
Looking at the players available to the manager, it would appear he has two options which would fit the players available: leave the three in place and work on the midfield and defence holding the higher line to enable better pressing and, hopefully, better ball retention, or revert to the 4-2-3-1 and move Suarez wide.
It's unlikely to be Sturridge shifting position, considering his fine form in front of goal and Suarez's propensity to drift into different areas of the pitch, regardless of his starting position.
The big dilemma then would be, of course, which two defenders get the nod to start? Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho are arguably the form players. That would leave Kolo Toure and Daniel Agger as substitute at best.
Instilling a diamond midfield—Lucas at the base, Henderson and Gerrard centrally and toward the channels, Allen or Coutinho at the tip—would allow Suarez and Sturridge to stay central and have a back four, but a second sea-change in formation at this point might be counter-productive with Arsenal and Everton soon to come.
For the West Brom game, it's likely that the Reds will opt for more of the same, and perhaps rightly so. They haven't lost a league game in that fashion and the problems from the Palace and Newcastle games can be worked on intensively during the midweek training sessions.
A little more emphasis on pressing high and using the ball as well as the team did in the early stages of last season, and this set-up can still yield massive rewards for Liverpool.
The start to the season has yielded a large points tally, if not the best football the team has ever played, but the latter can be worked on. The former is what gives the Reds a chance to return to among the country's best sides, and Rodgers has to quickly evaluate what system gives Liverpool the best chance to do that.
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