If there were still any doubts as to what Liverpool’s best defensive line-up is, Sunday’s drab, goalless draw with Blackburn in the FA Cup laid them to bed.
The early withdrawal of Martin Skrtel due to concussion meant Liverpool were forced to shift to a back three of Glen Johnson, Kolo Toure and Dejan Lovren which had little experience playing together and didn’t look a patch on what must now be regarded as Brendan Rodgers’ preferred setup of Emre Can, Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho.
Whilst Liverpool’s makeshift defence kept a tricky Blackburn side at bay to see the quarter-final tie to a replay, the untidiness and lack of cohesion offered little inspiration to switch phases of play into Liverpool attacks.
3 at the Back
After worrying signs early in the season that Liverpool’s defence had gotten worse—not better—from last season’s detrimental leaks, it took an anxious night in October for Rodgers to begin to piece together the start of a solution, per Chris Bascombe of The Telegraph:
The other night I was up at 4.30am, down in my kitchen, looking and thinking of ways that I could make us better and improve. That is something I have got – a hunger to make this group better and improve. We are looking to get balance in the team – balance is the most important thing in football.
Rodgers was adamant that new backroom staff were not the answer. "In terms of a defensive coach, we don’t need it," he said. "No. No. No chance. No chance. No."
A period of experimenting with his back line followed, and results on the pitch were as inconsistent as expected. However, Rodgers began to find his key word—“balance”—as the end of 2014 approached and performances—if not results—improved.
The transformation came as Rodgers moved towards a 3-4-3, which eventually became the 3-4-2-1 system that has seen Liverpool pick up 29 points in the Premier League since Christmas.
The Northern Irishman recently opened up to reporters about the urgent need to work out what Liverpool were:
We had no identity and everyone could see it. We just weren’t the team I had built over a couple of years. It was not working and of course that can eat away at you.
I knew I had to do something radical because I had seen enough of the players to know we were not going to shape up and work as we had done for the previous couple of years with what we had got.
With three at the back, a box midfield and wide, but free wing-backs, Liverpool look comfortable again, using that new balance to press teams and control games to much success.
However, Sunday’s draw against Blackburn at Anfield showed up how much more the Reds are improved when a Can, Skrtel and Sakho back three are involved.
Given his versatility, Rodgers would struggle not to find a place in his team for the in-form Can right now.
Adapting to a centre-back role for both club and country in recent months, Can’s strength and athleticism are troubling Premier League defenders, whilst his great strides out of defence and beautifully weighted long balls contribute to turning games in Liverpool’s favour.
Whilst Can must be regarded as Liverpool’s best option for the right side of their back three, the expectation of his long-term future being in midfield—particularly when Steven Gerrard moves on his summer—may throw his defensive future into doubt.
Skrtel was enduring a miserable time earlier in the season, as his weaknesses in possession and positioning were only intensified by the arrival of the nervous Lovren, who often left Liverpool exposed at the back.
However, with Can and Sakho’s abilities at either side of him in a back three, Skrtel is benefiting from his refined responsibilities of ridding danger.
Getting Sakho’s mind and body back on track this season has been one of the keys to finding success in Liverpool’s back three. Comfortable on the ball, Sakho is the instigator in moving the Reds’ back line higher and reducing the length of the pitch for the team’s attacking movements.
His regular bouts with injuries, however, are becoming a concern. Rodgers will be hoping for a sustained healthy period for Sakho in which experience can be embedded into his preferred back three.
Having seemingly solved his defensive shape dilemma, Rodgers looks to his wing-backs and central midfielders to shore up the philosophy.
Jordon Ibe and Alberto Moreno have both strongly covered the wide channels at both ends of the pitch, whilst the experiment using Lazar Markovic and Raheem Sterling as wing-backs-cum-attacking-midfielders continues.
Under the new system, Lucas Leiva’s game improved significantly—a confidence-boosting run in the team led to his marshal-like qualities bossing the pitch again, whilst Joe Allen has also benefitted since Lucas’ latest spell on the sidelines.
In judging Rodgers’ best defensive line-up, it is important to note his key objective from the start—balance.
By fitting the right personnel—when available—into the 3-4-2-1 system (or variations of it), Liverpool finally look to have sealed the leaks at the back without compromising goals.