Sunday the 14th of December 2014 has featured prominently on the calendar of many a Liverpool follower as one of the darkest days of a year riddled with them. This of course was the day of Liverpool’s chastening at the hands of Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United, an occasion which struck home the contrasting directions in which the Liverpool and Manchester clubs travelled, following their respective best and worst Premier League seasons to date.
However, amongst all the doom and gloom that day exemplified, Brendan Rodgers employed a tactic, the “3-4-3”, which if given time and honed appropriately, would equip Liverpool with the cutting edge they have lacked pretty much all season. From that game onwards, Liverpool fans have appreciated a gradual improvement in their team’s performances and subsequent results to date. This formation and all its nuances have rejuvenated Liverpool’s season to a degree, and has resurrected many of the traits that made Liverpool so special earlier on last year. The cornerstone of this particular piece will be to analyse how this rejuvenation came about and how it has brought a collective improvement from our squad at large.
The failed 4-2-3-1
During the earlier stages of this campaign, there was a considerable feeling of uncertainty amongst followers of Liverpool with regards to how the manager would set his team up to play. There was much bewilderment about the fact that Brendan Rodgers seemingly threw his trusted formula, the midfield diamond with two strikers leading the line, to the wind, in favour of a 4-2-3-1 formation, which employed two holding midfielders with a lone striker up front, usually one of the hapless duo of Mario Balotelli or Rickie Lambert. The employment of this tactic coincided with some of the worst football experienced by the Anfield faithful in recent years. Liverpool’s swagger and attacking prowess was replaced by disjointed sideways passes, as the three attacking midfielders behind the striker struggled to produce any form of flamboyance or cutting edge that the marksman could thrive upon. This uncertainty from the fans and media at large translated onto the pitch, as the players churned out performances, devoid of any sort of purpose or cohesion with one another.
The result of this failed system was Liverpool enduring sustained periods of possession on the edge of the opponents box without making any inroads or creating any real scoring opportunities. The Reds’ inability to find the back of their opponents’ net, coupled with a laughable standard of defending, was a definite recipe for disaster and is the main reason in Liverpool being so far adrift of the top four, let alone the race for the title.
3-4-3; the amendment
Defensive versatility and stability
This footballing system is built on a base of intense pressing, interchange between attacking players to create a fluid unit and players in each position being able to play accurate forward passes to catalyse an attack.
Liverpool’s newfound defensive partnership, Mamadou Sakho and Emre Can, quite ironically play a pivotal role in both the attacking and defensive spheres of this system. The components of the duo are both players that possess immaculate passing and creative ability, having both averaged 0.5 chances created per game since the inception of this partnership. Another statistic that pays homage to the passing ability of Sakho and Can is that their forward passes on average travel 18 and 20 metres respectively. What this entails is that either of these stalwarts are able to pick up and distribute possession deep into the midfield third, possibly penetrating opposition lines and initiating an attack.
Due to the purposeful forward passes of Sakho and Can, the much-maligned Martin Skrtel has too drastically improved. A feature of Liverpool’s play pre the 3-4-3 was that the goalkeeper and two centre halves would play multiple pointless passes between themselves, inviting pressure from opponent attackers. However, Sakho and Can’s ability to play the ball forward without unnecessarily dwelling on possession considerably reduces onrushing opponent forwards, looking to close the defenders down. This reduced pressure has resulted in Skrtel committing no defensive errors whilst employed in a three, compared to 4 prior to that. The aberration with Mathieu Debuchy for Arsenal’s first goal aside, the Slovak hasn’t set a foot out of line since Rodgers’ change in formation.
Much emphasis of this formation is placed on runner power and robustness down the flanks, not only to exploit possible pockets of space and facilitate attacks by means of either through balls or fluid interchange, but also to provide support to the centre backs in defensive situations. Lazar Markovic and Alberto Moreno, the two wingbacks that have been usually employed, both possess blistering pace and are capable of collecting the ball from the back and breaking forward.
Philippe Coutinho – the “brains” of the team
Beyond the wingbacks and central midfielders, which constitute the middle ‘4’, lies Philippe Coutinho who operates in a free, number ten role. The Brazilian is perhaps the most improved player since Brendan Rodgers’ tactical shakeup. He has enhanced many facets of his attacking play since then, having created 2.3 chances and played on average 2 key passes per game as one of the two behind the striker, as opposed to just 0.3 chances created and key passes on average per game in his former wide role. Coutinho’s only two assists of the season also came after the implementation of the 3-4-3.
Perhaps the most crucial component of this footballing system is the lone striker, which has been occupied by Raheem Sterling thus far. His acute movement and ability to drag defenders out of position is certainly a factor in the upturn in the respective form of Coutinho, Lallana and Markovic. Liverpool, as a whole, have been more effective in the final third since the introduction of a mobile marksman, such as Sterling, instead of a static one like Lambert or Balotelli, having created 15.3 chances per game with the number 31 leading the line. Comparatively, The Reds have created just 10.3 per game with one of Lambert or Balotelli.
The return of Sturridge
Over the past few weeks, as the return of mercurial front man Daniel Sturridge drew closer, much debate has been dedicated to where the English international would fit in. The answer to this is an obvious one; Raheem Sterling will return to one of the two positions behind the striker with Sturridge occupying his former spot. Despite all the improvement Sterling has brought to Liverpool’s play since being employed as a striker, he lacks what Sturridge possesses in abundance: lethalness and panache in front of goal. Sterling’s efforts that were thwarted by David De Gea at Old Trafford and Fabio Borini’s misfiring against Sunderland after rounding the keeper would certainly have had very different results had it been Sturridge at the end of those chances. The thought of an in form and boisterously confident Philippe Coutinho running at defences and threading through inch perfect passes for his old comrade Daniel Sturridge to latch on to and stick in the back of the net is a thought which inspires much hope that Liverpool can mount a genuine assault on the top four.
Between now and May
Despite all the mediocrity, lack of cohesion and understanding and massive blunders from the manager we have experienced thus far this season, it remains a miracle that there is so much still to be salvaged from this campaign. As has been well documented, the winners of the Europa League will take a place in next seasons Champions League. If the return of Daniel Sturridge to first team action can compound the collective improvement of the entire squad at Liverpool, the Merseyside club would surely become joint favourites with AS Roma to lift the trophy in Warsaw. It must be said, however, that the fight for the remaining two positions in the top four behind heavyweights Chelsea and Manchester City are still totally up for grabs. Amongst a Manchester United side whose manager still looks unsure of what his best side and tactics are, an Arsenal who are over reliant on the exploits of a certain Chilean and a Tottenham Hotspur who’s collapse during the latter stages of a campaign has become a regular feature of the Premier League season, Liverpool may find themselves the form team amongst this quartet in the coming months.
Just over a month ago, after the Reds crashed out of the Champions League and were obliterated by a rampant Manchester United, it seemed like the writing was on the wall for Brendan Rodgers. However, the Northerm Irishman must now be credited with uncovering a tactic which suits his players stylistically and churns out the correct results on the pitch. Should the Reds reach their ultimate goal of Champions League football come May, it would surely be that their salvation came about as a result of this tactical resurgence.
By Hamzah Ebrahim – Liverpool fan – @